Old man of the mountains

Published: 29/06/2011 04:44


Georges Condominas, a French ethnologist, spent nearly two years living with M’Nong Gar ethnic group in Sar Luk village in the Central Highlands in the 1950s and the results of his research are now on display at the Museum of Ethnology.

Now at the ripe old age of 86, the French ethnologist Georges Condominas recently returned to Vietnam to exhibit his photos, diary, and other collectibles which document his life 50 years ago in Sar Luk village amongst the M’Nong Gar ethnic people, in Dak Lak province.

Condominas was born in 1921 in Haiphong to a French father and Vietnamese-Portuguese mother.
He graduated with degrees in art and law from the Hanoi Fine Arts College and Hanoi Law University, and then travelled to France to study literature and ethnology before returning to Vietnam in 1948.

Initially he worked for the French civil service, but disillusioned with the humdrum life of an official and the unjust colonial regime, he decided to quit his job to become a poor knight of the brush, then an ethnologist.
“Ethnology became a profession, but in the sense that a profession should be the kind of life that one chooses. For me, ethnology is a way of life,” explains Condominas.

With a passion for studying culture and ethnology, he spent two years living with M’Nong Gar ethnic minority in the distant Sar Luk village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Without any translator, he dressed, ate, slept and worked as the villagers did for two years, gathering a wealth of information, nearly 500 objects, and 1,500 photos.

For him joining the typical activities of the villagers was essential to be able to analyse the community truthfully. He also learnt the M’Nong Gar language following the method known as “techno-linguistic”: noting their names, sketching their objects, observing the actions of artisans, weaving, forging, and so forth, and asking, especially through signs, the name of each emotion or behaviour.

However, to enrich his documentation and material, Condominas had to barter his belongings such as his riding pants, a singlet, a lighter and tobacco pouch!

“I have never felt regret about my choice. My endurance was tested to the utmost. I am always touched whenever thinking of the house I lived in though I belonged it at night only,” says Condominas.

In fact, Condominas only had nights for himself. When the locals fell asleep he took notes, updated his diary or wrote letters.

“Why did I come to Sar Luk? I decided to live in Sar Luk village quite by chance. I followed Doctor Joan, who often studied diseases in the surrounding areas. I decided to come back the village to research and collect,” says Condominas. “I considered the village as my second home. So I did with all my love, enthusiasm and passion.

“I believe I did all I could to ensure that my presence had as little effect as possible on the normal life of M’Nong Gar village in which I lived. I tried my best to note down everything I heard, saw, smelt or touched.”

Thanks to his detailed notes we know how the M’nong Gar people lived and worked with simple objects such as a bamboo basket, wore a loincloth, drank from a buffalo horn cup, or wore a necklace.

Each object he collected has an origin, details on how it was produced and how it should be used as well what the ethnologist bartered to get it!

“I aimed to record events primarily for the Sar Luk villagers, which I hope can help them regenerate and preserve their own society and culture.”

“The beauty of exhibited objects helps us to listen, feel and research more about the country and people where Georges Condominas had lived and spent a lot of time,” says the French Ambassador to Vietnam, Herve Bolot. “The exhibition is really an important event linking the culture of the two countries.”

With 134 objects, photos and diaries, the exhibition of Georges Condominas re-imagines the panorama of M’Nong Gar ethnic people in Sar Luk village in the middle of 20th century.

It also reflects the life, work and passion of the ethnologist who considers ethnology as the art of life.
Vietnamese professor Nguyen Lan Dung said, “Although Georges Condominas has only a little Vietnamese blood in his veins, but he expresses a deep love of the country. We hold his efforts in high esteem. His collection is a treasure chest of information.”

“I always keep in my mind the images of two countries: Vietnam, where I was born and created my work successfully, and France, my fatherland,” says Condominas.

Provide by Vietnam Travel

Old man of the mountains - Diaries - Life in Vietnam |  vietnam travel company

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