Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices

The study of maritime trade and seafaring during the ‘Age of Discovery’ has taught us a great deal about cross-cultural interaction and exchange for culinary and medicinal condiments. This investigation takes us from coast to coast in a ‘seasoned’ voyage of expansion and washes up on the shores of modern-day Australia.

The Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) presents ‘Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices’, a landmark exhibition examining the artistic and cultural interaction between Europe and Asia during this time. Stefano Carboni, AGWA Director says, “Visitors will have the chance to experience the complexity and richness of new ideas and exchanges that were brought about in the 16th to the 19th centuries through this trade.”

This exhibition includes over 250 rarely seen examples of ceramics, decorative arts, furniture, maps, metalware, paintings, prints and textiles from public and private collections in Australia, India, Portugal, Singapore and the United States.

‘Treasure Ships’ presents the story of exploration and trade, discovery and shipwrecks, spice markets and slavery, as well as illustrating the astonishing beauty of Chinese porcelain, known as ‘white gold’ and celebrates vibrant Indian textiles created for export. Although travel was arduous and vast territories unmapped, numerous contacts were forged – spreading ideas, beliefs, and customs among heterogeneous peoples – and as valuable goods were moved over long distances, through trade and exchange, new art styles and subject matter were introduced.

Artists from both East and West, countries such as England, The Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, China, Japan, India and Indonesia became aware of different ways for art to interpret the world around them, and began including foreign artistic styles, themes and cultural images into their works.

AGWA Curator of Historical and Modern Art, Melissa Harper says, “The diversity of art within this exhibition builds a fascinating journey for visitors. It paints a picture as to what brought Europeans to this region and showcases the rich transfer of culture and art that happened as an integral part of the political, economic and religious motivations for exploration.”

A highlight of the exhibition is the shipwreck artefacts of the Batavia and the Gilt Dragon, which sank off the Western Australian coast in the 17th century. As well as a large-scale 16th century portrait of Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese viceroy of the state of India – the piece is on loan from the National Museum of Ancient Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), Lisbon. Also on display, a magnificent early 19th century Chinese punch bowl depicting Sydney Cove that locates Australia within this global history. Other works include the depictions of trading ships, travellers and locals, trade merchants, flora and fauna, religious iconography, and geographical charts.

‘Treasure Ships’ provides objet d’art from a variety of different countries and societies, capturing their heterogeneous cultural characteristics through remarkably different artistic styles. These works allow the viewer to reflect upon and appreciate the cultural and stylistic differences that existed at the time between East and West. The formation of new art styles caused a hybridity in Western and Eastern aesthetics, an amalgamation that reflects modern views.

Art Gallery of Western Australia
10 October, 2015 to January 31, 2016
Western Australia

The Middle World known as Madhyaloka, India, Gujarat or Rajasthan, early 19th century, opaque watercolour on cotton, 72.5 x 84cm
Collection of Mary Abbott, Adelaide

Portrait of D. Francisco de Almeida, India, Goa, 16th century, oil and tempera on wood,183 x 98cm
National Museum of Ancient Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), Lisbon