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Asian Antiques in a Modern World
Asian antiques reflect the mystery and complexity of diverse cultures that have evolved over the course of millennia. Motivated by a powerful spiritual curiosity and a desire to express a unique world view, the peoples of Asia have produced a fascinating body of art and crafts, revealing a profound appreciation of aesthetics. Some of the most interesting antiques and collectible artifacts originated in Southeast Asia — from superb works of Buddhist art to utilitarian objects of everyday use — often embellished with fine detail in the form of symbolic motifs and designs.
Asian antiques also evoke a sense of nostalgia for a simpler and slower time in history, when people lived in harmony with nature and the seasons, and celebrated their traditions and rituals with joy and reverence. In Southeast Asian villages, after the hard work of preparing the fields and planting the rice, there was a long period of rest and relaxation, during which artistic activities flourished. Many of these artistic traditions have sadly vanished, as modern generations have lost interest or access to them. A comparison of genuine Asian antiques with modern reproductions reveals a notable decline in terms of mastery, patience in execution, and quality of materials used. The chi or life force of Asian antiques imbued with the devotion of the maker aspiring to excellence, is often lost on reproductions of modernity.
Antique Buddhist Art
Nowhere is symbolism more important than in the realm of Buddhist art. Since around the 5th century AD, Buddhist art has evolved to produce a sophisticated vocabulary of symbolic and iconic expression. A vast range of Buddhist symbols are found in temples and in Buddhist art and literature, each conveying an important aspect of the teachings or referencing significant events in the life of the Buddha.
Among the most common figures are the lotus flower representing purity, the wheel representing the eight-fold path, the stupa symbolizing the universe, the triple gem representing the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, the parasol symbolizing protection, the banner symbolizing victory over the senses, the deer representing the Buddha’s first sermon in the deer park near Benares, and the Naga – protector of the Buddha and the Dharma.
They appear in virtually every Buddhist temple and serve as visual mantras that can be used in contemplation to penetrate the deepest meanings of Buddhist wisdom. Mudras are gestures or hand positions frequently seen in Buddhist art and signify a range of expressions or intentions as detailed in the chart to the left.
The most frequent mudra seen in Southeast Asia Buddhist images is the ‘earth witnessing mudra’ or Bhumisparsha Mudra. This popular mudra depicts the Buddha calling the Earth goddess, Sthavara, to witness his enlightenment by touching the ground with his right hand, while the left hand rests, palm upturned in the lap. Of all Asian antiques, Buddhist Art must be among the most precious, with it’s profound significance and serving as beautiful reminder of the possibility of the liberated human being; Siddhartha’s burning quest to attain freedom, beyond fear and desire, was fully realized, thereby providing inspiration to all of us.
Antique Burmese Lacquerware
Of the many forms that Asian antiques can take, antique Burmese lacquerware may represent the most most ambitious in the category of utilitarian objects, especially in terms of the patience and skill required to create each piece. The oldest confirmed piece of Burmese laquerware is dated 1284AD, however it didn’t evolve into a serious art form for another 100 years or so, and is thought to have reached its zenith in the town of Bagan during the Kon-Baung period (1752-1885).
Featured in the photograph to the right is an antique hsun-ok, one of the most impressive of all forms of Burmese lacquerware. The hsun-ok is a large stupa shaped vessel (top of a temple) used for presenting food to a Buddhist monastery, and in the past, to members of the royal court. There are a number of subtle variations in the design and may feature incised decoration. Hsun-Ok make a striking addition to home decor.
There are several demanding stages to lacquerware production, starting with the base object in bamboo or wood, followed by the application of a layer of paste consisting of lacquer and sawdust, which was left to dry for at least 10 days in an underground brick cellar. Once cured, the object is polished and the process repeated several times, with ash replacing the sawdust in the final layers until a last coat of the finest quality lacquer is applied, providing a deep black, lustrous surface that is waterproof. Lacquer is naturally black, and other colors are attained using cinnabar (red) from China, orpiment (yellow) from the Shan states, and green by combining yellow with indigo. Blue was derived from indigo- usually obtained from India. The art of achieving precisely the desired color, particularly the classic red/orange, remained a closely guarded secret among lacquerware artisans. Surface embellishments were then added using a sharp iron stylus that created grooves which were then filled with pigmented lacquer or gold leaf in successive stages, with long drying times between the addition of each color before being polished. Popular motifs in Burmese lacquerware include floral designs, human and animal figures, temples, and repeating circular patterns as well as figures from the ancient Chinese zodiac. Lacquerware can assume a remarkable variety of forms from simple everyday objects to artworks of religious significance. Complicated pieces would require several months of devoted work until deemed ready for market.
Antique Bronze Bells & Opium Weights
Bronze casting was an honored tradition in Burma for centuries, so much so that Burmese culture worships a powerful Nat spirit guardian in the form of a blacksmith — Mahagiri Nat, Nga Tin-de (Mr Handsome) — a blacksmith of extraordinary strength and skill who was killed by a jealous king.
Legend suggests, “He wielded two hammers; with his right hand he held an iron hammer weighing fifty viss, and with his left hand he held another hammer weighing twenty-five viss. When Nga Tin-de worked his smithy and when he used his hammers against the anvil, the whole city quaked and trembled.” (Maung Htin Aung, Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism). The Burmese were adept at bronze casting using the lost wax method or cire perdue, producing a variety of bronze works that included items of everyday use such as bronze bells and opium weights. The nature of the work was hot, dusty and malodorous, so foundries and smithies were located on the outskirts of town in open sided bamboo shelters.
The wonderful Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon holds a famous bronze temple bell, the Maha Ganda, weighing 23 tons. In 1825, the British attempted to steal it, but overcome by its immense size and weight, dropped it in the Rangoon River, later to be retrieved by the Burmese and reinstated to its proper home in the pagoda. Small handsome bronze bells bearing inscriptions and various motifs were once common in Burma and included temple bells, elephants bells, buffalo bells, and horse bells. Antique bronze bells have become popular Asian antiques, and when mounted on a stand, make for an uncommon and interesting decorative piece.
Opium weights have become a most sort after international collectible thanks to their fascinating history, seemingly endless variations, exceptional casting and decoration, and the ability to estimate their age/period based on the particular features of individual weights. While they were certainly used to weigh opium, their use was far wider, and included weighing precious metals and gems, medicines, and other items of significant value.
The royal animal weights were made using the lost wax technique, which may have reached Burma through Bengal or Yunnan. Great care was taken when measuring the volume of molten alloy used in casting to ensure that the reputed weight was accurate. The weights and measures system was subject to the scrutiny of the king, who after assuming the throne, had a master set of weights made in the style of his choosing. These weights were kept in the Hlut-taw (Supreme Council of State) and citizens were expected to ensure that the weights they used conformed to the standard weights. In Burma, by far the most common forms were the beast weight, a mythical lion like creature representing the Bodhisattva (compassionate enlightened one), and the bird weight, representing spiritual purity and gentleness. Bronze animal weights were also cast in Laos and Siam in the 12 forms of the Chinese zodiac, though they tended to be less accurate than Burmese weights.
Hmong Tribal Textiles & Antique Silver Jewelry
Among the Hmong minority hill tribe people of Laos and Vietnam, it was once said that a tiny needle, strands of bright thread, lengths of cloth, and the genius of a Hmong woman were the ingredients of some of the finest needlework in the world. They would skillfully adorn the clothes of all family members with a great variety of ancient designs that indicated the sub-group to which they belonged – White Hmong, Striped Hmong, as well as Red, Blue, and Black Hmong. A mother would patiently devote weeks to stitching one pair of tiny slippers for her baby with intricate needlework and colorful designs. Antique Hmong textiles look wonderful displayed on a wall in the home.
Hmong silver jewelry is also created in harmony with a unique and deeply held world view. During ‘the naming ceremony’, a silver neck ring is given to a Hmong baby to assert that the baby belongs to the human world. To the Hmong, silver symbolizes not just wealth but the essence of a good life. ‘Soul lock pendants’ are presented during ‘curing ceremonies’ to lock the restless soul to the body and prevent the possibility of premature ‘accidental’ death. In recent times, the Hmong report dissatisfaction with commercially available silver, citing problems with luster, tone, and malleability. Antique Hmong silver jewelry is, without exception, better crafted and of a higher silver content than pieces being produced today, which are often silver plated only.
Naga & Chin Tribal Textiles
The Naga people of north-west Burma and north-east India also have a rich tradition of textile weaving that incorporates symbolic motifs, indicating tribal belonging and status. Embroidery was done with a porcupine needle and the cotton or hemp cloth was dyed with mahogany, indigo, and other natural dyes. Antique Naga textiles are exceedingly rare nowadays. Nagaland is pursuing a policy of economic and social ‘modernization’ and ancient traditions are fading into obscurity. Antique Chin textiles produced on a hand loom from Chin State in Burma are also scarce, however in villages, small quantities of handmade textiles of very high quality continue to be produced and are coveted by collectors of textiles. Tribal textiles from the Chin and Naga lend a warm and organic ambiance to a room and can be used as wall hangings or runners to good effect.
Lao Silk Textiles
There is a wealth of ancient symbolism found in Asian antiques that embraces animism, Buddhism, Taoism, and astrology. Motifs found on Laotian silk textiles, for example, include the Naga, Garuda, ancestor figures, stars, flowers, temple stupas, and elephants to name a few. In the past, these symbols reflected the Lao people’s world view, and their inclusion on garments gave the wearer a sense of identity as well as feeling of being protected from misfortune and the vicissitudes of life. Centuries spent perfecting the cultivation of silk has resulted in the thread used in Laos being of a consistently high quality. The processes involved in producing a complex silk shawl are long and arduous. From preparing the raw silk and adding dyes, to patiently weaving detailed motifs on a wooden hand loom, several months of daily dedication are required. While there are still silk textiles of excellent quality created in Laos, antique and vintage silk pieces are softer to the touch and have a different aesthetic quality that many find preferable to new pieces.
This information presented here obviously represents but a small sample of the various forms of Asian Antiques originating in Southeast Asia. We invite you to browse our humble online gallery to see other artifacts currently on offer and if there is something that you seek that is not listed, just let us know and we will endeavor to find it for you.
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