September 18, 2010

Sumatra Isle of Gold Exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

Sumatra: Isle of Gold 

Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

Through 7 November 2010

Sumatra: Isle of Gold, features over 300 objects that showcase the unique culture and identity of Sumatra, especially the cross-cultural influences that have shaped the island from ancient times to the present day.

Co-organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), the National Museum of Indonesia and the Museum Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology), Leiden, Sumatra: Isle of Gold is the first international travelling exhibition on Sumatran culture. The exhibition first opened in Jakarta last year and then travelled to Leiden. For the show in Singapore, the ACM has incorporated over 100 additional objects from its own collection and private collections. Sumatra Isle of Gold is also the highlight of the National Heritage Board’s Fokus Indonesia Festival.

This cross-cultural exhibition is especially significant for Singapore. Sumatra was a point of arrival for new ideas and beliefs, which gives the island a significant place within Southeast Asia’s history. The exhibition reveals to our audiences Sumatra’s rich cultural legacy through an array of beautiful objects in many media,” said Dr Alan Chong, Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Crossroads of Asia: As early as the 3rd century BCE, Indian records mention Suvarnadvipa or ‘Gold Island’ in reference to Sumatra and other parts of Southeast Asia. The island’s strategic location and wealth of natural resources, including gold, pepper and aromatics, made it a busy entrepot for trade. These interactions gave rise to the diverse cultures, customs and peoples found on the island today.

Early foreign influences came via trade with India, with Hindu-Buddhist traditions and beliefs influencing the island’s coastal communities. Sumatra would later become the seat of power for the mighty Hindu-Buddhist Srivijaya kingdom (7th to 13th centuries), which dominated much of island Southeast Asia for over 400 years. Chinese settlers had been coming to Sumatra over the centuries, resulting in sizeable Chinese communities by the 19th century, where they worked as artisans, businessmen, administrators and tax collectors, among other professions. Following the decline of Srivijaya, Islamic sultanates established themselves in the coastal areas from the 13th to 16th centuries, and with the spread of Islam came cultural influences in architecture, textiles and clothing, and the court arts.

Sumatra’s rich natural resources also attracted European traders who sought the much- wanted pepper, gold, and camphor and benzoin, ingredients for perfumery and incense-making. The Portuguese and the Dutch arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries respectively and European influence left its mark on both the courts as well as remote tribal communities who were converted to Christianity.

The exhibition examines how the various cultures in Sumatra have been influenced, and in turn shaped others, through interactions with the many foreign influences that arrived at the island. This approach to looking at culture as a synthesis of many different influences complements the way the ACM has curated its own galleries and exhibitions over the years,” said Ms Heidi Tan, Senior Curator (Southeast Asia), Asian Civilisations Museum.

Sumatra: Isle of Gold - Exhibition Storyline and Highlights

The exhibition opens with an introduction to Sumatra’s pre-history, and then breaks into sections on Indian, Chinese, Islamic, European and regional influences. 

A key exhibition highlight is one of the oldest exhibits on show – a Bronze Age vessel from Jambi in East Sumatra. This vessel dates back over 2000 years and is elaborately decorated with motifs of hooks and spirals, which are iconic motifs found among many early Southeast Asian artefacts from that period.

The Hindu-Buddhist traditions of Sumatra’s Srivijayan rulers are reflected in a number of religious icons from Palembang, where the empire was based. An impressive sculpture of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, which weighs over 470 kilogrammes, is one of the highlights in this section.

Peranakan or ‘local born’ communities which resulted from inter-marriages between the Chinese and locals helped to spread their traditions, seen through the cross-adoption of both Chinese and local designs and techniques in textiles, clothing, jewellery and other materials on display in this section. The rebana, a type of local hand-drum, incorporates traditional Chinese symbols such as the Chinese phoenix and qilin motifs.

A resplendent gold crown that once belonged to the Sultan of Siak is testament to the powerful Islamic sultanates of Sumatra. Set with diamonds and rubies imported from West Asia, this famous crown still retains Hindu-Buddhist influence in the form of three lotus flowers. Royal regalia, such as this crown, were treasured heirlooms that symbolised the sultans’ royal power and the right to rule.

While international trade flourished, regional trade also took place between the people of Sumatra such as the Minangkabau, the Nias and the Batak. A highlight in this section is a glittering gold necklace, which would have been worn by Nias nobility, who traded slaves for gold from mainland Sumatra.

Finally, with increasing European presence in Sumatra in the 19th century, items displaying a curious mix of European influences and local motifs were created for local use and for export. Of special note is a tirai, a ceremonial hanging with Mughal Indian origins, and full of surprising details drawn from various cultures. Its central motif is a European coat-of-arms, flanked by women in European dress and cavorting dogs. Floral motifs sewn in gold thread, typical of Islamic embroidery, decorate the entire hanging which is made of velvet, a popular local material.

Just like Singapore, this ‘Island of Goldwas a busy port and a meeting point for cultures from all over Asia. Through this exhibition, we hope that many Singaporeans will discover the richness of Sumatra’s history and culture, and the ancient links between Singapore and one of our closest neighbours,” said Ms Heidi Tan.

This travelling exhibition began at The British Museum in London. Previous venues includes The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre Museum in Paris. At the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, the exhibition makes its Asian debut.

Sumatra: Isle of Gold
Asian Civilisations Museum - Special Exhibitions Gallery
30 July - 7 November 2010

Also on view at the ACM: Supermighty! Heroes of Asia, 24 Jul 2010 - 13 Feb 2011 (Shaw Foundation Foyer) - ACM’s second exhibition curated especially for children, it featuring colourful displays and engaging artefacts from the museum collection. This exhibition explores the legends behind some of the well-known and well-loved characters of Asian myths.

2010 Previous exhibitions at the ACM

The Testament Of Tebaran: Borneo's Moment Of Truth, 19 Jun 2010 - 18 Jul 2010 (Shaw Foundation Foyer) - Held in conjunction with Month of Photography Asia 2010, this exhibition by acclaimed National Geographic photographer Mattias Klum is a powerful and revealing testimony of the devastation of Borneo’s tropical rainforests, which are among the oldest and most biologically diverse in the world. “Thoughtfulness begins with seeing. My job as a photographer is to make that seeing easier. What we appreciate and are fascinated by, we will also want to preserve.” – Mattias Klum

Treasury of the World: Jewelled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals (Special Exhibitions Gallery) - Organised by The al-Sabah Collection, National Council for Culture, Arts & Letters, Kuwait, in collaboration with the Asian Civilisations Museum. 

The Egawa Donation: A Collection of Japanese and Chinese Inspired Ceramics, 19 Dec 2009 - 13 Jun 2010 (Shaw Foundation Foyer) - A collection of European ceramics inspired by patterns and shapes of the Japanese and Chinese originals.

Land of the Morning: The Philippines and its People, 16 Oct 2009 - 10 Jan 2010 (Special Exhibitions Gallery) - About the rich cultural heritage of the Philippines, an eclectic blend of indigenous local cultures and Spanish, Chinese, Southeast Asia and Islamic influences. Organised in collaboration with the Ayala Museum, Manila.

Asian Civilisations Museum
1 Empress Place
Singapore 179555