Bangkok author Dawn F Rooney takes a microscope to the ceramics of Southeast Asia in a new book
Very Few Westerners can pretend to know what happened in Southeast Asia between the 13th to 16th centuries although the art that emerged during this period has longed stirred up passion in collectors and writers the world over. For long-time Bangkok resident, Dawn F Rooney, the treasures of that era are almost an obsession.
In her latest book “Ceramics of Seduction: Glazed Wares from Southeast Asia”, published by River Books, Rooney explores unique ceramics traditions in five Southeast Asian countries: Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. To her the beauty of Southeast Asian ceramics lies in its “simplicity of form, the qualities of the clay and glazes and the restrained decoration”.
Ceramics form part of her 40-year-old love affair with Southeast Asia in general and Thailand in particular. Travelling around the Kingdom in 1971, Rooney was struck by the rich artistic heritage of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai, two major centres for glazed ceramics production in what is now present-day Thailand.
“In 1971, there was only one guidebook on Thailand and we went to different destinations. But Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai captured my attention. While walking in a forest in Si Satchanalai, I realised I was actually stepping on shards of ceramics. From that day on, I vowed to find out what they were,” says Rooney from her home in downtown Bangkok where she also spends part of her time researching another subject dear to her heart: the beauty of classic Thai bencharong ware.
Forty years ago, it was possible to buy ancient ceramics uncovered from the bottom of the Chao Phraya River in Ayutthaya. These pieces formed the early part of her ceramics collection and included precious pristine plates emblazoned with an image of a fish from Sukhothai.
She took these plates to Kasetsart University’s fisheries department to identify the fish and the experts were amazed to find five species of carp featured on the plates. The fish are known to have inhabited the Yom River.
“They must have though this old lady was mad bringing different plates for them to look at,” she recalls, admitting that she is no longer a collector but prefers to research and write about the subject.
“It was an exciting time in Ayutthaya when divers were selling pots uncovered from the river. Ayutthaya glazed ware is quite different the Chinese blue and white. When you handle them, the texture and the weight are so different. They are not perfect either: Every single piece was made by hand. That’s what attracted me,” she says with a grin.
To these untrained eyes, the ceramics featured in the book are all beautiful though the ones from Thailand seem superior to those from neighbouring countries in terms of refinement.
Rooney is quick to point out that it’s not really fair to compare the Thai glazed wares with those created in our neighbouring countries, explaining that the ceramics come in different forms, textures, colours and decorations depending on their origins. They also served particular functions.
The form and function of these wares are linked with most of them made for use as in everyday life, such as rituals and at temples as well as for cooking and storing liquids. Some countries exported their wares; others produced them for mainly local needs.
Up to 280 pieces illustrated in this book are part of the private collection of ceramics devotee Francisco Capelo. Many, especially from betel-chewing Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, are glazed containers of lime, an indispensable ingredient in the 2,000 year-old tradition of betel chewing in Southeast Asia.
To pin down which ceramics tradition is superior to the others is no easy task and collectors constantly disagree, with each defending their own perception of beauty.
“Thailand exported its wares to Indonesia and the Philippines in the 15th and 16th centuries unlike Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, which served the local needs,” she says.
“Thailand showed initiative in building up its ceramics industry and it also enjoyed a lot of exposure to the outside world and influences. Vietnam was an exception. Its ceramics were entirely influenced by Chinese ceramics. So they are very different and it’s impossible to say which one is better, or more beautiful.
Ceramics salvaged from a wreck site near Sumatra were revealed to be of Thai origin. They were probably on their way to Indonesia and the Philippines where they would be bartered for cloth and spices.
Rooney says that most of the 14th to 16th century Burmese, Thai and Lanna ceramics unearthed in Tak’s Omkoi district decades ago now belong to Japanese collectors.
The pieces illustrated in this book reflect the strong Buddhist traditions and beliefs in the region as well as the appreciation of Buddhist symbols, Rooney says.
Her favourites, she admits with a smile, are the ceramics from Cambodia.
“They are so unique, so different. They were never made for export but for local use and religious needs. Many pieces are not in ceramic form but made in three pieces.
“Many of them failed in the firing. Quite a few are fashioned after metal forms, maybe because they ran out of materials or money. The decoration is very minimal. So there’s nothing like them. There’s one that looks like a balloon. It’s perfectly formed. Yet no one has the slightest idea what these pieces were designed to be. Honey pots? Maybe,” she says.
Though much of the ancient ceramics of Thailand belong to private collectors, they do occasionally go on show at the National Museum and Suan Pakkard Palace as well as, unusually, a spa in the Silom Galleria.
* “Ceramics of Seduction: Glazed Wares from Southeast Asia” by Dawn F Rooney is published by River Books and available at Asia Books and other bookstores.
* Find out more at www.RiverBooksBK.com.