The Indra and Harry Banga Gallery presents "Hunters, Warriors, Spirits: Nomadic Art of North China"

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The Indra and Harry Banga Gallery presents "Hunters, Warriors, Spirits: Nomadic Art of North China"
Installation view.

HONG KONG.- The Indra and Harry Banga Gallery of the City University of Hong Kong is presenting the new exhibition “Hunters, Warriors, Spirits: Nomadic Art of North China” from July 23rd through October 23rd, 2022. Chinese history and the history of Eurasia cannot be understood without looking at the central role played by the nomads. The history of sedentary states from China to Central Europe has been moulded in large measure by the ebb and flow of their relationships with the nomads, sometimes with one in the ascendancy and sometimes the other.

North China generally refers to the territory inhabited by the indigenous groups commonly known under the umbrella term “Hu” in Chinese annals, which includes the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Rouran and the last hunters of China’s northern forest, the Orochen. Presented through over two hundred and fifty art objects, this exhibition tells the story of the nomads and their culture, which is imbued with a profound spirituality and evokes an ideal relationship between humans and nature that is more relevant today than ever before.

The exhibition consists of six main sections, respectively “The Orochen”, “Hunters and Animals”, “The Early nomads – Xianbei and Xiongnu”, “Warriors”, “Empire” and “The Spiritual World”. It tells the story of the nomads, from their little-known origins in the early 1st millennium B.C.E. to their “golden age” between the 10th and 13th centuries C.E. To bring these objects to life, the narrative is presented through the diverse lenses of archaeology, art history, and anthropology, and placed within the broader context of cultural exchanges across Eurasia.

The Orochen are the last hunters of China’s northern forest. The life of the Orochen is illustrated by their surviving daily gear, including costumes, a deerskin hunter’s pouch and leggings, birch bark boxes, birch bark saddle bags, etc. Deer was the most respected animal of the Orochen. With the fabulous Mongolian deer stone animation, created by the CityU Center for Applied Computing and Interactive Media (ACIM), the exhibition recreates the serene yet mysterious forest of North China in the Gallery.

“Hunters and Animals” displays the development of Nomadic art based on a vocabulary of animal motifs and design. The nomads relied heavily both on domesticated animals—horses, sheep, cattle, reindeer, camels—and on wild species, like deer, felines, wolves, bears, and raptors. Animal design of North China reflects the nomads’ dual role as herders and hunters, and was a crucial part of their visual identity. This section showcases prominent animal motifs, including tigers, lions, wolves, a tapir, a rhinoceros, camels, ibexes, yaks, etc. In China’s Northern Zone, animal coils and rectangular plaques were initially the most popular designs, framing the animals within circular and angular forms. In addition to single animal motifs, designs at a later stage feature patterns with two or more animals, for example a lion and tiger, paired rams, and facing wolves. As warfare with the Han became more prominent, the role of the warrior took on ever-greater importance in nomadic society, a change reflected in the animal art as well, which began focusing on scenes of combat and predation (a tiger devouring a deer, etc.). Bronze daggers and knives with animal motifs became symbols of eminence in ancient nomadic culture.

“The Early Nomads – Xiongnu and Xianbei” brings to life the image of the courageous nomads as warriors and riders, through ceramic figurines of Xianbei soldiers and vibrant displays of their decorated gear. The Xiongnu’s concept of empire was inclusive, and they brought together under their rule diverse nomadic peoples and ethnicities. Xiongnu art reflects this diversity through its tremendous range in form, style, expression, and craftsmanship. The Xiongnu also focused on animal decoration, which was applied to their belt buckles, plaques, and weaponry—the latter reflecting the exalted position of the warrior in nomadic society. The Xianbei were innovators, introducing new iconography, such as the “Master (or Mistress) of Animals” motif, where a person is shown simultaneously dominating two animals. The artworks reflect exquisite designs and motifs, combining, for example, an eagle, feline and prey, two wrestlers flanked by horses, an eagle devouring a horse, etc. These vividly illustrate the artistic innovations and sophistication of the Xianbei and Xiongnu cultures.

The nomads were natural born warriors. The “Warriors” section displays their rare armoury, ranging from a leather arm guard with applied ornaments and a very early bronze helmet, to a recreated imperial Mongol, full lamellar armor. Bronze axes, daggers, short swords, and knives were the nomads’ usual weapons. Among all these treasures, the decorated shafted Yue-axe, with circular bronze blade, is one of the most ancient objects in the exhibition. Over the centuries, the nomads developed more lethal weapons, like the Avar straight-edged sabre, originally used by the Xiongnu in North China; this became the dominant side-arm of the nomadic armies that roamed across Eurasia. These practical military weapons boast highly artistic designs, with hilts shaped as bell-heads or sporting wild ass and other animal forms. Such objects combine nomadic and Han aesthetics in imaginative and often spectacular ways.

The powerful empires built by the nomads had a profound and multi-faceted influence on ancient China. The nomads were traders and patrons of the Silk Road, and their resulting art reflects cross-influences. They facilitated the exchange of goods and art, as well as that of religious, philosophical, and even political ideas across the Eurasian continent. “The Empire” section showcases exquisitely crafted saddle bridges and elaborate plaques applied to human belts and horse harnesses. Thanks to the Qidan burial customs, one can appreciate the traditional dress of a nomadic nobleman in a dedicated vitrine: a gilt silver and bronze crown, an impressive amber necklace, wrist ornaments, a waist plate, and a leather belt enriched with gold, silver, and jade, from which would hang jade-handled knives, gold and jade tools, small jade containers, etc.

The spiritual world of the nomads was vast and dynamic. The ancient nomads were uniquely aware of the precariousness of life. Buddhist teaching appealed to the ancient nomads’ deep-seated thirst for inner peace, and they were the first to install Buddhism as a state religion in China during the Northern and Southern dynasties. Its influence is visible in a gold headdress with Buddhist ornaments, a gilt bronze pillow with a lotus motif, a wooden guardian figure, and the beautiful schist sculpture of Buddha, done in the Gandharan style of Indian art. Figurative Buddhist art, such as terracotta figures and sculptures, reached a very high level of craftsmanship that continued through the Xianbei dynasties of Eastern Wei and Northern Qi.

In addition to the ancient objects, the exhibition also features eighteen contemporary sculptures by Buryat master Dashi Namdakov, photography by Marc Progin, and animations by June Zhang. Two original shamans’ costumes, shown in 3D with interactive tools and created by Jeffrey Shaw and Sarah Kenderdine, explain the meaning and symbolism of the various parts of the costumes. An iDome projection of a monumental, 5th-century Buddha, from the Yungang Grotto, also transports viewers to the cave itself, while animations of Shaman stories deliver the beauty of the early nomadic tales.

“Hunters, Warriors, Spirits: Nomadic Art of North China” exhibition is curated by a team of experts and professionals. They are: Mr. Hing Chao, Founder of the Orochen Foundation and Chief curator of the exhibition; Dr. Isabelle Frank, Curator of the Indra and Harry Banga Gallery; Dr. Betty Lo, renowned collector of Chinese Art; Professor Jeffrey Shaw, Chair Professor at the Academy of Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University; and Professor Sarah Kenderdine, Professor of Digital Museology at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland,

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