Trepang: Crossing cultures, creating connections

On the collaboration between Zhou Xiaoping and John Bulunbulun for the exhibition Trepang: China & the Story of Macassan-Aboriginal Trade at the Capital Museum, Beijing, and the Melbourne Museum.

When the ground-breaking exhibition Trepang: China and the Story of Macassan-Aboriginal Trade first opened in the Capital Museum, Beijing on 1 April 2011, the surprised Chinese audience was presented with the little-known story of ancient trading links between Australia, Indonesia and China. The trade was based almost solely upon Chinese people’s relish for what the Indonesians call trepang, an exotic delicacy and aphrodisiac in the form of small sea creatures (known in the West as sea cucumber or bêche-de-mer) found along the northern coasts of Australia.

The comments in the Beijing Visitors’ Book underlined the novelty of the subject, with one viewer declaring: “The art objects unfold the Chinese, Macassan and Australian Aboriginal people’s trade and cultural exchanges very well and I have learnt something quite new: Chinese-Australian trade began long ago". Another comment suggested hopefully: “Chinese-foreign cultural and art exchanges can open up our intellectual horizons and break through former boundaries”. 

If the majority of the Chinese visitors’ comments are any indication, the fascinating historical components of the show – the maps, documents, artefacts, models of ships and photographs – were themselves only a background to the modern-day cultural exchange that was also showcased within the installation. This featured the artistic collaboration between the senior Aboriginal artist John Bulunbulun and the classically-trained Chinese artist Zhou Xiaoping. As one member of the Beijing audience enthused: “... combining together Australian Aboriginal sensibilities and Chinese art brought forth a wondrous beauty”.

Marcia Langton’s catalogue essay makes clear that the two contemporary artists’ long-standing friendship was at the heart of the project:

After years of collaboration ... they bring together their understanding of historical events that entangled their ancestors across cultures and the seas and archipelagos between China and the north coast of Australia more than two centuries ago.

Certainly some of the exhibition’s most memorable images are those that record the two artists in deep conversation, working together in Arnhem Land, cutting bark from a tree or preparing their various painting supports. These photographs form a counterpoint to the contemporary paintings displayed in the space – Xiaoping and Bulunbulun’s individual works of ink on rice paper or ochre on bark respectively, and also their striking joint productions, such as From art to life (2009), made from ink, acrylic and ochre on rice paper and canvas, which depicts the sacred fish of Bulunbulun’s saltwater country gradually transforming themselves into the Koi fish of Xiaoping’s China. Another whimsical merging of traditions resulted in Xiaoping’s elegant blue-and-white china bowls, decorated with ancestral designs taken from paintings by Bulunbulun.

But the intermingling of Chinese and Aboriginal materials and imagery did not always reflect a shared agreement on the significance of the historical trepang trade. In Xiaoping’s provocative painting Why not? (2009), he depicts himself and Marcia Langton debating the true extent of the exchanges between Australia and China, with the text above Marcia’s head reading: “Fuck No! No! No! There was no direct connection” while over Zhou’s bent head appears the question: “Why not?”

The exhibition Trepang: China and the Story of Macassan-Aboriginal Trade opened in the Capital Museum, Beijing on 1 April 2011 and at the Melbourne Museum on 23 July 2011.

The authors would like to thank Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett, Director of the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation (CCMC), The University of Melbourne, for making available the unpublished Trepang Exhibition Report that contained details of visitor comments. The CCMC organised the exhibition and published the catalogue.