Follow the directions below at your own pace to discover 24 fascinating artworks, artefacts, objects and specimens across all four floors of the Chau Chak Wing Museum.
Robert Indiana, Love
Love is Robert Indiana's best known work, consisting of 4 upper-case letters arranged in a square with a tilted letter "O". It has taken many forms, originally part of a series of poems written in 1958, eight years later it was printed as part of an exhibition poster in green and blue, then made into a series of monumental sculptures. In 1973 the US Postal Service issued it as a postage stamp. Indiana, who was also a designer confessed that it was his partner, the major American artist Ellsworth Kelly, to whom he owed everything “he introduced me to Hard-Edge, and was a great influence on my work, and is responsible for my being here." The print was a gift from the architects Penelope and Harry Seidler who, from the 1960s on, collected major contemporary works for their architectural projects.
These 14 eclectus parrot skins were collected from Papua New Guinea as study specimens during the 1875 Chevert expedition. Funded and organised by William John Macleay, the birds were collected and prepared by George Masters, Macleay’s private curator and collector.
Of all parrots the eclectus parrot has the most distinct colour difference between the sexes. This marked sexual dimorphism was so unusual that even as recently as the early 20th century the male (green) and female (red) were thought to be different species.
In the context of Object Art Specimen, (and specifically, the theme Sex, love, and death), the distinctive attribute of the eclectus parrot plumage is used as a comment upon gender assumptions and stereotyping. Perhaps it’s a case of not judging a bird by its feathers?
This oversized ceramic vessel was made in around 750BC and is a grave marker in the shape of a krater, the type of bowl used for mixing wine with water. Decorated in the geometric style the main scene depicts a funerary procession with the deceased laying on a funerary bier under a chequerboard pattern shroud. Chariots with soldiers are at either end of the procession and all around are mourners tearing their hair out, a symbol of grief in ancient Athenian art. It has been reconstructed from several fragments found in the ancient cemetery of Athens, the Kerameikos, near the Dipylon gate, which was from the classical period (5th century BC) the monumental entrance into the ancient city.
Fragment of the Henbury meteorite, with a small cut and polished section. The Henbury meteorite is a nickel-iron meteorite classified as an octahedrite.The Henbury meteorite fell to Earth approximately 4700 years ago in hundreds of fragments and creating around a dozen craters at what is now Henbury cattle station, Central Australia. The largest crater is over 180m wide. Scientists first visited the site in 1931. The craters and fall hold cultural significance for several of the region’s Aboriginal communities. The largest fragment ever recovered from the Henbury craters site weighed over 100kg. This specimen weighs 3.78kg.
Pacific Islanders were the first great explorers of the Pacific Ocean. They developed detailed knowledge of the sea and maritime skills and equipment that enabled them to navigate over great distances. Niue Island lies over 600km from its nearest neighbour, Tonga.
Conchologist (shell collector) John William Brazier acquired this model outrigger canoe at Niue Island during a visit there on the HMS Curacoa; part of an 1865 voyage that included stops at Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and the Solomon Islands in a flag-flying show of British colonial interest. For close to 100 years Niue was referred to as Savage Island by the British following failed attempts by Captain James Cook to land there in 1774.
The life-sized sculpture of the Greek god Hermes was made in the first or second century AD and is a copy of an earlier sculpture, from the Hellenistic period that has not survived history. It was found in a river near Izmir, in modern day Turkey, where the water over at least 1500 years has worn away the marble surface. Roman copies of Classical and Hellenistic sculpture are very common, often recreating metal sculpture, which is a readily recycled material, in marble that endures through the ages. The Nicholson Hermes was originally acquired George Macleay, third son of Alexander Macleay, who gave it to Sir Charles Nicholson in 1881 who was then living in England. It was donated to the Nicholson Collection, by Nicholson’s three sons in memory of their father in 1935.
Garagi (bark bucket)
This water or sometimes honey carrier is made from paperbark, plant fibre, pigments and is sealed with a natural resin which makes the container waterproof. Everyday utensils such as these were in widespread use across many regions in Australia but rarely remain intact without deliberate preservation. According to Worrorra peoples oral histories, bark buckets such as this Garagi are sometimes depicted being carried by ancestral Wandjina beings and are sometimes depicted in rock art sites across the Worrorra lands in the Kimberley region of western Australia.
JW Power, Femme a l'ombrelle
Power’s 1926 painting is of a contemporary Parisian woman seated with a drink in a garden café holding a sunshade, all curves and pointy heels. The painting’s ambitious scale, almost a metre and a half high, has an exaggerated vertical format favoured by Power for his complex compositions composed by rotating geometric units according to an underlying geometry. Like any cubist painting, the viewer must pull-together clues, for instance a chair is made from fragments of green webbing, a single leg and the schematic outlines of a back. His palette of complimentary colours of red and green, zig-zags down the surface in sharp, thin lines, counter-balanced by black, white and brown forms. This provides the scaffolding for the white figure of La femme, spun out of a series of arcs and angles bordered by ectoplasmic lace. La Femme a L’Ombrelle appeared the year after it was painted in the Bulletin L’Effort Moderne, No 32, 1927, the journal of the leading Parisian gallerist, Leonce Rosenberg. It was probably Fernand Leger who had put his promising student in touch with this illustrious company.
Yalamarti (bark painting)
This bark painting is a small section of a much larger wet season bark shelter which were commonly used across Northern parts of Australia during the summer months. Among one of the earliest surviving Aboriginal bark paintings, these were collected on Iwaidja land at Port Essington, a small and short-lived colonial settlement on the northern tip of Western Arnhem Land. According to Iwaidja elders, the area was a gathering place for many clans and is home to an incredibly rich artistic tradition produced on ephemeral materials.
This wide cup with horizontal handles is known as a kylix and was made for drinking wine. On each side are two large apotropaic eyes which as one lifts the cup to their lips would rise up becoming like a mask for the drinker. Masks, like wine and theatre were associated with the transformative cult of Dionysos. In the centre of the cup is a Gorgoneion, the face of the mythical Gorgon with a wide smile and tongue poking out. Medusa was the most famous of the Gorgons, whose stare could turn a viewer to stone. Eye cups with Gorgoneion interiors were very popular in Athens in the 6th century BC.
Small square cut pieces of stone and glass, known as tesserae, are carefully laid to recreate the multicoloured plumage of a peacock with a laurel branch in its talons in this late Roman (circa 4th century AD) mosaic. Peacocks were a favourite subject in the lavish mosaics of Roman villas and later in Christian basilicas where the symbolism of the Bacchian afterlife was commonly co-opted into early Christian decorative schemes. Peafowls, native to Southeast Asia, were introduced to the Mediterranean centuries before the Roman period. To the Romans they were a luxury item kept exotic pets in villa gardens, given as extravagant gifts, or even eaten at lavish banquets.
Granodiorite head of Ramesses II
This colossal statue fragment is of the Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II who reigned over Egypt for 66 years between c. 1279-1213 BC, much longer than any other Egyptian ruler. He died aged 92 with over 100 children. The sculpture was originally made for one of Ramesses II predecessors, most likely Amenhotep III (ruled c. 1390–1352 BC), and was re-carved to resemble Ramesses II. Tool marks around the mouth, chin and cheeks are evidence of this reuse. Ramesses II also has his name carved into the back pillar of the statue.
Read from the right, this coffin panel depicts the deceased on their journey after death into the afterlife accompanied by the god of mummification, Anubis. The central vignette demonstrates the weighing of the heart, where one’s soul is judged to determine their eternal fate. It was most likely made in the first or second centuries AD and demonstrates the continuity of ancient Egyptian belief systems, even after the Romanisation of the region. This is just one side of a coffin. The other side is in the Mediterranean archaeological museum of Marseilles, France. The artefact was purchased by Sir Charles Nicholson when visiting Egypt in the 1850s, and while it might seem unusual by today’s standards, objects like coffins that were highly decorated were often divided and sold as individual pieces during this period.
This fresco was painted some 3300 years ago as part of a large floor of a water court at the Maru-Aten, a palatial sun temple dedicated to the daughter of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, Meritaten. It depicts a series of water plants and if you look closely you can see that the surface of the fresco is marked by impressions of reed baskets and cloths, left by the painter as they worked. The Maru-Aten was located in the ancient city of Amarna, founded by Akhenaten. Akhenaten radically reorganised Egyptian society, including shifting religious worship from a broad spectrum of gods to a single focus, Aten, the sun.
The mirrored boxes of sherds installed in Impressions of Greece represent over 2000 years of ancient Greek pottery. They were collected by William J Woodhouse, former curator of the Nicholson Collection, 1903-1937, from the archaeological sites he visited captured in the Woodhouse photographic archive. They were surface finds, debris from history scattered across the landscape, often evidence for the density of previous occupation and the layers of history that are preserved in the earth below. Woodhouse’s sherd collection numbers around 600 items, collected with the purpose of teaching archaeology and ancient history at the University of Sydney. While it was common in the early 20th century for objects like these to be collected and transported to western collections, it is now illegal to do so. Cultural heritage is protected around the world and artefacts must stay within their country of origin and shouldn’t be picked up from where they are found.
Roof decoration is an important element of classical Chinese architecture, serving both protective and decorative functions. Roof figures were typically placed on the ridgeline of the official buildings of the Chinese empire. They support the joint of the ridge and are also decorative symbols of power and status. This roof figure of an official on a galloping horse blesses career promotion. ‘On a horse’ in Mandarin Chinese is mashang, which also means ‘immediately’. Playing on this pun, the household expresses wishes for a prosperous official career.
The University’s first Chancellor, Sir Charles Nicholson left the University a great legacy of precious objects, including magnificent tapestries, one of which hangs in the Great Hall, ceremonial silverware and several large oil paintings, amongst them this 17th century portrait of a Sea Captain. It has languished in the stores since then as the accumulated grime of centuries on its surface made the painting almost impossible to see. After extensive conservation work the seafarer is revealed in all his splendour, clothed in a magnificent grey cloth suit fringed with elaborate silver lace and patterned stockings. Beside him, highlighted on a deep red tablecloth is a Jannson globe of Mar del Zvr (Sea of the South) dated c.1650. It was the earliest Dutch chart of the Pacific showing a sketchy outline of the Americas, though the coast line of Australia is yet to be mapped.
Daniel Boyd, untitled
This painting is from a series of works created as a result of the artist’s three month residency at the Natural History Museum in London, in 2011. It depicts a Micronesian navigation chart, commonly referred to as a ‘stick map’, from the British Museum’s collection. Boyd’s ancestors came from a region near Cooktown in far north Queensland, an area where Captain Cook sought refuge while his ship the Endeavour was being repaired in 1770. The implications of the white settlement of Australia on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has deeply impacted on his own personal history. This type of chart is known as a ‘rebbelib’, created by the Marshall Islanders as a way of navigating between their 34 coral atolls. Created out of thin strips of split coconut leaf or pandanus root bound together with coconut sennit, the geometric patterns depict sea currents; the small cowrie shells or coral pebbles indicate islands; and the curved sticks represent wave patterns. Daniel Boyd replaces lines with luminescent dots that disrupt the image; the negative spaces blur the subject. In this way his work represents loss of knowledge since of colonisation.
Cypriot bird bowl
This ceramic vase is decorated in the so-called ‘free-field’ style popular on the island in which birds were depicted high on the front of large jugs as if they have just taken flight. One can imagine this bird soaring above our heads.
Representations of birds on ceramics were common on Cyprus in antiquity, particularly during the Cypro-Geometric and Archaic periods (c. 900-500 BC). Using matt black and red paints in the contemporary Cypriot artistic tradition, artists depicted birds in highly stylised outlined form, with hatched or cross-hatched bodies and solid painted wings and tails; at once both ancient and contemporary. Cyprus is home to more than 370 species of birds, but more significantly also lies on a major north–south migration route between Africa and Eastern Europe, meaning more than two hundred species regularly migrate over the island.
Ivory furniture inlay plaque from Fort Shalmaneser, Nimrud
Nimrud was the capital city of Assyria for much of the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Thousands of exquisite ivory fragments such as this plaque (NM59.3) once adorned luxury wooden furniture as fittings or inlays.
The ivories were probably carved by Phoenician craftsmen in Lebanon and brought to Nimrud as booty from military campaigns or tribute. Their iconography shows regional influences combining Assyrian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian themes. This plaque was among the others buried in the destruction of the fort by the Babylonian army in 612 BC.
British Archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan discovered the ivories in 1957 and they remain a celebrated archaeological find. Mallowan was famously married to the crime-writer, Agatha Christie, who when working on the excavations cleaned ivories such as this plaque with her face cream. She later noted, ‘there was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks’.
This bird was collected on William John Macleay’s property at Wagga Wagga. In this Wiradjuri Country the bird is known as wydigala. The first example arrived in England in 1830 owned by the dealer and taxidermist Benjamin Leadbeater and was named by the Macleay’s family friend, Nicolas Vigors in Leadbeater’s honor Plyctolophus leadbeateri. Living across inland Australia the species suffer today because of the continued loss of its preferred woodland habitat.
This broader shield form, common along the east coast of Australia is decorated on surface with painted design in black, brown and grey horizontal bands. Today, many contemporary Aboriginal artists find a sense of identity through ethically engaged research with historical materials that depict designs such these as depicted on this shield. Photographs from the Birpai region (Port Macquarie) in New South Wales show designs similar to the patterning across this shield being used by local community members well into the early 20th century.
Probably acquired in the Torres Strait where the species flourishes, the graceful dugong lives throughout the tropical and subtropical Indo-Pacific, grazing on sea grasses in small groups, alone or in pairs of a mother and her calf. These chirping, grass-feeding mammals can live for 70 years but today fishnets and habitat loss of seagrass beds are leading to a serious decline in numbers. The species is ancient and has common ancestry with elephants.