Unusually for Australia, there is a great museum exhibition on at the moment that focuses largely on Portugal’s “golden age of discoveries”. It’s the Treasure Ships: Art In The Age of Spices exhibition currently on at the Art Gallery of South Australia until August 30, and then at the Art Gallery of Western Australia from October 10 to January 31, 2016. As well as the Portuguese component, the 300-odd pieces in the exhibition – which examines the interaction between Europe and Asia from the 16th to the 19th centuries – come from private and public collections in India, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and the US.
I have always been interested in the Portuguese maritime exploits. When I was a young boy growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, we would often go to Mombasa on the coast for our family holidays, and visited Fort Jesus regularly. My dad would relate the story of the famous siege of the fort, and how the Portuguese bravely held out for months in the hope of a relief party arriving, but finally surrendered – only for relief to arrive the very next day. To me it all sounded heroic and tragic. But if you read the brief account of the siege here you will see that my dad was exaggerating as usual, and relief actually arrived a week after the surrender. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. I’ve also been to the maritime museum (Museu de Marinha) in Belem, Lisbon – a fabulous place (both the museum and Belem as a whole), for anyone who is interested in this period of history.
I asked one of the curators of Treasure Ships: Art In The Age of Spices, Russell Kelty, which Portuguese museums and institutions had contributed.
“The gallery worked closely with the Australian Embassy in Lisbon as well as the Secretary of Culture and three Portuguese institutions: The National Museum of Ancient Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), in Lisbon; the National Museum/Museu Nacional Machado de Castro, in Coimbra; and the Museu do Oriente / Fundaҫão Oriente, in Lisbon,” Russell said. “It became apparent that to fully contextualise this age which was initiated by Portuguese mercantile and ecclesiastical expansion into Asia, the great collections of Portugal would be integral. As far as we know, this is the first exhibition in Australia to highlight those collections.”
Asked to nominate the highlights of the exhibition from the point of view of anyone who is interested in Portuguese culture in particular, Russell said: “There is one designated national treasure from Portugal, the silver gilt Salver, which portrays the opulence of the early 16th century when spices provided great wealth for the Portuguese. Also there is a silver crab and cross (pictured right), which elucidates missionary activities in Asia, particularly the Jesuits and Francis Xavier, known as the ‘Apostle of the East’ who travelled throughout Asia and even to Japan to convert.”
A lot of work goes into curating an exhibition of this nature. Russell said his own involvement took two to three years of research and travel, and five years for co-curator James Bennett.
We’ll have a look at other aspects of the exhibition in another post soon.
The images here have been supplied courtesy of the Media section of the Art Gallery of South Australia and may not to be distributed to any other party. Please respect the copyright restrictions.