Patterns, pride and prejudice: comparative study of patterns and motifs across the Indo-Pacific

Linda Ai Wah Cheok

Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis

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The quest to find a common visual language across the Indo-Pacific is the
focus of this project, which combines a written dissertation with an
exhibition of exploratory artworks. The scope of the written thesis covers
the ornament of China, Japan and Singapore, with Peranakan artistic
traditions of Singapore as the pivot of the comparative study. Peranakan
artistic traditions have been chosen as the pivot because I am part
Peranakan and would like to see a revival of the culture that is currently in
decline, or at least, an active remembering of my heritage. As such, at the
heart of this thesis is a detailed study of the motifs on some ceramic items
of Peranakan origin held in private collections and how the symbolic
interpretation of these motifs provides access to Peranakan traditions.
Other countries in the Indo-Pacific have been represented in the creative
component through artworks that explore and intertwine the various artistic
cultures of the region.

“Pride and Prejudice” the other half of the project title is a wry take on
Jane Austen’s novel of the same moniker. It takes into account the
influence British imperialism has wielded over the fortunes and culture of
the Peranakan Chinese in Singapore during the Colonial era. In this
dissertation, ‘pride’ also refers to artisanal pride in mastering the requisite
skills of the various craft trades, and ‘prejudice’, to the perceived inferiority
of crafts when compared against the fine arts. An argument is advanced
throughout the dissertation that as the motifs and patterns that have been
applied to Asian artefacts carry secret meanings that can be interpreted by
people of the particular cultures in question, these craftsmen or their
commissioning patrons are not being merely decorative, but have imbued
their work with thought, creating art with content in the contemporary
Western sense. These twin elements of ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice’ have thus
been woven into the fabric of the dissertation.

This thesis moves through three chapters in a narrative style, starting with
an auto-ethnographic approach in the first chapter dealing with issues of
identity, heritage and hybridity that I have experienced as a member of the
Peranakan Chinese diaspora from Singapore living in Perth and Japan.
In writing about my Singaporean Peranakan Chinese heritage, I am giving
a portrait of a particular kind of society: superstitious, commercial, and of
mixed British and Chinese influence. Tracing my genealogical roots and
recounting the lives of my forebears gives me a portal to the past and of a
culture that has changed. All these factors have impacted my studio
practice as my work often interrogates the idea of cultural and personal
identity and incorporates the colour and symbols of traditional Asian art in
order to discover a personal artistic style or oeuvre.

The second chapter deals with the sharing of common symbols by
Peranakan, Chinese and Japanese cultures through a shared logographic
written script and through horizontal and vertical transmission of cultural
traits. It also touches on the importance of art symbolism and aesthetics of
the three primary cultures in my dissertation.

Chapter Three is a detailed study of motifs on a quintessentially
Peranakan collection of ceramic ware. Items from one collection belonging
to a member of the Peranakan Chinese diaspora in Perth are featured in
this chapter. The meanings of the various motifs found on these
Peranakan wares have been explicated through folk beliefs and folklore,
while nuances in meanings and the usage of similar motifs in Japanese
and Chinese culture have also been discussed. The Afterword concludes
the dissertation by weighing up how successful the initial quest to
establish a common visual language has been; whether there is in fact an
existing body of symbols with similar interpretive meanings that is already
commonly shared between the three cultures and whether sharing such a
common language would actually translate into better economic, social
and political ties for the region.

The practical component of the degree closely aligns this theoretical
enquiry with artworks that probe questions of cultural identity, hybridity,
heritage and diaspora through the language of symbolic motifs in a variety
of media ranging from the artisanal craft end of batiks and ceramics
through to fine art paintings on Belgian linen mounted supports, electronic
media, and installation art. But first it is necessary to situate myself in
relation to the knowledge that is my subject.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Western Australia
  • Tarry, Jon, Supervisor
  • Read, Richard, Supervisor
Award date14 Jun 2016
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


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