Curator Cindy Ho has been planning this exhibition for 16 years. She traveled to Lijiang, the Naxi capital, four times and worked extensively with the Roosevelt family. In a catalogue accompanying the exhibition she writes of her struggle: even among scholars of East Asian Studies, few had heard of the Naxi. The Rubin Museum, which had exhibited the art of the closely related and equally obscure Bon people, was the natural venue for the show.
Leaving China with 20 trunks full of scrolls, manuscripts and skins of exotic animals like golden monkeys, pandas and snow leopards was tricky for Mr. Roosevelt due to the war then being waged between China and Japan; his exit was made possible through a family connection to a certain W. Langhorne Bond, then vice president of the Chinese National Airline; Mr. Roosevelt flew disguised as a steward.
And a good thing, too: shortly after he did so, eccentric botanist-explorer Joseph Rock’s collection of Naxi art and objects was destroyed by Japanese torpedoes as he tried to leave China, leaving Mr. Roosevelt’s collection the largest in the Western world.
After returning with his findings, Mr. Roosevelt led an eventful, if brief, life. After graduation, he enlisted. He was wounded on the Tunisian front, stormed Normandy, won the Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Croix de Guerre, and served in the Office of Strategic Services. He married an American Red Cross worker in England, had three daughters, the oldest of whom was 4 when he died in a plane crash outside of Hong Kong, at just 29 years of age. By then he had taken over the helpful Mr. Bond’s job and was himself the vice-president of the Chinese National Airline.
After 1949, the Chinese communists began more rigorously enforcing the ban on religious activity in remote regions of China. Eventually, the People’s Liberation Army brought stringent reform to mountainous Lijian. Naxi openly practicing the Dongba religion were killed. Tankas and sutras not hidden were destroyed. The area was closed to foreign nationals.
While it’s entertaining to speculate about whether Roosevelt, in seeking out the Naxi, was indeed no more than a youthful scholar, or whether he was sent to the region as a spy, this exhibition proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the lasting effect of his studies. In recent years, elderly Dongba priests, who practiced for 40 or 50 years in secret, have started to emerge, but it is mainly due to the efforts of a 19-year-old kid from Long Island that we know about Naxi art today: because he sought out and preserved their extraordinary art, you can see it at the Rubin Museum.