Exhibition | Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on June 19, 2015


Scenes of Traders in Nagasaki, mid-eighteenth century, detail from a pair of hand scrolls, opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper, box, wood, paper and ink, each 313 x 35 cm (Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide)

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Press release (April 2015) from the Art Gallery of South Australia:

Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 13 June — 30 August 2015
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 10 October 2015 — 31 January 2016

Curated by James Bennett and Russell Kelty

Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices is the first exhibition on view in Australia to present the complex artistic and cultural interaction between Europe and Asia from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries—a period known as the Age of Spices. The exhibition includes 300 outstanding and rarely seen works of ceramics, decorative arts, furniture, metalware, paintings, prints, engravings and textiles from both public and private collections in Australia, India, Portugal, Singapore and the United States.

Nick Mitzevich, Director, Art Gallery of South Australia sees this landmark exhibition and its publication as highlighting the Gallery’s international reputation for presenting spectacular exhibitions of historical Asian and European art. Treasure Ships showcases a diverse collection of luxury objects, many of which have never previously been seen on public display in Australia. This has been made possible through the extensive cooperation and support the Gallery has received from institutions, collectors and scholars in Portugal, India, Singapore, Indonesia and the United States, as well as the partnership with the Art Gallery of Western Australia. The Gallery’s two curators James Bennett and Russell Kelty have worked researching the exhibition for over three years, and their professional commitment has ensured the success of this much-anticipated exhibition.


China and Europe–Japan, Surcoat (jinbaori), with mon, late 18th century with 19th-century repairs, brocade created in China, velvet and factory print created in Europe, possibly France, garment constructed in Japan, cotton, wool, silk, velvet, metallic thread, natural dyes, supplementary weft and plain weave, wood, 101 x 85 cm (Helen Bowden Gift Fund 2015, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide)

The works of art selected reveal how the international trade in spices and other exotic commodities inspired dialogue between Asian and European artists, a centuries old conversation whose heritage is the aesthetic globalism we know today. Europe’s infatuation with pepper, nutmeg and cloves has often been explained in terms of the necessity to preserve cooked foods in the days before the invention of refrigeration. “This is a half-truth, which takes little account of the complex reasons the condiments of luxury and status were so avidly sought, often at great expense to human lives,” said Bennett.

The exhibition commences with the small country of Portugal. Located on the periphery of Europe, Portugal re-mapped the West’s view of the world and created a mercantile spice empire stretching halfway around the globe during the fifteenth-sixteenth century. In 1498 Vasco Da Gama’s small fleet became the first to reach India, landing with the famous words, ‘we come in search of Christians and spices’. Within a decade, the Portuguese soldier—aristocrat Francisco de Almeida (1450–1510) had ruthlessly seized control of the Indian Ocean spice trade and established Portugal’s permanent presence in Asia that lasted four hundred years.

Treasure Ships also presents the story of the slave trade, piracy and shipwrecks, as well as illustrating the astonishing beauty of Chinese porcelain, known as ‘white gold’, and celebrating the vibrant Indian textiles created for export around the world. There are several highlights in this exhibition including two works from the personal collection of Queen Adelaide (1792–1849), after whom the city of Adelaide was named in 1836: artefacts retrieved from the Batavia, which sank off the Western Australian coast in the seventeenth century, and a magnificent early 19th-century Chinese punchbowl depicting Sydney Cove that locates Australia within this global history.

It is most appropriate that this exhibition should originate in Adelaide as this is the only Australian city founded on the vision of a Eurasian—the surveyor Colonel William Light (1786–1839) whose Mother was of Malaysian descent and whose remarkable self-portrait features in the exhibition said James Bennett.

Treasure Ships also examines the impact of the Age of Spices on the ‘discovery’ of the Australian continent and the commencement of English occupation in 1788. The colonial art of the period displays the aesthetic reverberations that continued in the Australasian region long after European ships had ceased carrying cargoes of nutmeg and cloves.

James Bennett and Russell Kelty, Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices (Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2015), ISBN: 978-1921668227, $70.

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