James Bennett celebrates a Vietnamese ceramic vessel

The generous gift of Ewer, in the shape of a phoenix from Alastair Hunter is a fitting tribute to the long friendship between the Art Gallery’s Emeritus Curator of Asian Art, Dick Richards, and Alastair’s parents Elizabeth and Tom Hunter. During Dick Richards’s tenure, between 1968 and 2000, the Gallery established a pioneer collection of Southeast Asian ceramics, whose international significance was enhanced by generous gifts from Elizabeth and Tom Hunter over many years.

It is remarkable that a wide appreciation of Vietnam’s great ceramic tradition of blue-and-white wares – at the pinnacle of production when the Ewer was created – only developed as recently as the 1950s. Prior to that date, the skilful use of blue cobalt underglaze decoration in a manner reminiscent of Jingdezhen and the southern provincial kilns meant that the wares were often mistaken for Chinese ceramics. Nevertheless, the lively modelling of the Ewer, and its treatment of the subject, is quintessentially Vietnamese in style and is testimony to that country’s unique ceramic heritage.

The Ewer is a classic Southeast Asian kendi, a pouring vessel with no handles but two openings. Modelled in the zoomorphic form of the legendary phoenix, it has an opening on top of the head for receiving the liquid, while the bird’s beak forms the spout. The vessel was among the cargo of around 220,000 ceramics, salvaged under licence from the Vietnamese Government from the famous late fifteenth-century shipwreck known as the Cu Lao Cham. The sunken boat is also popularly called the ‘Hoi An wreck’, as it was discovered offshore from Hoi An, near the old imperial capital of Hue. From the location and contents of the ship, we can assume that the Ewer was part of a cargo of Vietnamese-made export wares intended for a foreign market, likely Indonesia, where it possibly would have been sold locally or transhipped to India or the Middle East.

The phoenix in Vietnamese belief is often paired with the dragon. Pouring vessels in the shape of a naga dragon, and similar in dimensions to the Ewer, were also salvaged from the same wreck site and it is possible that the two types of vessels were originally conceived as pairs. The comparatively small group of ceramics in the shape of various animals found at the Cu Lao Cham site suggests that Ewer was a luxury item intended for the upper end of the market. Perhaps the item was part of an Indonesian order, as historical evidence confirms the practice of Javanese courts specifically ordering purpose-made ceramics from the Vietnamese kilns.

Vessels such as Ewer acquired their own local meanings wherever they travelled. Indonesian patrons almost certainly reinterpreted the phoenix as the Garuda bird, which in Hindu belief guards the nectar of immortality. During the fifteenth century in Java, the cult of ‘holy water’, an element equated with the legendary nectar, became especially popular. Such an artefact as the Ewer, in the shape of a magical bird, would have held special significance when used in the Hindu religious rituals associated with this cult.

Ewer is an outstanding and unique addition to the Art Gallery’s representation of Vietnamese historical ceramics. A fascinating object, it documents the significance of international maritime trade in the Southeast Asian waters that were historically known as the Cham Sea – Cham referring to Vietnam – before gaining the name by which it is known today – the South China Sea. Moreover, this generous gift is a fitting tribute to the friendship and professional collaboration between a curator and two generous Adelaide donors, who contributed so extensively to the development of the Gallery’s important Asian art collection.

James Bennett is Curator of Asian Art. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 37.