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Life, death and magic:
2000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral art

13 August – 31 October 2010 | Exhibition Galleries

Life, death and magic: 2000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral art is the first major exhibition of animist art from Southeast Asia to be held in Australia. The works of art originate from Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, East Timor, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia and southern China. For thousands of years, communities in these areas have created remarkable art expressing the region’s most ancient and enduring spiritual beliefs and social organisation. The exhibition celebrates the antiquity and continuity of animism as the inspiration for exquisite objects in bronze, stone, wood, gold and fibre.

Widespread before the introduction of Hinduism, Buddhism and, later, Islam and Christianity, ancestral and animist beliefs still survive in Southeast Asia, especially in remote islands and isolated mountainous regions. Animism centres on the power of nature spirits and the souls of the dead to intervene malevolently or benevolently in daily life. Beauty and ferocity are equally important in Southeast Asian animist art.

Pleasing designs attract the blessings of the ancestors while grotesque images dispel evil beings. Many objects on display in Life, death and magic are simultaneously appealing and menacing, even macabre.

Communities seek prosperity—abundant herds, successful crops and healthy children—in a precarious physical and supernatural environment, at the mercy of evil spirits and unpredictable forces of nature. Manipulation of magic, close adherence to rituals and the creation of powerful art are all central to pacifying the supernatural world and ensuring cosmic balance. Particular attention is paid to rites associated with important events in the life `cycles of humans and crops.



Planting and harvest, birth, marriage and death are occasions for special ceremonies. Utilitarian and ritual objects—clothing, jewellery, thrones, headhunting weapons, houses, vessels, weaving implements—are elaborately decorated with protective motifs to ensure clan prosperity and village wellbeing. Funerals, in particular, inspire the creation of spectacular works of art. The exhibition includes superbly decorated grave goods, elaborate coffins, fearsome protective funerary sculptures, shrouds and a spectacular array of sculptures and altars in honour of the recently deceased and distant ancestors. Objects used in magic are among the most mysterious in the exhibition and include shamans’ robes, magical staffs, potent amulets, sacred textiles and divination books.


Only on show at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Life, death and magic combines loans from renowned institutions in Asia, Europe, America and Australia with works from the Gallery’s own rich collections of Southeast Asian textiles, gold ornaments and important recent acquisitions of sculpture.



EXHIBITION BOOK beautifully designed hardcover and prolifically illustrated. Read more

$59.95 NGA shop price


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