Most of us probably remember the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) from school trips. In my impression, the ancient history of the exhibits is easily lost on the young audience. Recently, ACM has underwent a major change in curation, with its management choosing to organise artifacts based on themes rather than chronology. This is a welcomed change — for me anyway — as I find it easier to remember the historical significance of the artifacts better by grouping them with themes in mind, rather than having to recount which the year it is associated with.
Since 27 November, three new permanent galleries — Christian Art, Islamic Art, Ancestors and Rituals — have opened on level 2 of the museum under the collective themes of Faith and Belief. The additional series of museum trails is also a highlight for families and individuals alike.
Most of us would associate Christian art with western artists and Islamic art with Middle Eastern artists, but these galleries reveal the lesser-known history and aesthetics of religious art crafted by Asian artists (with a Southeast Asian focus) as a result of cultural exchange. Watch out for the regional reinterpretations of religious symbols, as cultural openness and fusion give birth to intriguing works of art.
There is no set order to visit these galleries in. I started the museum trail with the Christian Art gallery — in which, the Bureau Shrine from ancient China in the 1730s caught my attention, as the only known Chinese lacquer bureau made as a Christian shrine. The interior, enhanced with red and gold lacquer on the serpentine columns and framing element, clearly incorporated the Chinese symbols of royalty and prosperity.
Alongside it, the fusion piece Virgin Mary, made in Manila, Philippines, stood out. Unlike what most people would expect from a Virgin Mary statue, the face of the Virgin had distinct Asian features that suggested it might have been carved by a Chinese artist. The tucked-in rope robes at the back, called a susok, was a distinct Filipino apparel in the 17th century. The sculpture was later shipped to Mexico, and the painting and gilding on the robes resembled typical 17th century Mexican decoration in Mexican cathedrals. In just one Virgin Mary sculpture, three cultures have been represented.
Next up is the Islamic Art gallery. While Southeast Asian Islamic art often remains on the periphery in the face of global Islamic art, ACM curators made sure these underrated artworks now have their turn to shine. The Al-Buraq from Philippines, Mindanao, made in the early or mid-20th century is quite a sight to behold, resembling a half-mule, half-donkey with wings. Sculpted to represent the Buraq, a mystical animal the Prophet rode on as he journeyed from Mecca to Jerusalem, and to the heavens, the piece has great regional importance as it would often be displayed at important Muslim festivals in southern Philippines. The nature-inspired motifs on the headdress and tail are also reflective of the local Maranao people’s artistic style.
The introduction of Islam into Southeast Asia also transformed traditional art forms. In the Set of Doors made in Java in the early 20th century, what were originally carved reliefs containing Hindu-Buddhist motifs such as the red swastika and the lotus flower, were modified to motifs that represented Islam. Jasmine flowers replaced the lotus; Islamic verses were also carved; and the doors painted red and gold to echo the Islamic tradition of illuminating the Quran as the word of God.
Lastly, the section reserved for possibly the least known type of faith in contemporary times, is the Ancestors and Rituals gallery. Though the performance of very old fashioned rituals may be alienating to the young (and even scary), some of the artworks displayed in this gallery surprised me with their spectacular designs. My favourite is the Hintha-bird vessel, made in Myanmar, Mandalay in the late 19th or early 20th century. This bird-shaped offering vessel is inlaid with semi-precious stones, glass and mirror pieces to add value and sparkle. The awe-inspiring design is characteristic of Mandalay artistry.
The Hornbill is another instantly eye-catching ritualistic artifact, made in Sarawak by the Iban people in the early 20th century of wood. The rhinoceros hornbill, also known as the kenyalang, represented to them the vital life force that sustains all living beings. It was also thought to be the chief of all birds, a messenger to the deities of the upper world and even help in times of battle.
In addition to the artworks I have cast in the limelight, expect to see a lot more in the museum itself. In a time when people often place so much emphasis on what others believe or do not believe in, these galleries blur those lines. Whether you belong to a particular religion or identify as atheist or agnostic, the aesthetic brilliance of many artifacts can still be appreciated by all.
Photos by Darren Chiong of the DANAMIC team.