- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

Despite its off-putting title, “Taking Shape: Ceramics in Southeast Asia,” the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s exhibit of 200 pots from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Burma, is a surefire winner.”Why?” viewers may ask. The answer: because there’s incredible variety and beauty in these 200 fired clay pots and jars made for everyday use over 4,000 years. The ruby-red walls surrounding the brown, blue, green and red vessels are a brilliant Sackler exhibit-designer touch.

Donated to the museum by brothers Osborne “Bud” and Victor Hauge and their wives, Gratia and Takako, these ceramics show the migration from “makers” to “users” — i.e., the makers of mainland Southeast Asia and the users there and elsewhere — as Louise Cort, the exhibit’s curator, calls them.

In fact, many of these “user” pots traveled as far afield as Japan and Turkey by land and water.

The Hauge brothers, who recently gave their private Hauge Collection of Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia to the Sackler, fell in love with Asian pottery during their military service with the U.S. occupation forces in Japan in the late 1940s. Osborne Hauge, who also worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, later settled in Thailand with his wife, Gratia, where they collected objects of daily use.

Victor and Takako visited often, and it was from these journeys that ceramics from Thailand and Vietnam joined the holdings.

Ms. Cort laid out the exhibition in three sections: “Earthenware and Stoneware, Two Halves of the Ceramic Whole”; “Local and Exotic: Southeast Asian Ceramic Styles”; and “From Maker to User: Local, Regional, International.” Photomurals and maps help clarify the divisions, which can be challenging.

Viewers entering from the Freer to “Earthenware and Stoneware” first see a bulging earthenware cooking pot with carved paddle impressions and a much larger, vertically configured stoneware jar behind it. The two lead to cases with samples of each type.

According to the caption label, earthenware’s firing at lower temperatures (1,112 to 1,832 Fahrenheit) allows for porosity and heating over an open fire without shattering. The porosity creates cool drinking water through evaporation as well.

On the other hand, stoneware is fired at a higher temperature (1,832 to 2,372 Fahrenheit) and becomes dense, hard and nonporous, making it suitable for storing liquids without seepage.

Stoneware ceramics from many countries and periods fill the “Using Stoneware” case at left. A photomural of a woman with rounded earthenware pots plus an accompanying short video clarify the kinds of ceramics to come.

In “Local and Exotic,” ceramic shapes from both India and China — mainland Southeast Asia is a 75,000-square-mile crossroads between them — are the stars. India and China introduced new ideas about form, glaze and decoration.

“From Maker to User” traces vanished networks of trade and written communication to sites as varied as the next village or river, or across an ocean.

Evidently, trade began early from what is now Thailand. Two prehistoric Bronze Age and Iron Age pots, decorated with red-and-white swirls in what Ms. Cort calls the “Ban Chiang tradition” (300 B.C. to A.D. 200) are among the exhibit’s finest and rarest.

The Ban Chiang Archaeological Site in Northeast Thailand — on the UNESCO World Heritage list — is one of the most important and earliest Southeast Asian prehistoric sites. The ceramicists there produced pots they traded locally. Much later, the celadon glazing technique — an iron-reduction process — arrived from China. It is seen here in a shimmering blue-green Thai dish.

There is more to come. There are plans to show modern versions of these works at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, in the Mekong River: Connecting Cultures section. Descendants of the current exhibit’s potters will be on hand to demonstrate these continuing skills.

WHAT: “Taking Shape: Ceramics in Southeast Asia”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through 2010

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB: www.asia.si.edu


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