Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Idiotic Didactics

The words chosen for the didactic panels in an exhibition set the ideological framework through which the visitor absorbs knowledge as they progress.
Didactic texts are interpretive/educational texts related to an exhibition, usually written by exhibition curators, that are displayed on panels on exhibition gallery walls or as part of art object labels. Didactic panels orient exhibition-goers to a particular topic or theme.
I recently attended Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices in which a disturbingly retrograde word/idea was used in the didactic panels in one specific part of the exhibition.

That word/idea was 'discover', and it is generally acknowledged now that the West did not 'discover' any other continent or culture. Each continent and culture existed independent of the West setting eyes on it, and the moment that Europeans first encountered other continents or cultures is now called 'first contact'.

Unfortunately, the curators of Treasure Ships were unable to use 'first contact' for a specific continent and culture out of the four discussed in the exhibition. So let's step through the didactic panels and see if we cannot find the problem ...

the Portuguese discovered a direct sea route

The modern era of global art commenced with Europe's insatiable appetite for spices, especially pepper, nutmeg and cloves - products found only in tropical India, Sri Lanka and the remote islands of Indonesia. These condiments were prized as symbols of luxury and status, providing flavouring for food and drinks, as well as being regarded as essential ingredients in medicines.

In 1498 the Portuguese discovered a direct sea route, via the Cape of Good Hope, to Asia, and Spanish, Dutch and English ships soon followed to directly access the sources of the valuable foodstuffs and other exotic treasures. The Europeans arriving in Asia encountered shipping networks extending from the Middle East to East Asia, along with cosmopolitan societies such as Indonesia, where art was valued both as a commodity and an expression of cultural identity.

The East-West trade in spices inevitably inspired the exchange of ideas, styles and fashions in diverse media in the fine arts and in material culture, including book printing, which played a key role in promoting understanding of the East. The West's mapping of the world no longer referenced religious cosmologies but emphasised maritime cartography, to ensure the success of the long sea voyages by which Europe engaged Asia.

CORRECT USE OF THE WORD 'DISCOVER': a sea route is something that can be discovered, brava! A sea route requires many years of exploration and mapping, and knowledge of that route and how to find it can be lost by a culture and discovered again later, or by other cultures willing to put in the work. A sea route is a physical manifestation of knowledge, and thus is infinitely discoverable by each sailor. Let's go make our own discoveries via knowledge and learning!

initiating the first contact with Europeans

In 1543, Portuguese adventurers aboard a Chinese junk ship landed on the small island of Tanegashima in southern Japan, initiating the first contact with Europeans. The establishment of the ports of Macau and Nagasaki enabled the Portuguese to access the entirety of Asia, including the lucrative trade of Chinese silk for Japanese silver.

Known as the Southern Barbarians (nanban), the Portuguese introduced firearms and Christianity, and were integral to the inter-Asian trade of ceramic and Indian cotton textiles (sarasa) to Japan. The unexpected arrival of their massive black ships inspired depictions by Japanese artists and the adoption in Japan of European painting techniques and aesthetics, particularly in lacquerware, which was created for local Jesuit communities and export.

The waning prestige and viability of Portuguese mercantile concerns in Asia during the seventeenth century enabled the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to establish new ports and annex others. Sequestered on the small island of Dejima, at Nagasaki, the Dutch became the sole European nation allowed to trade with Japan and introduced a wealth of fashionable Indian textiles as well as novel items such as the kaleidoscope, European ceramics and printed books, which had a profound impact on the arts and sciences.

NO USE OF THE WORD 'DISCOVER': brava! Japan existed whether Europeans had made contact with the island and the culture or not. Everything seems to be in order, I would like to learn more!

Europe was yet to achieve a comparable level of technological sophistication in these art forms

Asian textiles, including carpets, and glazed porcelain were among the most globally desired cargoes carried by ships during the Age of Spices. Europe was yet to achieve a comparable level of technological sophistication in these art forms, and it was the attractive designs of these items as well as the industrial scale of production that ensured their universal demand.

Indian dye-printed clothes were unequalled in the vividness of their colours and the variety of patterns catering to niche markets in destinations as distant as Europe and Southeast Asia. The Tree of Life motif, with its eclectic combination of Indian, Chinese and European elements, typifies the role of fashionable textiles as a medium of artistic exchange between East and West.

Chinese and Japanese high-fired ceramics, notably blue-and-white 'china', was likewise exported along the international shipping lanes of the spice trade. The decoration, vessel shapes and brilliant glazes of East Asian porcelain subsequently inspired Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and European ceramic artists to emulate their appearance.

NO USE OF THE WORD 'DISCOVER': brava! Ideas and skills move along trade routes, existing in their own right, not being 'discovered' by Europeans. In fact, definitely not 'discovered' when Europeans couldn't replicate the skills and scope needed to build the successful industries needed for the global market. How we take our beautiful items for granted today!

Islam and Christendom both co-opted images of each other to support domestic narratives of cultural identity

The international trafficking in goods and ideas, which inspired cross-cultural art in the Age of Spices, transcended the differing ideologies of Islam and Christianity. The emphasis of Islamic aesthetics on floral and geometric motifs profoundly influenced global art forms, while Muslim artists readily adopted elements of foreign styles for local audiences.

Islam and Christendom both co-opted images of each other to support domestic narratives of cultural identity in miniature painting and engravings. Indian textile artists, often Hindus, produced court garments for the Muslim sultanates of Indonesia, while weavers in Iran created carpets whose style responded to the tastes of non-Muslim clients.

It was the European craze for tulip flowers, first introduced from Ottoman Turkey in the sixteenth century, which epitomised the eclecticism of cultural exchange. Turkish artists valued the tulip for its beauty and association with divinity, while the Dutch perceived these exotic flowers, bought and sold at wildly inflated prices, as symbolic of the republic's wealth gained through the spice trade.

: brava! Instead, we have the movement of ideas mapped out for us over land and sea borders and the note that art was used for political purposes. The irony of the 'domestic narratives of cultural identity' aside, we are in the last lap of the exhibition, only one more continent and culture to discuss with respect ...

The discovery of Australia by Europe

By the early seventeenth century, European sailors had landed on the shores of every continent, including Australia, either by intentional exploration or accidental shipwreck. The discovery of new species of animals, birds and plants in foreign lands inspired artists to seek to accurately record their appearance in meticulous scientific drawings and paintings.

In the urban centres of Europe, the increasing availability of Asian art inspired a fashionable craze called 'chinoiserie', which expressed the West's fantasy vision of the distant Orient. Ceramics, lacquerware, textiles and furniture were decorated with a pastiche of motifs derived from Chinese, Japanese and Indian art.

The discovery of Australia by Europe and the eventual establishment of the British settlement of Sydney town was a by-product of the Age of Spices and Europe's shift from trade to the pursuit of geopolitical domination in Australasia. Nevertheless, it was the Indonesian fishermen from South Sulawesi who first regularly sailed to Australian shores, calling the continent Marege, and who engaged in peaceful exchanges with Indigenous people.

Reader, I got intellectual whiplash standing in front of that didactic panel. So I want to FIX IT!, with thanks to Jane Gilmore for the idea of fixing shit up so it is less shit.


Indonesian fishermen from South Sulawesi regularly traded with Indigenous people

Indonesian fishermen from South Sulawesi regularly engaged in peaceful exchanges with Indigenous people, calling the continent Marege. Sporadic European contact with the Indigenous people of the continent eventually resulted in the establishment of the British settlement of Sydney town, reflecting Europe's shift from trade to the pursuit of geopolitical domination in Australasia. The Indigenous people of Australia never ceded sovereignty to, nor signed a treaty with the British invaders.
Obviously I had two main things to correct in this single paragraph (the others will have to wait):

1. Australia was not discovered by Europe. The Indigenous people on the continent existed whether European eyes were looking at them or not. First contact was made by various isolated Europeans over time, but no European 'discovered' the continent nor its inhabitants.

2. Indonesian fishermen and the Indigenous people of this continent had trading partnerships before European first contact. That fact should be listed first, and without the diminishing 'nevertheless'.

And I have one thing to add, especially as there were beautiful pieces of Indigenous art in the exhibition, right alongside this stupidly worded didactic panel: Australia was and always will be Aboriginal land.

I am still startled that the composition of the didactic panels was so clearly political and regressive. To have composed four panels that used 'first contact', and language that placed no culture above another, only to revert to boring Australian racism in the last panel is incomprehensible. To have listed Indigenous maritime trading relationships last and diminished in an exhibition about maritime trading routes is similarly hard to justify in an exhibition created for Australia.

I had expected better, so much better.
Below, the east coast of Australia being 'discovered' by Captain James Cook. Good work James, no one else knew it was there ...
The terrestrial globe incorporates the latest information gained from exploratory voyages, notably Captain James Cook's 1768-1771 circumnavigation of the world. It was during this voyage Cook discovered the east coast of Australia that led to the founding of Sydney in 1788.