The Precious Heritage Collection by Réhahn
Réhahn has spent the last 10 years photographing Vietnamese people in their natural habitats. His love for photography has taken him to more than 35 countries but he’s settled in Hội An, cental Vietnam, with his family. Réhahn has already met nearly 40 Vietnamese ethnic groups in the past 5 years alone. Travelling and taking photos of these colourfully diverse ethnic groups, and having a family of his own has made him think more deeply about the value of heritage.
When arriving at an often remote village, he usually meets the elders who are the ones with the most richly captivating stories. Listening to their stories and capturing images of them in their environment, has had a profound effect on him. When the elders speak of their culture, you can’t help but see how their eyes light up. When their minds go back in time or when they put on their cultural costume, they start to glow and beam with pride.
At the same time it comes with a hint of sadness when they tell you how little interest the younger generation shows in it. It becomes obvious that the pride in heritage is something they wish they can instil in the younger generation but they just don’t know how. Their stories are the inspiration of this project.
Capturing images and documenting the stories of different cultures has started steering Réhahn photographic mission. After meeting many different Vietnamese cultures, and most recently one of the smallest left in the country, he was left with a desperate yearning to document all of them. People seem to be unaware of how fast the numbers of the ethnic groups are dwindling around them. It’s as if a part of cultural history is going to sleep forever and no one seems to be doing anything to wake it up.
No one can deny that if there’s one characteristic of Vietnamese people that stands out, it’s that they are an extremely resilient culture. They’ve managed to turn a traumatic history into a blossoming future. This however, seems to have come at a price.
If you ask a young person these days to tell you something about another ethnic group, they really don’t seem to be able to tell you much.
Adapting to the changing times has had an impact on the ethnic groups that no-one has really seen coming. As young adults leave their villages to go and work in the big cities for a better future, they end up making a new history, leaving behind a cultural heritage that could be lost forever.
Below are a couple of examples of the sense of urgency that is driving Réhahn to develop Vietnam’s first Precious Heritage Collection, because reality is that some of these tribes are vanishing as you read this.
A lady from Hrê ethnic group
The Brâu ethnic group
The Brâu are an ethnic group living in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Vietnam, the Brâu live in the Đắk Mế village in Kon Tum province and they speak Brao, a Môn-Khmer language. In May 2016, Réhahn had the chance to encounter them.
An interesting fact is that the Brâu only have 2 surnames; Thao (for males) and Nhang (for females). They have an unusual custom of filing their teeth and straining their ears with heavy jewellery to create long, large, hanging earlobes. They also have their bodies tattooed; however, this is one of many dying customs.
Now here’s the shocker; there are only 397 Brâu left in Vietnam! What’s even more unbelievable is that people seem incredibly unfazed by this. Not one person living in the village is able to make the traditional costumes anymore! This picture below illustrates how little meaning the costumes have in this day and age.
Furthermore, Đắk Mế is the last village of this culture on the map of Vietnam, so the race to save this culture is on!
Encountering the Brâu is what planted the seed of the Precious Heritage Collection in Réhahn’s mind. The feeling of helplessness and the evident inertia around him is quite upsetting and this emotion is the driving force behind this project.
The Ơ Ðu ethnic group
On Réhahn’s most recent trip in July 2016, he had an opportunity to see and meet the Ơ Ðu tribe. There are only about 500 Ơ Ðu people worldwide. About 190 of them or so have settled in Laos. The rest live in Vietnam
They live in Tướng Dũng district, in Nghệ An province of the central highlands. There’s virtually no information about this tribe available online so when he encountered them for himself, he discovered some shocking statistics. The Ơ Ðu used to live in 3 different locations but in 2006 they were moved to one location, to a small city near Vinh in Nghệ An province, not too far from Laos. They only have 1 small festival a year. Furthermore, they only have 5 original traditional costumes left.
There is one beautiful 78 year old woman named Vi Thi Dung, who is the last person making the Ơ Ðu traditional costume in Vietnam.
Here she proudly sits at her sewing machine.
Here she beams in her traditional dress
You can see from the smile in her eyes that she’s proud of her culture. This feeling of pride was evident throughout the tribe during Réhahn’s encounter.
According to her, the younger generations aren’t interested in learning how to make these costumes anymore. People have to cross the border into Laos if they want an original costume but even that they rarely do.
The Ơ Ðu are influenced by the Thai and now speak fluent Viet and Thai. There are only 5 people left who can speak the original Ơ Ðu language Phrom, which is a branch of the Mon-Kho Me language. All 5 of these people are over 70 years old. No one is able to read or write it and there are absolutely no books left referencing it, making it impossible to even learn this language anymore. Sadly, this harsh reality means that this dying language’s time is running out fast. It could be wiped out in as little as 5 years.
These and Réhahn’s other experiences with ethnic groups have really spearheaded the campaign to make the Precious Heritage Collection a reality.
The nature of humanity is to keep progressing, which is normal. But there comes a time in all of our lives when we look back and want to know more about our heritage. What colours will we paint our history? Will it be tales of tall buildings, grey skies and stress or will it be stories of green highlands, colourful traditions and a sense of pride?
1) Even though he’s already met nearly 40, Réhahn’s intention is to meet all 54 ethnic groups personally.
2) He plans to take the time to listen to their cultural stories and witness each one’s unique rituals.
3) He wants to gain a sense of how they feel about their cultural heritage. So far his experiences have been varied. Most people are proud of their culture and want to preserve their heritage. Others however seem content to leave it all behind, which can’t help but sadden him a little. It’s as if some cannot see the value of their uniqueness.
4) The idea is to gather the information from the people that are there by gaining first-hand knowledge and experience, not only the flat, one dimensional fact that is available online.
5) He plans to take photos that document life as it unfolds for each ethnic tribe, ensuring their authentic cultural feelings and rituals are told through his lens.
6) Réhahn has collected more than 30 traditional costumes. He’s in the process of trying to buy full original costumes from each particular ethnic tribe he visits, which is to be exhibited in galleries. This is quite a challenge at the moment since some ethnic groups neither wear nor produce original costumes anymore. He’s intent on doing his best though, even if it’s only a few pieces that are available.
PRECIOUS HERITAGE exhibition in France (16-26th Sept 2016)
7) Once the photos, the costumes and the richly woven stories are gathered, he’s planning local and international exhibitions all around the world.
8) He then plans to build a Cultural Ethnic Museum in Hội An, Vietnam.
9) The final step in preserving the Precious Heritage Collection is to write a book about all the tribes. One that truly reflects the rich culture and diversity of each ethnic group, so that the young generation can feel the pride that their ancestors yearn for them to feel.
A conclusion of hope
Réhahn believes that perhaps one of the reasons why there is little care of cultures disappearing in some regions is because that culture isn’t valued outside the community. His hope is to be the voice and mirror of the Vietnamese people – this way when their culture is reflected back at them through someone else’s eyes, they will see how important it is. We know that we often have to look back before we can move forward and how wonderful it would be to remind people of the beauty of their unique cultural legacy.
Look out for us while we document the processes involved in the making of Vietnam’s first Precious Heritage Collection by Réhahn.
Want to support the project ? Talk about it ? Get the exhibition in your city, contact Réhahn
Réhahn is an artist who is passionate about his appreciation of Vietnamese culture and heritage. His work is a documentation of the beauty that surrounds him and is not up for political debate. Thank you for being respectful of the sensitivities within this beautiful and rich culture.
Rene from Réhahn’s team