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Exhibition of 2000 Years of Southeast Asian Ancestral Art Opens in Canberra
Pakpak Batak people. Barus district, Sumatra, Indonesia. Effigy portrait (mejan) of a village priest 19th century or earlier, stone, 87.0 x 90.0 x 27.0 cm. Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva © Musée Barbier-Mueller, Photo Studio Ferrazzini Bouchet.

CANBERRA.- The first large exhibition ever to explore the captivating art made in Southeast Asia to honour the ancestors and the spirits of nature opened this week at the National Gallery of Australia.

Life, death and magic: 2000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral art introduces vibrant, often frightening and sometimes supernatural art from across the vast Southeast Asian region.

Ron Radford AM, Director of the National Gallery of Australia said “It is a responsibility as well as a source of great fulfilment to present audiences with groundbreaking exhibitions and publications celebrating diverse works of art, especially the art of our region. Life, death and magic most certainly is such an exhibition.”

Featuring over 250 works of art, Life, death and magic gives extraordinary insight into 2000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral arts and culture—from ancient times to the present.

“This is dazzling art made by some of our nearest neighbours but about which most of us know almost nothing. Astoundingly, it has been largely overlooked by art museums around the world. Southeast Asian ancestral art is an area the National Gallery of Australia has been interested in for some time, and recently we have assembled one of the finest collections of any public art museum anywhere”, said Ron Radford.

The exhibition reveals ancestral art in its many forms, including both everyday and ritual objects, from dramatic sculptures and grand architectural pieces in wood and stone to vibrant textiles and exquisite gold jewellery. It showcases works of art created in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, East Timor, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia and southern China. Works are drawn from distinguished museums across Asia, Europe and America, displayed alongside objects from the National Gallery of Australia’s own exceptional collection.

The curator of the exhibition, Robyn Maxwell said, “The ancestral art of Southeast Asia is extremely powerful. To have together so many incredible works of art from right across the region—dating from ancient times to today—is terribly exciting. The effect is breathtaking, like stepping into another world.”

Ancestral and animist beliefs have been the focus of spiritual life and social organisation for thousands of years. Widespread before the introduction of Hinduism, Buddhism and, later, Islam and Christianity, they continue to be respected in Southeast Asia, especially in remote islands and isolated mountainous areas. Exquisite and powerful objects are made to appease the ancestors and spirits whose blessings ensure fertility and success in important events in the cycle of life, especially birth, marriage and death. If neglected, these spirits can be vengeful and malicious.

Funerals, in particular, inspire the creation of spectacular works of art. The exhibition includes superbly decorated coffins, fearsome protective sculptures and shrouds to honour the recently deceased as well as distant ancestors. There are also mysterious objects used in magical rites, including shamans’ robes, potent amulets and divination books.

Many of the works featured within the exhibition are new Gallery acquisitions, never before shown. Among the key objects is a monumental wood sculpture of a magical horse with two riders—one male and one female—representing the creator ancestors who are crucial to the success of all endeavours. Also remarkable is the Gallery’s famous sixth-century sculpture known as The Bronze Weaver, which shows a woman weaving while breastfeeding her child. Dramatic examples from the Gallery’s unparalleled holdings of Southeast Asian textiles are a spectacular feature.

National Gallery of Australia | 2000 Years of Southeast Asian Ancestral Art | Ron Radford AM |

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