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Co Tu artist finds himself long way from home in Hue
By Minh Tu

Cultural exchange: Ker Tik (left) plays a khen bau while the American writer and cultural enthusiast Barbara Cohen looks on. — VNA/VNS Photo Minh Tu
THUA THIEN-HUE — The famous Co Tu ethnic minority artist Ker Tik has found just the right place for his life’s work: the former imperial capital of Hue.

The Ve Nguon (Return to the Source) Cultural Village will soon open in the central city, where Ker Tik and other Co Tu artists have faithfully reproduced the minority group’s traditional houses, statues, paintings and decorations.

Co Tu workers putting the finishing touches on the main building in the village
"Ker Tik is the most talented, all-rounded Co Tu artist we’ve found, and it’s taken us much time and effort to persuade him to join us at Ve Nguon," says Mai Khac Ung, the director of the Hue Centre for Folk Culture Studies and owner of the village.

The artist hails from the remote Bnoll village, close to the Viet Nam-Laos border in Quang Nam Province. To reach his home from Da Nang takes three days, with the last two spent trekking along a jungle path.

The 60-year-old artist still worked his terraced rice fields every day, and was reluctant to leave his village.

However, he was finally convinced to go to Hue by Phan Thi Xuan Bon, a Kinh (Vietnamese ethnic majority) teacher who is widely respected for her knowledge of the Co Tu language and her enthusiasm for the people’s children.

Right in the centre of the Ve Nguon village stands a Co Tu men’s communal house, or guoi, which forms the architectural symbol of the people’s traditional culture.

The guoi building initially served as a men’s or warriors’ club, but has changed over time to house guards, guests, councils, meetings, ceremonies, dormitories and the culture of the Co Tu people.

During the wars of the 20th century, most of the remaining guoi houses disappeared or were destroyed, but it many ways it has lived on.

The reproduction guoi house in the cultural village was built by the most skilled and enthusiastic Co Tu artisans, and is distinguished by its superb architectural and artistic value.

Its beams are richly carved and painted with ancient designs of suns, dragons, snakes, birds, frogs, tigers, rabbits, scenes of daily life and geometric patterns – the most sophisticated of which were made by Ker Tik.

Sacred statues representing ancestors and deities were often erected in front of Co Tu communal houses, but more recently these have been replaced with statues expressing their hospitality.

In keeping with tradition, Ker Tik crafted a statue of a Co Tu village chief at the entrance of guoi house, smiling and raising his hands to welcome visitors.

There are six stylised human statues – two women and four men – have been carved into the six planks forming the house posts, which were reproduced by young Co Tu artists from the models Ker Tik made of his own village’s guoi.

A richly decorated sacrificial post stands in front of the house, representing the rice plant, the tree of life and the rice goddess.

Co Tu artisans from Thua Thien-Hue Province’s Nam Dong District made the post, but they left its two wings to Ker Tik.

The Co Tu people are also famous for their elaborate tombs, featuring buffalo- and bird-shaped coffins, which Ker Tik also designed for Ve Nguon.

Ker Tik’s art has long been recognised in Quang Nam, and in 1985, one of his buffalo coffins travelled to Ha Noi and HCM City as part of a national exhibition of Viet Nam’s cultural diversity.

Ker Tik first painted with acrylics and paper at about that time, when he was invited to the Da Nang home of Nguyen Thuong Hy, a Kinh painter working for the Quang Nam Centre for the Preservation of Cultural Monuments.

Since then, many critics have seen a Co Tu soul in Hy’s work.

An American volunteer advising the cultural village, Barbara Cohen, has described Ker Tik as "a valuable treasure of the Co Tu people". She has taken many photos and provided him with paper, brushes and paint.

In return, the artist has presented her with one of his best paintings of the tiger, a sacred animal for the Co Tu people. He also knew that his American friend was born in the year of the tiger.

Ve Nguon has been preparing a catalogue of Ker Tik’s finest paintings and designs on do (poonah) paper.

In association with Cohen, Sherry Goodman from the University of California, Berkeley campus’ Asian Art Museum is writing the commentary for the catalogue.

Reprinted with permission from VietNam News Agency.


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