Vietnamese Tribal Art: A Unique Perspective on the Past and Present Legacy of Over 50 Tribal Peoples

February 10, 2013

Fleet Room, Ft Mason Center, San Francisco, CA

Mark Rapoport, MD was first exposed to the tribal art of Viet Nam (and to tribal art as a whole) in June of 1969. The war in Viet Nam was at its most intense, most physicians in the southern part had been drafted into the military, and few remained to care for the civilians injured in the war or suffering from the ills of a poor third-world country. The AMA had been sending 100 US doctors each year to work for two months in civilian facilities, but Mark became the first medical student to be included.

Though working mostly in the municipal hospital in Danang, he did some work with the “montagnards” in the Central Highlands. This first, intense exposure to a tribal environment made a deep impression on him- a sense that a many people still inhabit an environment vastly different – and vastly more difficult – than that of his native New York. Medical work in Nigeria (at the end of the Biafran war) and the highlands of Guatemala fed his curiosity about tribal cultures and fostered a passion for studying and collecting the material culture of tribal societies.

Mark focused on African objects while living in New York City from 1973 to 2000, but his focus shifted entirely to the artifacts of the 53 ethnic minorities of Viet Nam in 2001. In that year, he and his wife (Jane Hughes, a public manager) moved to Hanoi. Their two children were off to college and the world, and their new-found freedom opened up the possibility of living and working abroad. All four family members had visited Hanoi as tourists in the 1990s, and all four had fallen in love with it. The family vote on choosing a new home was unanimous – Hanoi, 4 votes, the rest of the world, zero votes.

Mark and Jane began work on two medical projects. Jane headed the office of the Population Council in Viet Nam and Mark was working on a research project regarding the legacy of Agent Orange and certain birth defects. In his off hours, he visited mountain villages and city shops to collect artifacts from the ethnic minorities in the northern mountains and in the Central highlands – about 15,000 objects in all.

When the research project ended in 2005, his wife “suggested” that he reinvent himself as a dealer, as well as a collector, of the objects he loved, studied and collected. With a Vietnamese business partner, he founded 54 Traditions Gallery in Hanoi (a reference to the official number of ethnic groups in Viet Nam).

The gallery has flourished since then, and Mark’s work has extended to writing, speaking, working with museums in Viet Nam and abroad, sponsoring Vietnamese artisans for the Santa Fe Folk-art Market, and distributing reading glasses to mountain-dwelling older women to allow them to return to embroidering, a good source of income for people still very much at the edge of poverty.

Mark has agreed to talk to us about the tribal art of Viet Nam and his involvement with it. He will speak to us informally, in a talk illustrated by 100 or so objects from his collection.

Photos of some of the Over 50 Tribal Peoples by FEA members