Indonesian Gold

Indonesian Gold
Treasures from the National Museum, Jakata

Queensland Art Gallery
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 1999

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

An edited version of this preview was first published in The Courier-Mail - Saturday 13 February 1999

Gold items from Wonoboyo hoard, Indonesia"THE island of Java, once known to the ancients as the golden island," writes historian Kalpana Kartik of the Indonesian province, "is today a living treasury of great archaeological findings."

Over the last two centuries, a stupendous cornucopia of Indonesian gold and silver objects has been unearthed. The greatest recent discovery of gold treasure was made in October 1990, near Yogyakarta in central Java, in the small village of Wonoboyo, a few kilometres from the renowned temple of Prambanan.

Several village workers were digging in a sugar cane field and struck three sealed terracotta jars. Inside the buried containers was a glittering hoard: over 6,000 gold and silver coins and more than 1,000 ceremonial objects, including bowls and jewellery.

The discovery created excitement in archaeological circles: could Wonoboyo be the site of the lost Javanese palace of the ancient Mataram kingdom? The palace dated from the glorious ninth and tenth centuries of central Java's history, which marked the merging of Hinduism and Buddhism, giving birth to the great temples of Borobudur and Prambanan.

But while the ornamental style of the Wonoboyo trove resembles the baroque richness of Prambanan art, the physical evidence at the Wonoboyo site was insufficient to link it to the Mataram palace. Nevertheless, excavations revealed regal associations and pinpointed the site as an important, even holy, place, probably a hermitage.

Inscriptions revealed the owner of the Wonoboyo hoard to have been a king, who it is thought -- based on a golden alms bowl found amongst the treasure -- retired from the worldly life to become a Hindu priest. The old king's buried treasure has been dated to the ninth or tenth centuries and the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Some of the objects indeed came from the old Mataram kingdom near Yogyakarta, while the rest came from the Majapahit kingdom in east Java and from other parts of the island. Some of this Wonoboyo hoard -- together with other important Indonesian gold objects -- will be shown soon in Brisbane in a landmark exhibition, 'Indonesian Gold: treasures from the National Museum, Jakarta' at the Queensland Art Gallery. Some 77 precious gold, silver and gem-studded works will travel to Australia for the first time. The show covers a broad sweep of Indonesian history dating from the period of Indian Hindu and Buddhist religious influence (from about the seventh to the fifteenth centuries) and provides insight into the life of the ancient Indonesian kingdoms and their courts and temples.

Gold, the metal of the gods, with its beauty and great value, has long lured merchants and traders to roam the seas of the southern hemisphere. As early as the 3rd century AD, the islands of Indonesia -- Borneo, Java and Sumatra -- known to ancient travellers as the 'golden islands', attracted traders from India and China.

Even earlier, ancient Sumatran deposits were possibly the 'King Solomon's Mine' of Biblical legend. The Old Testament of the Bible (First Book of Kings, 9:26-28 and 10:10-12) records that King Solomon's and King Hiram's men sailed from the Red Sea to a place called Ophir. Some time around 945 BCE, they brought back 420 talents of gold, sandalwood and valuable gemstones which were presented to King Solomon. The location of Ophir (or Ofir) is still not clear, but there is a mountain range called Ophir (Ofir) in Tapanuli, north Sumatra. To the east of Ophir is a mountain called Gunung Amas or 'Mountain of Gold'-- which has also been recorded historically as 'King Solomon's Mine'.

But while winds of avarice may have blown King Solomon's sailors and other seafaring merchants to the shores of the Indonesian archipelago, as Michael Brand, curatorial manager at the QAG and the exhibition's co-curator, points out, for the Indonesians, gold was invariably associated with objects of reverence and special significance. "Indonesia's gold was used to make objects for the princely dynasties, or 'kratons', and their courts and temples," explains Brand. "The word the Indonesians use to describe these gold objects, 'pusaka', means an often sacred heirloom."

"Objects like the elaborately decorated krises were not only national weapons, but had ceremonial and religious significance, conveying an almost magical power on individual rulers. For the Indonesians, these precious objects are the equivalent of Britain's crown jewels and represent the absolute cream of Indonesia's national heritage collection."

Ceremonial gold dipper. National Museum of IndonesiaBrand's exhibition -- co-curated with QAG deputy director, Caroline Turner and French consultant curator, Maude Girard-Geslan -- will display statues, bowls and dippers, krises, plaques, arm bracelets, necklaces, pendants, fabric clasps, earrings and rings in a series of architectural pavilions echoing Indonesian temples and palaces. Moving images projected outside the pavilions will show sites such as Borobudur and how personal jewellery and ritual pieces were made, worn and used.

Most of the objects in the show are of exquisite detail and modest size, creating an absorbing feast for the eye. There's 'Shiva and Parvati' -- an exquisite sculpted duo of Hindu gods only 12cm high -- who stand gravely holding hands, raising their free hands to gently bless their worshippers. And there's an intricately decorated bowl (dexterously fashioned in the techniques of repousse, soldering and chiselling) depicting eight scenes from the Ramayana, the great epic of Indian Sanskrit literature: in one panel, we see the Hindu god Rama hunting deer; and in another, Rama's wife, Sita, is abducted by an evil king.

Because these objects were commissioned by kings, they were made by the best goldsmiths in the islands, and their superb workmanship and carved and beaten decoration marks them as amongst the great culminations of ancient Javanese art.

For Australian viewers, this beautiful exhibition is likely to be an astonishing eye-opener to the little-known traditional artistry, and cosmopolitan blending of ancient cultures, of our nearest neighbour. While Australia has seen many exhibitions of ancient Chinese art over the past two decades and, more recently, has hosted two major Indian art shows, previously there has only been one major touring exhibition of Indonesian art (from the outer islands, not Java) in this country, 'Beyond the Java Sea' (shown at the Queensland Museum in 1993).

The aim of shows like 'Indonesian Gold', says Brand, along with the QAG's Asia-Pacific Triennial (showing contemporary art) later in the year, is to broaden public understanding of the range and depth of cultures in our region. "These shows fill a major gap," says Brand, "though many Australians are interested in Indonesia, for instance, we still know very little about its fantastically rich culture -- the textiles, the gamelan music, the puppetry, as well as the gold and silver objects, and the coming together of Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Indonesian traditions -- and yet it's right on our doorstep."

The gallery is attempting to make the ancient Javanese works as accessible as possible to a wide audience: there will be ample didactic panels explaining what the works are about, and a special pavilion for children, who can have fun playing "dress-ups" in replicas of traditional Indonesian sarongs, hats and arm bands.

"As well as the objects made to be venerated in shrines, temples and palaces, there are also everyday things, like arm bands and belt-buckles, that are meant to be worn," Brand says. "The art is not all esoteric, but about human relationships: you're looking at something which was worn by another person."

'Indonesian Gold: Treasures from the National Museum, Jakarta,' Queensland Art Gallery, March 26 - May 16.  Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, June 4- August 1 1999

Copyright © 1999 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author

Recommended reading: