THE RARE ART INSPIREDPIRED BY THE SPICE TRADE DE
A new exhibition sails into the era when European ‘treasure ships’ visited Asia, writes Justin Burke
More than 350 years ago, and long before the arrival of Captain Cook, a ship from the Dutch East India Company was wrecked on a reef off the coast of Western Australia, just north of what is now Perth. Among other things, the ill-fated Gilt Dragon was laden with eight chests of silver coins — treasure intended to be exchanged for spices at the cosmopolitan entrepot of Batavia (now the Indonesian capital, Jakarta).
Since Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and landed in India in 1498, sailors such as these — first the Portuguese, and then the Dutch — navigated and traversed the oceans to cut out the Middle Eastern middle men, and supply the seemingly insatiable European demand for spices.
But when the wreck of this 260-tonne, 42m ship was discovered in 1963 at WA’s Ledge Point, intriguing items not listed on the ship’s official manifest were also revealed: ivory tusks from African elephants, believed to have been smuggled from Cape Town, South Africa, in contravention of the company’s regulations.
Corroded and discoloured from their time underwater, the tusks are nonetheless vivid examples of the unprecedented exchange of art, exotic objects and ideas between Europe and Asia that blossomed alongside the maritime spice trade, in many ways prefiguring the modern world of globalised trade. And their contraband status points to a factor in the eventual collapse of the Dutch East India Company amid widespread corruption in 1800, generally recognised as the end of the spice era.
One of these ivory tusks — on loan from the Kerry Stokes Collection — will be displayed alongside nearly 300 other artefacts, textiles, art and ceramics as part of Treasure Ships: Art in the
Age of Spices, an exhibition opening next week at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
The ambitious project has been curated by AGSA’s James Bennett and Russell Kelty who have been working on the exhibition for the past five and two years respectively. The show’s title is inspired by the myth of takarabune from Japan, whose port city of Nagasaki was the final stop along the maritime spice route. On New Year’s Day, the takarabune (treasure ship) would bring the seven lucky gods who would distribute fantastic gifts to deserving people.
“It is meant to evoke the idea of ships coming across the sea, bringing exotic and even mythical elements,” says Kelty, who spent three years in Japan en route from his home town of Boston in the US, to Adelaide.
“This was the first time Europeans went enmasse to Asia, and it had a profound effect on the aesthetics of Europe and Asia.”
Since ancient times, spices — including pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg — had been used by Europeans to flavour and preserve food, as well as to advertise wealth and social status. Bennett and Kelty are keen to emphasise the latter.
“It’s interesting: in 14th and 15th century cookbooks, spices were used to make a cuisine that looks a lot like Asian or North African cuisine today. For example, we see the word curry used in 14th century French cookbooks, and they would put pounds of cinnamon and pounds of pepper in these amazingly exotic recipes,” says Kelty.
“A lot of people focus on the simplistic explanation of spices being used as a preservative, but we are seeking here to emphasise how their use was more about representing your wealth and class.”
Kelty also is quick to dispel the notion that this was an unequal encounter between the technologically superior Europeans and backward Asian societies. “Asia in the 16th century was just this amazing, cosmopolitan place. “South East Asia and Japan were exceptionally style conscious — they loved silk and new textiles for example — these were very complex societies, maybe even more complex than we can possibly understand.
“The Europeans, with their ships, guns and navigation, were really just latecomers to the party, if you will.” The word “trade”, with its connotations of peaceful exchange between trusted parties, glosses over the tumultuous, competitive and sometimes violent interactions.
“Sometimes Europeans were being attacked, and sometimes they were attacking the locals,” says Kelty. “You might have one sultan attacking you, or attacking another sultan and forcing you to take sides. Plus they were also dealing with other European countries like the Portuguese, British or French.
“The ports were very much negotiated places with negotiated relationships; it is much more complicated than it has been portrayed in the past.”
Almost 40 of the objects in the exhibition are on loan from international collections, including from three Lisbon-based institutions: the National Museum of Ancient Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), the National Museum Machado de Castro, Coimbra, and the Museu do Oriente/Fundacao Oriente. Works have also been loaned from two Christian museums in India: Mumbai’s Archdiocesan Christian Heritage Museum, and the Museum of Christian Art, Old Goa.
Many of the objects highlight the evangelical agenda pursued by the Portuguese.
“There is a saying in Japan: the Dutch brought trade, but left their gods at home. The Portuguese, on the other hand, were great proselytisers, and were increasingly seen as a destabilising influence in Japan as a result,” says Kelty.
A reliquary featuring a crucifix which belonged to St Francis Xavier, now enshrined in silver and which will feature in the exhibition, tells a fascinating tale. St Francis was travelling to the Spice Islands of Maluku in eastern Indonesia, when a fierce storm arose. He is said to have immersed his cross in the sea — which immediately became calm — but lost the holy object in the process. Later, he saw a crab emerge from the sea holding the cross in its claws.
Other items illustrate the unlikely journeys taken by some objects. The Trinitarias carpet, on loan from the National Gallery of Victoria, is thought to have originated in northern Mughal India. It was either intended to have decorated a
mosque or palace or to have been bestowed as an important gift.
“It was traded to a convent in southern Spain in 1699, called the Convento de las Trinitarias Descalzas de San Ildefonso Madrid — the same convent that recently discovered it was housing the bones of Cervantes,” says Kelty.
While portraits were painted of all Goa’s Portuguese governors, only the imposing portrait of the first, Francisco de Almeida, a 16thcentury work of oil and tempera on wood, was brought back to Portugal, now in the collection of the National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.
Another item — a registered national treasure in Portugal — is a Salver (or flat tray), a silver gilt object approximately 45cm in diameter. “We have had to jump through a lot of hoops to get this one,” he says. “If you look closely there are caravels depicted in it with imaginary animals and mythological figures; even in 1500 the auspicious nature of ships was coming through.”
The exhibition also features items from Japan that show the way European and Asian materials as well as concepts were synthesised. A surcoat used by samurai for ceremonial purposes, dated to the late 18th century and on loan from a private collection in Kobe, was constructed in Japan featuring brocade from China and velvet and factory print from red Dutch wool created in Europe — possibly France.
A Japanese painting circa 1750, and recent acquisition for the AGSA collection, titled Arch
ery contest (toshiya) at Sanjusangendo, features a stunning example of the adoption of one-point perspective; a European technique, vastly dif- ferent from Japanese techniques of spatial representation at that time.
Close inspection reveals the archer in the picture has missed his target — perhaps an admission by the artist of his uneven grasp of the new technique.
“You can notice the wonky tops, and flat poles — it’s not perfect by any means. And note also that an Indian rug is depicted, running the length of the archery range,” says Kelty.
An addition to the AGSA’s collection in 2012 illustrates a practice that has great resonance with the commercial practices of the present day: the cheap Asian knock-off. An Illustrated guide to foreign textiles (Sarasa zufu), offers a paint-by-numbers approach to the imitation of Indian textile patterns. Using manuals such as this, inexpensive imitation fabrics called wasarasa were made in workshops in Kyoto, Sakai, Nagasaki and Edo for the less wealthy but still fashion conscious consumer in late 18th-century Japan.
Kelty says the exhibition is the inevitable culmination of the last decade of AGSA’s Asian art exhibitions, which have included last year’s Realms of Wonder, which featured the Jain, Hindu and Islamic art of India; 2011’s Beneath
the Winds, featuring Southeast Asian art; the Japanese art featured in The Golden Journey; and Southeast Asian Islamic art in Crescent Moon. “Within Asian art, you are continually led to the interaction with different Asian cultures and with Europeans; you just can’t escape the profound interactions that occurred at ports, for example,” says Kelty.
The public program associated with the exhibition includes a symposium with the curators and visiting scholars, a performance of early baroque music, and a cooking workshop with a Bali-based chef. “You look in your pantry at your salt
and pepper, and they seem quite prosaic; it’s amazing to think of these things as exotic. But during this project, James and I have commented on the fact that we have an almost insatiable hunger for pepper, after reading and thinking about it so much. It kind of grows on you.”
The timing of this exhibition, as sites of historical, cultural and archaeological significance are being destroyed in the Middle East, has caused Kelty to reflect on how cultural difference was negotiated in the era of the spice trade era as compared with now.
“Sometimes the spice traders and Asians were perpetuating violence on each other, and at other times creating amazing pieces of art that integrated two different perspectives of the world,” he says. “What is occur- ring in the Middle East is very scary, and of course I mourn for all the loss and destruction, but the fact that Islamic State need to stop what they’re doing and destroy artistic and architectural monuments in Iraq and Syria, speaks to how provocative and inherently meaningful art is. Otherwise, why would they bother?
“It reinforces to me why it is important to keep creating art, and displaying, exhibiting, thinking and talking about it.”
Scenes of traders at
Nagasaki (late 18thearly 19th century), top; silver gilt salver (1520-40), below
Clockwise from above, Trinitarias carpet (early — mid-17th century); an 18thcentury Chinese surcoat; reliquary cross of St Francis Xavier; Treasure Ships: Art in
the Age of Spices co-curators Russell Kelty, left, and James Bennett; 16th-century portrait of Francisco de Almeida