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British Museum opens new display What is Europe? Views from Asia
Käthe Kollwitz (1867 – 1945). Plough-pullers and a Woman. 1902. © the Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- This focussed exhibition explores perceptions of Europe through specially chosen objects from Japan, China and South Asia. The new Asahi Shimbun Display, What is Europe? Views from Asia features objects that illustrate encounters between Europe and Asia from the 18th to the 20th century. Each of the thirteen objects on show has a unique story and reveals that this engagement was far more nuanced than has often been presented.

Western perspective was adopted by many Asian painters and printmakers, and techniques such as etching were learned from printed European manuals in Japan. This display demonstrates the influence of European art through the display of a work by German expressionist Käthe Kollwitz. This print shows two men pulling a plough and clearly inspired the woodblock print on display by Chinese artist Li Hua that depicts the same theme. Kollwitz’s prints were introduced in China through a work by leading literary figure Lu Xun. Only 50 copies of this insightful and rare volume were published, and the British Museum holds a copy in its collection.

Other objects reveal a more dissenting adoption of European styles to communicate ideas and agendas that were specific to the local regions. For hundreds of years porcelain figures of Guanyin (Kannon) and child were made for Buddhist devotion in China and Japan. Between the 18th and 21st centuries, these Blanc de Chine figures transformed Guanyin into a Madonna, under the guise of appealing to European markets. However, these figures served another purpose as Christianity was forbidden in Japan between 1587 to 1859, and so ‘hidden’ Christians were able to worship ‘Maria Kannon’ sculptures such as these.

This show also presents objects that reveal resentment and fear inspired by European political and religious incursions. Several works of popular culture mocked European powers outright, such as a 1943 wartime manga magazine representing Winston Churchill. An earlier print by Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915) ridicules the Russian Navy during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, describing them as ‘aimless boats’. Japan’s victory in the Battle of Tsushima was the first major instance in the modern era of an Asian country defeating a European one. This triumph stimulated nationalist movements across Asia, where colonial powers still controlled large territories.

At the heart of this display stands the striking Nicobar hentakoi board that was deemed to possess protective and healing powers. The Nicobar Islands were colonised by the Danes in 1756 who then sold them to the British in 1869. After India became independent from British rule in 1947, the Islands became a union territory of India. This highly detailed object sheds light on the complex response to European trade and power relations, as demonstrated by the selective adoption of European symbols and images. This includes both local and European objects, deemed valuable and symbolically powerful. The central deity in the top register is accompanied by a compass, watch and chronometer. On a lower register, a Nicobarese boat is joined by a European vessel as well as a Chinese sailing ship. Nearby the hentakoi stands a kareau—a protective figure-- wearing a European pith helmet.

The transnational focus of this show harnesses objects to reveal diverse worldviews, recognising that, as today, Europe was viewed from many backgrounds and sight lines. Visitor responses will also be central to this Asahi Shimbun Display. When they enter the space visitors will be invited to answer the following question: ‘What does Europe mean to you?’ A selection of answers, in multiple languages, will be projected onto the walls of the gallery space each week, their voices forming part of the collage of perspectives on display.

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