Inside the Collection

Reflections of Asia: Collectors and Collections at MAAS

View of an exhibition title ‘Reflections of Asia: Collectors and Collection' on a white wall and an art work that is a motorcycle made of blue wire.
Artwork, Blue C1750, by Shi Jindian, 2009, China, White Rabbit Collection, Sydney, on display in Reflections of Asia: Collectors and Collections, Curated by Min-Jung Kim. Photo: Ryan Hernandez

Of 10,000 or so objects in the Museum’s Asian collections, only about 10% have ever been on display. The exhibition titled Reflections of Asia: Collectors and Collections showcases over 500 objects from this extensive collection, developed over 140 years, including wood and lacquerwork, ceramics, metalwork, dress and textiles, contemporary fashion and art.

Overall exhibition view with title wall and glass showcases for a distance.
Exhibition view, Reflections of Asia: Collectors and Collections. Photo: Ryan Hernandez
View of tall glass showcase with golden and red lacquer works on display. On the right, the exhibition theme panel in large text saying ‘Wood and Lacquerwork’ on the wall is shown.
Wood and Lacquer work section. Photo: Ryan Hernandez
View of tall glass showcases with about 50 large and small ceramic pieces on shelves. On the left, digital lounge with a computer screen is shown.
Ceramic section. Photo: Ryan Hernandez

The objects are drawn from many countries including China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Thailand and Vietnam. Reflections of Asia documents the change in collecting practices from the colonial perspective that informed the Museum’s early acquisitions to its contemporary global focus. The collection serves as a record of the enduring western fascination with Asia and its influence on aesthetics, technology and design.

A label text with the title ‘Where is Asia?’
Exhibition text, ‘Where is Asia?’. Photo: Ryan Hernandez
A large map of Asia on the exhibition floor with names of countries.
Map of Asia in ‘Where is Asia?’ section. Photo: Ryan Hernandez

The concept for the exhibition derives from a long-standing curatorial enquiry into the nature of the MAAS Asian collection. To the eye of an Asian-born curator such as myself, the collection felt somehow ‘foreign’ because it differed from the collections on view in Asian museums. For example, the majority of Japanese metalwork in the MAAS collection dates from the late 1700 to 1800s and is elaborately decorated with many motifs that are unusual in the Japanese domestic context.

View of Victorian flat showcases and tall glass showcases objects on display.
Small Treasures section. Photo: Ryan Hernandez
View of two Victorian A shape showcases with objects on display.
Examples of ‘hybrid’ objects including European Japanned cabinets and Chinese lacquerwork in the front showcase and Japanese imari ware and European imitation in the back showcase. Photo: Ryan Hernandez

Similarly, most of the Japanese porcelains seemed not designed for the Japanese but made intentionally for western tastes.

Single object image of a square shape bowl with gold decoration.
Satsuma ware bowl, exports ware, Japan, 1800s, MAAS collection: A4262-61. Photo: Ryan Hernandez

There are certainly some significant pieces in the collection which were made for the domestic market. These include a blue altar jar or zun (1796-1820), two rare Sino-Tibetan gilt bronze deity figures (1402-1424), cinnabar lacquer boxes believed to have been used in the Qing court (1736-1795); and a gold Sumbanese (Indonesian) lamba (frontal crown). Some of the oldest objects are an earthenware jar dating from 3000-1700BCE and a bronze wine vessel or jue from the Shang dynasty (1600-1046BCE).

A single object image of a red lacquer box with dragon motifs on a wooden base.
Cinnabar carved lacquer box, Qianlong Period, 1736-1795, Qing Dynasty, China, MAAS collection: A5314. Photo: Nicole Balmer
An image of two deity figures looking each other.
Sino-Tibetan deity figures (Brahma and Chandra), from Vajrabhairava group, gilt-copper alloy, Gelugpa school, Yongle reign, 1403-1424 or Xuande reign, 1426-1435, Ming dynasty, China, MAAS collection: 231A. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski

This exhibition does not impose a patronising view of a colonial exotic Asia, as colonial collectors and museums have in the past. Rather, it celebrates exchanges of culture that have resulted in new and hybrid cultural objects.

One example can be seen in two cups decorated with plum blossoms. These are identical in design and only slightly different in size. One is blanc-de-Chine porcelain, made in Dehua, China, during the Kangxi period (about 1700). The other is a copy, in soft-paste porcelain, made in Chelsea, England, in 1755. Highly admired for its lightness, translucency and mysterious origin, Chinese porcelain was highly desired by royal and aristocratic families in Britain and Europe from the late 1300s. The secret recipe for porcelain was unknown and only reinvented in Europe by 1708, with the Royal Saxon porcelain Manufactory established in Meissen, Germany in 1710. The manufacture of true hard-paste porcelain later spread to other European centres including the Plymouth porcelain factory in England in 1768.

An image of almost identical two white tea cups decorated with blossom blowers in relief.
Tea cups, left: ‘blanc de Chine’, porcelain, made in Dehua, Fujian province, China, Kangxi period, c. 1700, A6979, Right: ‘blanc de Chine’ style, soft-paste porcelain, made at Chelsea Porcelain Factory, Chelsea, England, c. 1755, MAAS collection: A6980. Photo: Ryan Hernandez

In the wood and lacquerware section we highlight ‘japanning’, a type of European finish that originated as an imitation of Asian lacquerwork. Asian lacquer or ‘true lacquer’ which was developed in East Asia from the Neolithic period derives from the sap of the lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifuum) cultivated in China, Korea and Japan. The toxic sap from the tree is used to create a highly curable, glossy and impervious surface. While Asian lacquerware was first imported into Europe in the late 16th century, its materials and technique was a mystery. By the 17th century European craftsmen could approximate Asian lacquer with resin based finishes similar to shellac. A Japanned papier-mache cabinet made in England in the late 18th century is exhibited alongside a Chinese lacquer writing box.

Two object images showing European made jaappned cabinet and Chinese made lacquer writing box.
Left: Papier-mache combination writing, jewellery and work cabinet, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, 1850s, England, MAAS Collection: A3121. Photo: Emma Bjorndahl; Right: Writing box, lacquered wood, 1800s, China, MAAS collection: A10243. Photo: Ryan Hernandez

Reflections of Asia in not about authentic Asia. Like the term derived from Ancient Greek, ‘Asia’ is an imagined cultural construct. Nor does the exhibition impose a negative view of a colonial exotic. Rather it celebrates exchanges of culture resulting in new and hybrid cultural objects which are mirrored in the MAAS collection and its collecting views of old and new. Our tendency may be to equate exotic with colonial views of Asia, but in the area of contemporary fashion, the Lolita dress demonstrates how people in the East romanticise the ‘exotic West’. Lolita, a popular Japanese kawai (cuteness) street style is charactered by doll-like make-up, ribbons, lace and frilly skirts. It is inspired by Victorian England and much admired by Japanese girls for its fantasy of ‘Exotic Europe’. Exoticism is not a negative concept but rather a simple recognition of otherness, involving distances in time as well as space.

Exhibition view of an open display of contemporary fashion items on five mannequins. There are Victorian style outfits and a dress with Union Jack design.
Contemporary fashion section. Photo: Ryan Hernandez

It is my curatorial intention to invite visitors to the celebration of exoticism of both East and West through the hybrid collection at MAAS and to witness advancement of technology and design that results from this mutual admiration.

Written by Min-Jung Kim, Curator
November 2018

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