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Visual Arts

Ceramics and architecture in Southeast Asia

Connections and confluences with contemporary art


Published: 29 Jun 2021

By: Lynda Tay

Time taken : >15mins

Cover image: Journey of a Point to Geometry Series 2, Ahmad Abu Bakar, 2001. Image courtesy of the artist. 

In the installation Candy Garden by Ahmad Abu Bakar, an array of meticulously crafted, popsicle-coloured, hand-thrown ceramics hang suspended from paracords. A total of 343 ceramics are grouped into seven clusters, and when viewed in their entirety, each ceramic piece is a discrete entity that gathers to form a complementary whole. Reminiscent of inverted stepped pyramids, they reflect Ahmad’s long-term fascination with monumental religious architecture. These include the Hindu-Buddhist temple complexes of Angkor Wat and Borobudur in Cambodia and Indonesia, respectively; the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque in Turkey; as well as Wat Arun in Thailand. Indicative of Ahmad's interest in pre-modern architecture are the forms he chose for the ceramic pieces. While bearing a close resemblance to familiar vessel forms, many of these abstract sculptural expressions are modelled after towers, stupas, and domes and capture his long-term interests in these time-honoured architectural forms.

In the accompanying publication for the 1964 exhibition Architecture Without Architects, which examined vernacular forms of architecture from around the world, Bernard Rudofsky surmises1,

Only in our time are towers built for profit and usury. In the past, their significance was mainly symbolic. Apart from the functional defensive towers, they usually expressed religious sentiments—faith, hope, grief, and the like. Spires, minarets, and pagodas were, or are, essential parts of buildings intended for launching prayers.

Bernard Rudofsky, 1964.

Interestingly, these ceramic forms are contrasted by bands of coloured horizontal lines that are the artist's playful and oblique interpretation of the urban night skyline in Singapore. And while Ahmad’s works draw from the rich cultural sources of Southeast Asia, they are also very much rooted and reflective of his present environs.

An imaginative landscape, Candy Garden synthesises various other long-standing interests in Ahmad’s practice, including explorations of unity and balance. Premised around the idea of a “perfect world” in the work, these formal artistic principles are explored through the dynamic convergence of chaos and order to create visual harmony. A cacophony of lines in various colours, running in different directions, hang in tandem with the formal aspects of the symmetrical ceramic pieces and clustered forms. On close observation, one also notices the overlaid floral and geometric motifs underglazed or spray-painted on the bases of each pottery piece.

The above-mentioned designs bring to mind the tiles and textiles commonly seen across Southeast Asia and Singapore. While some motifs are Chinese-inspired, others are similar to batik cloth patterns or Islamic geometric compositions tracing diverse cultural influences that are reflective of Ahmad’s life in Singapore as well as connections to his hometown Malacca. The fluidity of various cultural influences is encapsulated also in the relationship between tiles and textiles as everyday objects that have witnessed the transfer of similar patterns and motifs across materials. An example of such cross-media transfers in design is a tile from Iran dating back to the early 17th century featuring a combination of leaves and rosettes—typical patterns from Iran and Turkey—alongside stylised cloud scrolls quintessential to Chinese ceramics, and believed to be seen on textiles and illuminated manuscript.

In the titular essay for the 1987 exhibition Transformation Image: Contemporary Ceramics in Singapore—regarded as the second national exhibition of ceramic art in Singapore—eminent art historian T.K. Sabapathy writes2,

Among all the art media, pottery has probably the longest history, stemming from the dawn of civilisation to the present. The ceramic medium reaches back into time, linking centuries and cultures into a continuum. Pottery is synonymous with human culture. Entire histories of cultures and civilisation have been reconstructed through the study of ceramic remains.

T.K. Sabapathy, 2018.

It is without a doubt that ceramics have been integral and valuable artefacts in the study of historical pasts allowing us to understand religious and philosophical beliefs as well as ways of life in bygone eras. While of course excavated materials depend largely on the nature of the site, it is perhaps interesting to note that a large proportion of discovered relics are in the form of vessels as well as bricks and tiles—building blocks of architecture—which are derived all from clay. Thus, what can be said about the relationship between architecture and ceramics? And are there examples that illustrate translations and exchanges between them?

It is fascinating to observe that the interactions between ceramics and architecture have been long-standing across cultures and locales spanning centuries until the present day. This intertwined relationship is most evident in architectural ceramics. The term signifies any ceramic object used in architecture for either utilitarian and structural purposes—such as bricks—or as decoration, for example, tiles, mosaics and roof tiles. In Southeast Asia, a region of social, cultural, religious and linguistic diversities, numerous examples of architectural ceramics endure. Examples of religious architecture include the Hindu-Buddhist green-glazed roof tiles on the temples at Ruluos, Cambodia dating to the Angkor Period (802-1432). In Bagan, this is witnessed through the brick-red temples and architectural plaques of both unglazed and glazed geometric tiles of various shapes from the 11th century. The minaret of the Great Mosque of Palembang in Indonesia also featured a clay tile roof built in 1812, but was unfortunately destroyed by the Dutch in 1923.

More recently, decorative tiles feature the facades of commercial and residential shophouses typically found in Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Southern Thailand. Architectural ceramics are also found in Buddhist, Taoist and folk temple architectures as well as mosques, and other religious buildings. While not categorised as architecture, there are also examples of votive everyday objects such as this 14th-16th century hand-built blue and white miniature shrine from Vietnam that mirrors sacred structures. Premised on the long-established relationship between ceramics, architecture and other quotidian everyday forms, which are multicultural, multi-linear and multifarious, this essay is an attempt to explore corresponding connections in the practices of contemporary artists working with ceramics. By endeavouring to reflect upon these connections that predate the advent of modern art in Southeast Asia, this essay is also an effort to disentangle the medium from its long-standing associations with craft—which were transferred from Western ideas of art—and explore this long and relatively independent trajectory of ceramics in Southeast Asia.

Returning to Ahmad's practice, architectural influences and his sculptural ceramics converge most evidently in a series of works broadly entitled Journey of a Point to Geometry which he developed from 2001-08. The sculpted biomorphic and organic forms in the series reflect Ahmad's preoccupations and interests in the and the Arabic alphabet, spurred by homesickness during his studies in RMIT, Melbourne, Australia, combined with a desire to further his artistic language. The alif is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet and written as a vertical stroke, usually measured in rhomboid dots. A point of reference for all other letters in the Arabic alphabet, the alif determines the calligraphic proportions of the other characters by drawing an invisible circle around the alif—with its height as the circle's diameter. Undeniably bound with writing and calligraphy, the alif nonetheless has associations with geometry, which has in turn been applied in Islamic art and architecture as seen in Sultan of Ternate Mosque in Indonesia. A symbol of divine beauty, the alif is rooted in mathematical and geometric concepts, which greatly appealed to Ahmad.

In the series Journey of a Point to Geometry, the alif typifies a spatial dimension through Ahmad's extrapolation of its form. Later in this series, Ahmad’s radial forms continue to return to the principles of geometry, points and circles. In addition to following the mathematical laws associated with the alif, Ahmad's sculptural ceramics in the various iterations of Journey of a Point to Geometry also demonstrate a high degree of mathematical precision in balancing these delicate and often slender forms. It may be productive to note that Ahmad was also previously approached to create a minaret for a then-new mosque by the Muslim community in Singapore. Unfortunately, his design, which drew upon the geometric nature of the alif, was never built. Although the minaret remains unrealised, the realms of art and architecture nevertheless continue to be integral tenets in Ahmad’s practice.

In contrast with the apparent architectural influences in Ahmad’s works, Naga Mae Daw Serpent by Soe Yu Nwe is a marked departure looking towards the everyday forms of spirit houses. The work comprises intricate and mythical forms of anthropomorphic porcelain serpents with scales and spikes, semi-botanical sculptures, spherical pagodas and shrines, and draws inspiration from the spirit houses Soe Yu Nwe witnessed across Southeast Asia, especially in Myanmar, her country of birth. Spirit houses are a common sight across Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. These minute houses, similar to architectural models, can take a variety of forms ranging from temple buildings to pavilions and even reflect the style of typical residences of the area. Miniature abodes for the spirits of the land, these houses are reflective of the integration of local animistic traditions and Hindu-Buddhist beliefs.

In Naga Mae Daw Serpent, the recurring serpent figure represents the goddess of serpent dragons, Naga Mae Daw, often venerated in the country's numerous pagoda temples. Believed to be of pre-Buddhist origin, she rules over magical spirits known as Nagas, which are transformative snake-like beings that live in rivers, lakes, oceans and in the bottom of wells. Although the work is evocative of Soe Yu Nwe's personal explorations of transformation and female identity, while also drawing on the folklore and culture of Myanmar, Naga Mae Daw Serpent is also obliquely reflective of a culture of placing small figures of people and animals—often in earthenware—in them. A form of figurative ceramic sculpture, these votive deposits serve ritualistic and commemorative functions such as Han dynasty (25-220) earthenware mingqi or this 15th century elephant greenware incense holder excavated in Twante Township, Myanmar. 

Central to the works of Albert Yonathan Setyawan's are the principles of systemic repetition and symmetry, which are informed by the materiality and genealogy of clay as well as an appreciation for pattern-making often associated with the decorative arts. Using the slip-casting method—a technique that allows ceramicists to create indefinite quantities of one single form—he produces hundreds of small organic and geometric ceramics which aggregate in labyrinth installations often reminiscent of mandalas. In their individual constituent forms, Setyawan's ceramics distil his keen observation of nature and architecture. For example, the meditative and monumental ceramic floor installation Shelters (2018-19) consisted of 1,800 terracotta components. In the installation, five architectural shapes—the mosque, church, temple, stupa and ziggurat—were meticulously arranged in a 5.5-metre square grid that references the Diamond World or Kongokai mandala.

A reflection of the mixture of faith, cultures and ethnicities that surrounded Setyawan as he grew up in Indonesia, the three-dimensional ceramic mandala, Shelters, captures the various spiritual beliefs encapsulated in its architectural components. As the meditative backgrounds much of Setyawan's practice, the mandala, which often arises in his works are symbolic references to the ancient Hindu-Buddhist graphic symbol of the universe. Mandalas similarly function as a powerful aid to facilitate meditation and concentration, likened by some to a geographic map of the cosmos. And in millennia-old practices of temple architecture, the archetypal radiating geometric arrangements can be attributed to cosmic mandala diagrams.

Ceramics expert David Hamilton once remarked that architectural ceramics have often come to signify "a variety of otherwise unclassified ceramic objects" and broadly defined to "mean all things to all men."  By no means conclusive, this essay is a starting point and an effort to relate the connections between ceramics, quotidian forms and architecture with contemporary artists working with clay. It is an endeavour to highlight the versatility and malleability of an enduring and unassuming medium that often-times resists neat categorisations and has born witness to a spectrum of cross-media exchanges, translations and conceptual adaptions. 

Contributed by:

Lynda Tay

Lynda Tay is a Programmer at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, where she is involved in curating exhibitions and developing the centre's Visual Arts programme.



Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture Without Architects: An Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964, 119. 

T.K. Sabapathy, “Transformation Image: Contemporary Ceramics in Singapore,” in Writing the modern: selected texts on art & art history in Singapore, Malaysia & Southease Asia, edited by Ahmad Mashadi, Susie Lingham, Peter Schoppert and Joyce Toh (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2018), 180. 

3 David Hamilton, The Thames and Hudson Manuel of Architectural Ceramics (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), 91. 

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