Sydney Asian Art Series

Sydney Ideas, The University of Sydney's China Studies Centre, The Power Institute and VisAsia, with support from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, are proud to present the Sydney Asian Art Series for 2018.

The Sydney Asian Art Series presents leading international voices on early, modern and contemporary Asian art.

The images of intense urbanisation that commonly depict contemporary life in China, India or Southeast Asia, for example, easily obscure the fact that most of the largest, most cosmopolitan and prosperous urban centres globally have historically been Asian. 

Past talks in this series

Gilded glass bottles blown in India and porcelain flasks produced in Japan circulated around the Indian Ocean, filled with aromatic oils and packaged in custom-made boxes. These fragrant items were doled out as gifts by the Dutch East India Company, distributed to gain commercial leverage with high-profile recipients across an arena that stretched from the mountains of Ethiopia to the Qing Emperor’s court. This lecture follows these intriguing items from their diverse places of manufacture to their points of distribution and demonstrates their strategic power as bestowals.

This event was held at the University of Sydney on Wednesday 17 October 2018.


Nancy Um is Professor in the Department of Art History at Binghamton University. She received her PhD in art history from UCLA in 2001. Her research explores the Islamic world from the perspective of the coast, with a focus on material, visual, and built culture on the Arabian Peninsula and around the rims of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Her book The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade and Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port(University of Washington Press, 2009) relies upon a cross-section of visual, architectural, and textual sources to present the early modern coastal city of Mocha as a space that was nested within wider world networks, structured to communicate with far-flung ports and cities across a vast matrix of exchange. Her recent book, Shipped but not Sold: Material Culture and the Social Order of Trade during Yemen’s Age of Coffee(University of Hawai’i Press, 2017), explores the material practices and informal social protocols that undergirded the overseas trade in 18thC Yemen. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of the Society of Architectural HistoriansAfrican ArtsNortheast African StudiesJournal of Early Modern HistoryGenre: Forms of Discourse and CultureArt History, and Getty Research Journal. She has received research fellowships from the Fulbright program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Getty Foundation, and the American Institute for Yemeni Studies.

In 1611, the East India Company in London planned a voyage to Japan, hoping finally to read that rich and fabled land. An appropriate gift was selected for the Japanese ruler, and when one of the ships duly arrived in 1613, Tokugawa Ieyasu was presented with a large, silver-gilt telescope, in the name of King James. It was the first telescope ever to leave Europe and the first built as a presentation object. Before news of this success was reported home, the English sent another ship, this time loaded with oil paintings and prints.

Screech's talk will investigate the reasons for the Company's interest in Japan, for the selection of these unexpected items, and for their impact in Japan.

This event was held at the University of Sydney on Thursday 23 August 2018.


Timon Screech is a professor of the history of art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is a specialist in the art and culture of early modern Japan. In 1985, Timon Screech received a BA in Oriental Studies (Japanese) at the University of Oxford. In 1991, he completed his PhD in art history at Harvard University, since which he has been at SOAS; and he has also been visiting professor at the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, and guest researcher at Gakushuin and Waseda universities in Tokyo. He had recently completed a book on the early history of the English East India Company, and its first sailings to Japan (1613–26), and is now writing the Oxford History of Japanese Art.

In the Spring of 1938, an Indian dancer, Ram Gopal, posed in a variety of fantastical costumes for the American photographer, Carl Van Vechten, in New York City. Studying the resulting series of 100 remarkable, large-size photographs, this lecture by Professor Ajay Sinha builds an illustrated story of mutual fascination and transcultural exchanges triggered by the camera placed between the dancer and the photographer during the photoshoot.

This event was held at the University of Sydney on Tuesday 29 May 2018.


Ajay Sinha is Professor of Art History, Asian Studies, and Film Studies programs at Mount Holyoke College, U.S.A. As a specialist of South Asian visual and material culture, his research areas include the history of ancient religious architecture, as well as modern and contemporary art, photography and film in India. His scholarship and teaching are informed by post-colonial theories, perspectives on global modernities, as well as critical media and technology studies. Publications include Imagining Architects: Creativity in Indian Temple Architecture (2000), and a volume of essays on Indian film, co-edited with Raminder Kaur, titled Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens (2005). His current, book-length work relates to transcultural photography, and tells a story of the interactions between Ram Gopal and Carl Van Vechten.

The Chinese painter known to Europeans as “Lam Qua” was one of the most well-documented artisans working in the port of Guangzhou in the early 19th century. A practitioner of studio portraiture who painted many Europeans and Americans in oil on canvas, he has been portrayed variously as a mere servant to the British painter George Chinnery, a cool operator of an international port market, or a precocious appropriator of European artistic techniques and styles. While very little historical Chinese records have been found to clarify Lam Qua’s biography, he left a fascinating corpus of paintings—including both originals and copies—for us to examine. What can we learn about Lam Qua from his work? Was he an early exemplar of modern art in China, or a mere copyist of European pictures? And how does learning about Lam Qua’s stature alter, in turn, how we might see his work?

This event was held on Saturday 28 April 2018.


Winnie Wong is a historian of modern and contemporary art and visual culture, with a special interest in fakes, forgeries, frauds, copies, counterfeits, and other non-art challenges to authorship and originality. Her research is based in the southern Chinese cities of Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and her writing engages with Chinese and Western aesthetics, anthropology, intellectual property law, and popular culture. She is the author of Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade (University of Chicago Press, 2014), which was awarded the Joseph Levenson Book Prize in 2015. Her articles have appeared in positions: asia critiques, the Journal of Visual Culture, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, and she has written for Omagiu, Third Text Asia, and Artforum. Winnie was a Senior Fellow at Dartmouth College, and received her SMArchS and PhD in History, Theory and Criticism from MIT. She was elected a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows. She is currently Associate Professor of Rhetoric and History of Art at the University of Berkeley.

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