Exhibition Review: Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices

Curated by James Bennett and Rusty Kelty, this exhibition offers an impressive range of paintings, sketches, maps, clothes, cabinets and pottery.

Treasure shipsPresented by Art Gallery of South Australia
Reviewed 21 July 2015

Treasure Ships presents the historic relationship between Europe, Asia and the Middle East through the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, when the spice trade connected vastly different cultures, bringing with it an exchange of ideas, styles and fashions, and changing the art of the time.

Curated by James Bennett and Rusty Kelty, this exhibition offers an impressively large range of over three hundred artworks and artefacts, ranging from paintings, sketches and maps to the three-dimensional world of clothes, cabinets and pottery. This impressive exhibition has been drawn from public and private collections in India, Singapore, Portugal, Australia and the US. The brilliance of Treasure Ships is that it provides artwork from a range of different countries, capturing diverse cultural characteristics in often startlingly different artistic styles. The way the artworks are arranged accentuates the often contrasting styles – a realistic European portrait may be followed by a brightly coloured Japanese print, allowing for the viewer to reflect upon and appreciate the cultural and stylistic differences that existed at the time.

The exhibition takes you through the years of discovery and the growing relations between previously isolated countries which led to dramatic changes within the history of art. As Europeans became obsessed with this exotic and foreign art, the trade between continents began to include more than just spices. Artists from all countries became aware of different ways for art to interpret the world around them, and began including the foreign artistic styles, themes and cultural images into their works.

Examples of the consequent artistic change can be seen in both classical European portraits and still-life paintings, as well as traditional Asian artworks and craftsmanship. Typical European portraits seem unchanged until, when looking closer, tropical plants, exotic birds and traditional oriental objects jump out at you. Asian artworks similarly display a blend of both continents’ cultures; a typically stylised Indian figure is now draped in European clothing.

Treasure Ships also displays the darker side of the spice trade, with some European paintings showing trade ships full of slaves off the coast of South Africa, while a cannon stamped with the Dutch East Indies Company symbol stands before you as you enter the exhibition. Asian depictions of the large European ships sounding off their cannons as they enter foreign harbours captures the fear and intimidation these cultures must have felt as Europe extended its grip on the wider world. It is interesting and sometimes amusing to see the Asian artists’ impressions of the European settlers presented in their artwork; one Javanese rod puppet presents a pink European with bulging eyes and a protruding nose – features that depict the then foreigners as un-trustworthy and greedy.

Religion, flora and fauna are all threads uniting the competing cultures presented in the exhibition, and despite the age of the artefacts, all of them are impressively maintained, even though many are made of fragile materials, such as wood, silk and porcelain, that you would have expected to have disintegrated long ago. This view of the past is well worth a look in the present.

Reviewed by Georgina Smerd
Twitter: @Georgie_xox

Venue: Art Gallery of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide
Season: 13 June – 30 August
Tickets: $5.00 – $40.00
Bookings: Online at or tickets available at the door


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