In 1977, the Art Gallery of South Australia published its first Southeast Asian collection catalogue.

The book, entitled Thai Ceramics, was compiled by the Gallery’s inaugural curator of Asian Art, Dick Richards (1968-2000) and included a forward by then Chairman Earle Hackett (1921-2010), stating that: “This Art Gallery, founded by the British people who settled in South Australia, was inclined in its early years to accumulate only the art of Australia, Britain, and Europe. But Australia’s closest geographical neighbors are the peoples of Southeast Asia. Therefore, it is important that the imbalance in the collection should be redressed and increasing cultural contacts has made this possible.” The publication was a pioneering work in the field of Southeast Asian ceramics and reflected the growing interest and appreciation for ceramics created in Asia outside China. The publication featured wares from the K.J. Ratnam collection which had been acquired by the Gallery in 1969-70 as well as the monumental Temple guardian (yaksha) on the cover which was created in the early to mid-16th century at the kilns of Sawankhalok, Thailand which was acquired in 1974.

As the past fifty years have passed, the Southeast Asian ceramic collection has continued to develop in size and diversity largely because of private benefaction. The significance of the collection and rising interest in Southeast Asian ceramics fostered an interest in exhibitions and publications which featured the most up-to-date scholarship.

South-East Asian Ceramics: Thai, Khmer, and Vietnamese from The Collection of The Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide was written by Dick Richards and published by Oxford University Press in 1995. The publication presented the collection in the context of the most up to date archaeological excavations and established regional stylistic trends. The publication included a large collection of acquisitions published for the first-time including the iconic plate (see below), with naval battle created in the early 16th century at the kilns of Chu Dau in Northern Vietnam. According to James Bennett, the curator of Asian art 2003-2021, the naval battle plate, ‘is one of a very small group of surviving Southeast Asian ware that feature unusual subjects outside the potter’s standard decorative repertoire, and thus documents otherwise unrecorded aspects of the regions historical and material culture’.

Thailand, Temple guardian (yaksha), early to mid-16th century, Sawankhalok, Sukhothai province, stoneware, cream glazes, 113.0 cm (high), South Australian Government Grant 1974, 741C8

Vietnam, plate, with naval battle, early 16th century, Chu Dau-My Xa, Nam Sach, Hai Duong, Vietnam, stoneware, underglaze blue decoration, 36.0 cm (diameter), Elizabeth and Tom Hunter Fund 1984, 846C13

Vietnam, ewer, in the shape of a phoenix, late 15th century, Chu Dau, Hai Duong, Vietnam stoneware, moulded with underglaze blue decoration, 26.5 cm (height) Gift of Alastair Hunter OAM through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2019 in recognition of the friendship of his parents Elizabeth and Tom Hunter and Dick Richards, Curator of Asian Art (1968-2000), and his long and meritorious contribution to the Gallery, 20194C73

Under the stewardship of James Bennett, Curator of Asian Art from 2003-2021 the collection grew and was featured prominently in major exhibitions, publications and displays. Exhibitions such as “Crescent Moon: Islamic Art and Civilization in Southeast Asia” (2005), “Beneath the Winds: Masterpieces of Southeast Asian Art” (2011) and “Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices” (2015) contextualized Southeast Asian ceramics in both regional and international contexts. These exhibitions highlighted the rising level and complexity of scholarship particularly in Southeast Asia. The Gallery’s commitment to the Southeast Asian ceramics collection is best understood by its most recent acquisition.

In 2019, the Gallery acquired Ewer, in the shape of a phoenix (above right), created in the late fifteenth century at the Chu Dau kilns in northern Vietnam. The form is based on the legendary phoenix and the decorative motifs rendered in blue on white stoneware are quintessentially Dai Viet in style, a testimony to the country’s unique ceramic heritage. It was meant to be used as a pouring vessel or kendi as is indicated by the opening on the top of the head and beak which forms a spout and was most likely created expressly for export as it was part of a cargo of Vietnamese-made export wares salvaged from the fifteenth century shipwreck known as the Cu Lao Cham or ‘Hoi An Wreck’ under license from the Vietnamese Government intended for a foreign market, likely Indonesia, where it possibly would have been sold locally or transhipped to India or the Middle East.

For more information on Vietnamese ceramics, visit our page on Vietnamese ceramics here.


Contributed by Yukie Sato-ceramicist, in conversation with Russell Kelty, Acting Asian Art Curator, AGSA