A new ex­hi­bi­tion sails into the era when Euro­pean ‘trea­sure ships’ vis­ited Asia, writes Justin Burke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Trea­sure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices is at the Art Gallery of South Australia from June 13 to Au­gust 30; then runs at the Art Gallery of West­ern Australia from Oc­to­ber un­til Jan­uary next year.

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

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