The idea for A Gentle Misinterpretation first came to curator Andrew Nicholls in 2004 when he undertook a residency at the Spode China Factory in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Since its establishment in 1770, the Spode brand has famously popularised the Willow pattern, a blue and white design that features a Chinese Willow scene copied from Chinese designs. It’s a pattern routinely found from dinner tables to second hand stores—and now artists at Fremantle are reclaiming this globalised ‘misinterpretation’.
Using a transfer technique to produce the china en masse, Spode effectively appropriated the original Chinese designs and motifs to suit English tastes, typifying the British imperialist tendency to take what is not its own. During the residency, Nicholls purchased a book by Robert Copeland—an heir to the Spode fortune—who wrote that the Willow pattern is a “a gentle misinterpretation” of Chinese designs. To Nicholls, this was an absolute downplay of a much more complicated demonstration of soft power and colonial logic.
Two decades after that fateful trip, Nicholls has conceived of A Gentle Misinterpretation, an exhibition of 13 artists reflecting upon chinoiserie’s history fraught with “notions of cultural thievery, colonisation, exoticisation, and excess”. Just as the chinoiserie style spanned a plethora of homewares and décor (not just china), the exhibition spans many mediums.
Take Nathan Beard’s hand-painted vases, James Henry Green Home Collection (iii), 2016–2022, that reimagine the blue Willow pattern scenes from the Kachin region of Myanmar. Or Tanija and Graham Carr’s curiously leather-covered tea wares, and Cherish Marrington’s ink drawings. Titled Opium Spirit World #1, 2022, Marrington takes the Willow motif and fabricates a grotesque fantasy world from it.
While undertaking the aforementioned Spode residency, Nicholls also visited the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, a structure he describes as the “pleasure palace” of George IV (1762-1830) and the world’s most complete example of chinoiserie. “It was so outrageously opulent and fabulous,” recalls Nicholls, “but at the same time so problematic in its use of cultural appropriation as an artefact of privilege and imperialism. This intense love/hate response inspired the idea of a show exploring the complex nuances of chinoiserie, and the idea always stayed with me.”
Indeed, the show grounds much of its exploration of chinoiserie around the Royal Pavilion and George IV who, as Nicholls says, during his reign as King “was the absolute personification of the British Empire’s insatiable appetite for consuming the world’s wealth during this era”.
Many artists have chosen to comment on the imbalance of power wrought by colonisation. Abdul Abdullah’s photographs Restitution of Self, 2015, feature a monkey motif—bringing to mind the problematic label all too often applied to colonised peoples. Such pejoratives were a demonstration of the way colonisers stripped people of their identities—and what followed suit was the reduction of these peoples’ cultural output to mere “chinoiserie”. For chinoiserie, it should be noted, is a blanket term used to describe motifs and patterns appropriated from countries spanning Asia and the Middle East.
Elsewhere, the exhibition returns to the material and cultural roots that chinoiserie grew out of. Through residencies in Jingdezhen, a city in China’s east famous for its centuries-old porcelain industry, artists in A Gentle Misinterpretation worked directly alongside artisans to produce new work.
Where chinoiserie was appropriated by the British without any consultation with the makers of the original patterns, these artists worked closely alongside artisans to learn exactly what their process was. Sandra Black’s Rose Teapot 1, 2016, features porcelain roses created by Jin Jianhua, referred to in the work’s credits as “the flower man of Jingdezhen”.
Nicholls, too, worked with Jin Jianhua on a number of works in the exhibition. It’s a testament to the artisan’s skill and knowledge of porcelain—expertise that British mass-producers such as Spode could only have dreamed of. Nicholls’s Celadon Infestation #2–butterflies, 2018-2022, is a lidded porcelain skull that reveals flowers, butterflies and a bee within. Each wing and petal, glazed in celadon green, appear so paper thin that viewers might think it a miracle that they survived the firing process.
It is fitting that A Gentle Misinterpretation is being staged in Fremantle—a port city—given that colonisation and trade relied heavily on harbours. Indeed, says Nicholls, the fact that A Gentle Misinterpretation takes place in Australia is itself significant. It’s a show that “reflects the worst excesses of British imperialism . . . it’s of relevance to Australian audiences.”