Front of the Gallery

About the Collection


The Asian Art Collection presents the great aesthetic traditions of the regions encompassing the globe from the Middle East to east Asia, with particular focus on the pre-modern art of Japan, Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East. There is a diverse range of media in the collection, including stone, wood and bronze sculpture, ceramics, textiles, painting, and decorative arts such as lacquer ware. A selection of these works of art is displayed in four dedicated galleries. The thematic displays are rotated regularly to include a wide range of representative works of art. For visitors, there are numerous highlights to be enjoyed in the Asian galleries.

The collection areas of Southeast Asian, Indian and Japanese art are continuing to expand with new acquisitions of major significance. The Gallery of South Australia features Australia’s only permanent display dedicated to Islamic Art.

The Asian art collection at the Art Gallery of South Australia was established in 1904 with a Board of Trustees decision to ‘extend the scope of their Art Department with the view of promoting the knowledge of the technical arts’. Their decision followed a major bequest by Dr Morgan Thomas of £65,000 to be shared by the Public Library, Museum and Gallery. The Board commissioned Mr S.I. Kepple of Bristol, England to purchase over seventy Chinese, and thirty-three Japanese wares, mostly dating from the fourteenth to early twentieth centuries. Photographs of the new Gallery taken in 1913 show some of these ceramics featured on display in cabinets specifically designed for the recently opened building.

Iranian ceramics represented the first Middle East works of art to enter the collection through the bequest of Sir Samuel Way in 1916. These are late nineteenth-century Qajar tile friezes inspired by ancient Persian art. This remarkable Adelaide collector also made a large bequest of Japanese Meiji era decorative arts and the exquisite thirteenth-century Juichimen Kannon.

During the next fifty years, the Asian collection grew rather haphazardly as there was no specialised curatorial position for Asian art and the Gallery was focussed on representing Western traditions of easel painting and sculpture. The small number of Asian acquisitions was mostly Meiji art gifted through bequests from local collectors. In 1940, the Gallery made purchases of Mughal miniature paintings in London with the assistance of the British Museum. In the same year, the Gallery fortuitously purchased the unique Ainu handscroll Scenes of the Ezo fishing grounds by Kodama Teiryo (active c.1751–64) as well as eight Japanese ukiyo-e prints. Two years later the Thirty-six views of Edo by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) were acquired.

The second phase in the development of the Asian art collection commenced in the early 1960s when R. J. Charleston, Deputy Keeper of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum and acting on behalf of the Gallery, purchased a small select group of Chinese and Iranian ceramics. The latter items formed the basis for the development of a comprehensive collection of around sixty-five Middle Eastern ceramics mostly donated by William Bowmore AO OBE.

In the mid 1960s the Gallery sought to broaden the scope of the Asian collection through acquiring Khmer ceramics and sculpture. The Gallery purchased the first Thai ceramics in 1969 with the support of Max Carter AO, who has continued to play an ongoing role in the development of the Asian collections.

In 1969, a review of the Gallery’s collection polices resulted in a commitment to acquiring Southeast Asian trade ceramics and Chinese export wares. The new acquisition policy evolved in response to a growing awareness of the rich heritage of Southeast Asia art and Australia’s location in the region. The result has been the subsequent development of a comprehensive collection of around two hundred and thirty ceramics from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

In the same year, the Gallery created a new curatorial position responsible for European and Australian decorative arts, South Australian and indigenous art, and Asian art. The brief embraced diverse curatorial fields: nevertheless it presented the first opportunity for a systematically planned development of the Asian collection and its display. It only was as recently as 1989 that Asian art became identified as a separate department with a specialist curator.

The three decades from the late 1960s was a significant period in the collection’s history. The Southeast Asian and Chinese ceramic collections continued to expand with the acquisition of definitive examples such as the Swankhalok Temple guardian. In 1977 the Gallery produced its first collection publication on Thai and Khmer wares and during the early 1980s the Gallery, together with the Thai Fine Arts Department (Bangkok) and University of Adelaide, established The Thai Ceramics Dating Project to conduct pioneer field research at archaeological sites in Thailand.

In 1978 Elizabeth and Tom Hunter established a generous capital fund for the purchase of works of art that enabled further acquisitions of Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer ceramics as well as the magnificent sculptures Japanese Amida Nyorai and Sino-Tibetan White Tara. It was during the 1970s to 1990s that sculpture first became a priority and a rare Chinese cast iron Samantabadhra, several Indian stone Jali screens and a ninth-century Javanese temple relief depicting Nandisvara reflect the variety of works collected. This period also saw the gradual development of the Japanese woodblock print collection. The 1986 acquisition of the evocative Autumn landscape with wild geese marked the establishment of the Japanese screen collection. Through the generous continuing support of Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett, this collection now consists of eleven screens dating from the early seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century.

In 2001 the Gallery formulated an acquisition strategy that specifically identified Japan, Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East as the key focus for future growth. The acquisition of great works of arts that define major styles and periods is exemplified in the diversity of acquisitions since 2001. The spectacular development of the Japanese collection is documented in the Gallery’s exhibition publication The Golden Journey: Japanese Art from Australian Collections (2009). The Southeast Asian collection has expanded with examples of the rich heritage of wood carving in the archipelago, epitomised in the South Sumatran Throne rest (sesako). Iconic Indian sculpture acquired since 2001 include the Jain Shri Mallinath and Vijayanagara period Siva nataraja.

From its beginning in 1904 the Asian collection has been built by benefactors whose continuing generosity is ensuring ongoing development. As well as previously acknowledged donors there have been many other important patrons of Asian art. The Canberra diplomat and collector John Watson gave the Gallery his comprehensive collection of Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai ceramics in 1992 and in 1995 R.H. Longden bequeathed his entire collection of Asian art and his extensive library to the Gallery. Two Japanese screens have been acquired through the corporate donors, Mitsubishi Motors Ltd and Dai-Ichi Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Since 1998 Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett have most generously supported the development of the Japanese art collection which now includes masterworks such as the thirteenth-century Descent of the Amida Trinity, the seventeenth-century pair of screens Seto Inland sea map: Osaka to Nagasaki sea route, Hakuin Ekaku (1689–1769) They kick when fired … and the spectacular Pair of temple guardians [nio]. The Adelaide collectors Dr Brian and Mrs Barbara Crisp have enabled the Gallery’s collection of Japanese woodblock prints to become amongst the foremost in Australia.

Michael Abbott QC’s interest in Southeast Asian and Indian art has inspired gifts that number several hundred sculptures, textiles, ceramics, metal objects and decorated manuscripts, donated since 1976. Among the outstanding works are the Javanese ninth-century Kala and Batak Mortuary puppet (si gale gale) as well as the Gallery’s definitive collection of Indian trade textiles dated from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries.

The enthusiastic commitment of Barrie and Judith Heaven to promoting Indian and Islamic art to Australian audiences has ensured that the Gallery’s collection contains a number of rare objects, including Celestial globe inscribed hijrah 1195 (1780–81), a heterodox Mughal portrait, Prophet Muhammad riding the bouraq steed, and the monumental Chettinad Door.

Diana Ramsay AO, Mary Abbott, Geoffrey Hackett-Jones, Lesley Lynn, and Jamie Simpson and Judy Wheeler have also supported the acquisition of unique and outstanding individual works that have contributed to the Gallery’s comprehensive representation of the artistic heritage of the Asia.