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Crescent Moon
Islamic art and civilisation in Southeast Asia
Bulan Sabit: Seni dan Peradaban Islam di Asia Tenggara

24 February – 28 May 2006

Introduction | themes | selected works | glossary | events

 

Themes

Islam and Southeast Asia | ceremony | gold | textiles | sculpture | trade | the word

 

Riau–Lingga, Sumatra, Indoneasia Ritual fan 19th century gold, silver, precious stones National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta

Riau–Lingga, Sumatra, Indoneasia Ritual fan 19th century, National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta  more detail

Islamic art and civilisation of Southeast Asia

 

Muslim sea voyages into Southeast Asia over one thousand years ago set in motion cultural transformations of great significance. From the Arabian peninsula, Persia, Turkey and, later, Mughal India and even southern China, traders and wandering teachers, often adherents of Sufi mystical practices, introduced Islam to mainland and island Southeast Asia where the new religion spread amongst the royal courts and maritime societies of the region.

The revelations of the Prophet Muhammad (570–633) emphasised a spiritual code that encouraged a holistic view of life including art. Islam permeated all elements of life, inspiring the creation of beautiful objects for both religious and decorative purposes. Throughout the Islamic world, however, regional aesthetic styles remained evident across different artistic media including manuscripts, stone and wood carving, metalwork, ceramics and textiles. Both believers and non-believers created art for Muslim communities, contributing to a unique and vital Southeast Asian Islamic heritage, which reflected the multiculturalism and diverse local histories of the region.

Today Southeast Asia supports around one quarter of Islam’s global community. In Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, the majority of the population is Muslim, while in Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar) and East Timor there are significant Muslim minorities with their own distinct art and cultural identities.

 

 

 

 

West Malaysia Makara head early 20th century wood with traces of pigment Department of Museums and Antiquities, Kuala Lumpur

West Malaysia Makara head early 20th century, Department of Museums and Antiquities, Kuala Lumpur more detail

Art and pageant

 

For centuries Muslim societies have celebrated public events and royal rites of passage, such as coronations, marriages, circumcisions and visits from foreign embassies, with spectacular processions on land and water. Giant carriages and boats, often in the form of legendary creatures, accompanied these parades that were made festive with the unfurling of banners and the sound of ceremonial cannon fire. These were often occasions when communal identification with Islam was made evident in the ornamentation of fine objects with Arabic calligraphy.

The colourful art made for such customary occasions was, however, often ephemeral and few such objects have survived. Nevertheless those that do testify to the rich legacy of Islamic civilisation in Southeast Asia and to widespread forms of popular art that have now vanished.

 

 

 

detail : Gowa, South Sulawesi, Indonesia Dagger, 18th–19th century gold, iron, gemstones, wood 48.0 x 16.5 x 5.5 cm National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta detail: Gowa, South Sulawesi, Indonesia Dagger, 18th–19th century, National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta  more detail

‘God’s shadow on earth’

 

The rulers and aristocratic elite who were among the first Southeast Asians to adopt Islam created an elegant cultural heritage still evident today throughout the region. Royal patronage ensured that the most lavish art was produced for court circles. Fabulous displays gave visual expression to the Islamic notion of the sacred role of kingship.

The spectacular regalia and costume worn in court ritual was intended to emphasise the sultan’s power and promote the allegiance of his or her followers. Moreover, the validity of a ruler’s mandate over the principality depended on the possession of ancestral heirlooms, known as pusaka, in the form of ceremonial weapons, textiles and other objects.

Gold, with its rich symbolism and high worldly value, was the preferred medium for royal regalia. The colour was compared to the sun whose orb was a metaphor for the universal monarch and whose radiance was seen as akin to the light of God’s blessing. Gold objects became symbols of the prestige and wealth of the court throughout Southeast Asia.

 

 

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Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, Indonesia Ceremonial shield 19th century, gold, iron 8.0 x 46.5 cm. Collection: National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta click to enlarge Malaysia 'Belt buckle' 18th-19th century, gold, precious stones, Department of Museums and Antiquities, Kuala Lumpur click to enlarge Riau–Lingga, Sumatra, Indoneasia Spittoon 19th century gold 11.5 x 20.0 cm National Museum of Indonesia, Jakartaclick to enlargeBanten, Java, Indonesia Crown 18th century gold, precious stones, enamel, metal 17.0 x 11.5 cm (outer crown) National Museum of Indonesia Jakarta

 

 

 

Indonesia, Aceh, Sumatra, early 20th century 'Ceremonial hanging' cotton, wool, silk, gold thread, sequins, glass beads, lace, mica, appliqué, couching, embroidery, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Indonesia, Aceh, Sumatra, early 20th century Ceremonial hanging, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

The draped universe of Islam

 

Many of the most sumptuous textiles produced in Southeast Asia were closely associated with the Islamic courts of the region. Garments and ceremonial hangings were created in a variety of techniques, including brocade and tapestry weaving, embroidery, intricate tie-dyeing, finely waxed batik, and gold-leaf embossing, often from imported luxury threads of silk and gold. Among the most elegant are the songket floating weft brocades, most closely associated with the Malay sultanates.

The richly decorated textiles, almost invariably made by women, display a variety of auspicious motifs drawn from indigenous and foreign sources. A prominent feature of palace ceremony and rites of passage, including birth, circumcision, marriage and funeral ceremonies, their display symbolised the pivotal position of the sultan between the older world of local ancestral tradition and the lively sphere of international maritime exchange.

 

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detail: India early 18th century Ceremonial cloth and sacred heirloom Conserved with the assistance of Brian O'Keeffe AO and Bridget O'Keeffe AM; Gift of Michael and Mary Abbott 1988 click to enlarge Turkey, assembled iin Malaysia, early 20th century, 'Charm vest', Department of Museums and Antiquities, Kuala Lumperclick to enlarge Cirebon, West Java, indonesia Royal banner 18th century handspun cotton, silk, natural dyes, batik, mordant printing 322.0 x 172.0 cm Jakarta Textile Museum, Jakarta

 

See more textiles from Southeast Asia on the National Gallery of Australia's Indonesian textiles subsite

 

 

 

Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia Bedoyo dancer 1935 wood with pigment, cotton, velvet, rayon, metal, plaster, semiprecious stones,seeds, gold thread, buffalo horn 150.0 x 62.0 x 33.0 cm Museum Sonobudoyo, YogyakartaYogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia Bedoyo dancer 1935, Museum Sonobudoyo, Yogyakarta more detail

Sculpture and Islam

 

The uncertainties of time and the tropical elements have not favoured the survival of wooden objects in Southeast Asia, yet wood was the most popular material for male artists in Islamic societies. Carved wood was used to ornament mosques and palaces, as well as to create utilitarian objects whose decoration drew inspiration from the natural world.

Many aspects of the development of early Islamic art in the region are not yet well understood. However, it is clear that Islamic architecture and ornamentation grew out of and absorbed numerous elements of previous Hindu-Buddhist styles, as did other art forms such as drama and puppet theatre.

Fortunately a small and unique collection of sixteenth-century wooden carvings has survived in the Kraton Kasepuhan palace in Cirebon, west Java, Indonesia: some of these important cultural treasures have been generously loaned to this exhibition. Established by the Muslim saint Sunan Gunung Jati, the Cirebon kraton is the oldest continuously occupied Islamic palace in Southeast Asia. It provides intriguing insights into the history of Islamic civilisation in the region.

 

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Indonesia, Lampung, Sumatra Head of a hornbill from a cereminal chariot 19th century wood 114.0 x 24.0 x 45.0 cm Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlargeYogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia Dance mask of Jatayu , late 19th century wood, gold, gemstones, leather 21.5 x 15.5 x 16.0 cm National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta click to enlarge Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia Dance mask of Bhuta Cakil , late 19th century wood, gold, gemstones, leather, horse hair 18.5 x 14.5 x 14.5 cm National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta click to enlargeYogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia Dance mask of Kuda Narawangsa , late 9th century wood, gold, gemstones, leather, horse hair 17.0 x 14.5 x 10.0 cm National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta

 

 

 

 

Trade winds and the international identity of Islam

 

Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Provence, China, found in Bukittingi, West Sumatra, Indonesia, Kendi, 15th century, Ming Dynasty, National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta

 

Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Provence, China, found in Bukittingi, West Sumatra, Indonesia Kendi, 15th century, Ming Dynasty, National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta  more detail

Southeast Asia was a key player in a dynamic network of cultural exchange extending from China to the Middle East and eventually to Europe. Indian textiles and Chinese ceramics were popular products in the vigorous spice trade across all of the communities of Southeast Asia regardless of religious orientation. However, many designs and styles on these imported luxury items were created specifically for Muslim clients and became integral to the history of Islamic art in Southeast Asia.

Brightly dyed Indian silk and cotton cloths were especially popular in the sultanate courts and their patterns inspired local textile designs and motifs. The early production of Chinese export porcelain was a direct response to the fashionable tastes of the Muslim world: their presence in Southeast Asia documents the region’s active participation in the international culture of Islam.

Many of these exotic items acquired status as ancestral heirlooms in both court and village and have been passed down over generations by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Their preservation and survival can be attributed to their value as items of ancestral heritage.

 

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Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Provence, China found in Bukittingi, West Sumatra, Indonesia Kendi 17th century Qing Dynasty underglaze blue decorated porcelain, silver mounts 17.2 x 21.0 x 9.5 cm Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide click to enlarge Zhangzhou, Fujian province, China, found in Southeast Asia Kendi 16–17th centuries Ming Dynasty underglaze blue porcelain 18.5 x 18.0 cm Collection of the Asian Art Civilisations Museum Collection, Singapore click to enlarge Sawankalok, Thailand, found in Southeast Asia Kendi 15th century Ayutthya Kingdom 1350-1767 stoneware, underglaze iron decoration 13.5 x 14.5 cm Museum of Asian Art, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Rosewater vessel underglaze blue decorated porcelain, silver mounts 27.75 x 12 cm National Museum of Indonesia

 

 

The Word

 

Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia Serat Ambiya 1844–51 European paper, pigment, gold leaf 38.0 x 25.0 x 14.0 cm Museum Sonobudoyo, Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia Serat Ambiya 1844–51 European paper, pigment, gold leaf, Museum Sonobudoyo, Yogyakarta  more detail

Calligraphy is the noblest of all arts in Islam and, as the word of God recorded in the Qur’an can only be written by a pious believer, the calligrapher is the quintessential Muslim artist.

In Southeast Asia, as in other parts of the Islamic world, the decoration of the sacred texts, especially the Qur’an, demonstrated the believer’s deep faith and reverence. Rulers and religious institutions sponsored the production of illuminated manuscripts in local ornamental styles and sometimes in regional languages, such as Bahasa Indonesia and Malay, which were transcribed in an Arabic-based script.

The Arabic language became the central symbol of Islam. Verses from the Qur’an, pious injunctions and prayers, and talismanic grids filled with Arabic numerals, intended to evoke divine protection and blessings, were inscribed on objects in every conceivable medium. The decoration of objects with Arabic calligraphy also signalled to the wider community, the devoutness of the creator, owner or wearer.

Arabic scripts are read from right to left.

 

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Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia Serat Tajus Salatin 1799–1851 European paper, pigment, gold leaf 30.0 x 20.0 x 6.0 cm click to enlarge Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia Serat Menak Sarehas 1850 European paper, pigment, gold leaf 44.0 x 29.0 x 13.0 cm Museum Sonobudoyo, Yogyakarta click to enlargeIndonesia probably Ternate, North Maluku Qur’an February 1731 European paper, pigments Collection: National Library of Indonesia, Jakarta

 

The British library holds beautiful example of Islamic manuscript work.
To see an online version of Sultan Baybars' Qur'an, made in Cairo between 1304 and 1306 (704–5 in the Islamic calendar), go to the British Library's online gallery of African and Asian manuscripts

 

 

 

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