An orchid in the desert – the lacquer journey of Bic Tieu

Bic Tieu, Joss Vessels, copper, lacquer and silver leaf, 2016, 32 diameter x 52mm and 32 diameter x 35mm
Bic Tieu, Joss Vessels, copper, lacquer and silver leaf, 2016, 32 diameter x 52mm and 32 diameter x 35mm

What does it mean for an Australian to master lacquer art? This quintessential oriental art developed over seven millennia to become one of the most sophisticated languages for expressing the preciousness of human existence. What chance does a young settler culture have to contribute to this tradition? Our ancient art is ochre and bark, not resin. Not only do we lack a history in this art form, the delicate essence of lacquer seems out of proportion to our wide horizons. Like the Japanese haiku, lacquer is a medium for the world in miniature. The challenge of finding a place for Australia in this refined tradition gives the art of Bic Tieu its own unique poignancy.

Understanding Bic Tieu’s own journey helps us appreciate the meaning of her work. Tieu’s grandparents moved from China to Vietnam in order to escape poverty. Her parents then left South Vietnam for similar reasons after the war. A product of that journey, Tieu was born in an Indonesian refugee camp (“Bic” means sapphire).

Like many others arriving from south-east Asia, Tieu’s family moved into Sydney’s inner West. The father had a job in the steel industry and the mother worked in garment factories. Despite the responsibilities of family and work, Tieu’s parents retained a strong traditional aesthetic. They grew plants as a side business, nurturing succulents, cactus and orchids. On return visits from Vietnam, her family brought back panels of black lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay. Tieu grew up in this world of delicate things—still and living. We can imagine this Asian menagerie in a domestic bubble, surrounded by the rough and tumble of suburban life—“She’ll be right, mate!”

Initially, Tieu combined her love for the beautiful with the practical business of survival by enrolling in graphic design at the University of NSW. Exposed to a variety of creative practices, she fell into jewellery, thanks to the inspiration of lecturers Wendy Parker and Leong Chan. Then, fatefully, in her final year, she was recommended a book on East Asian lacquer. Tieu was captivated by what she saw. But who could teach her this technique? Australia has no history of this craft.

During her Masters, Tieu was able to do some field studies in Hue, back in Vietnam. But “always in the back of my head was Japanese lacquer – maki-e.” She was eventually successful in getting an Australia Council New Work Grant to go to Japan in 2007. The aim was to learn from the lacquer master, Kitamura Tatsuo, then 55 years old and living in Wajima, a small town on the west coast of Japan, near Kanazawa. On arrival, she was tested in her skills of brush work and polishing. After painstaking preparation, Tieu produced a flawless golden flower, floating on a sea of black lacquer. She consequently passed the test and was initiated into the mysteries of maki-e. Tieu returned to Japan for two years between 2009 and 2011 to refine her skills.

What Tieu imbibed in Japanese culture was an extraordinary sensitivity to the material world. This reverence for objects is expressed powerfully in the tea ceremony. Melvin Jahss writes in his book on Japanese lacquer: “Even the approved manner of handling these objects of art in the palm of the hand (guarded with the opposite hand and held low) speaks for the loving care with which the Japanese regard fine art objects.”

Lacquer art came into its own during the Edo era. The bushido worldview upheld qualities of diligence, honesty, honor, loyalty, and frugality. Lacquer helped exercise these qualities—it is an unforgiving substance. Gold powder is sprinkled gently by the delicate flick of a finger on the bamboo dispenser. A single object may take years of steady labour—the merest speck of dust can ruin an entire work. Four hundred years later, this skill and technique is still sustained in contemporary Japanese lacquer art, such as the tea caddies by Kanazawa artist, Shinya Yamamura.

Elsewhere in East Asia, lacquer art has taken a radical modernist turn. At South Korea’s 2015 Cheongju International Craft Biennale, an exhibition of contemporary lacquer art showcased the Pebble, a seat by Hwang Sam-yong covered entirely in mother-of-pearl. Unlike the traditional use, which employed inlay to create subtle pictorial scenes in a sea of black, this was just the shell itself.

Rather than strip away tradition, Tieu builds on the past with her own techniques. Many of the vessels are acid-etched. Tieu interprets traditional floral patterns on Adobe Illustrator and prints out the design which is applied to the object. The vessel is coated with lacquer, which is then polished back in a way that carefully exposes the copper motifs.

Tieu’s approach to lacquer art is postmodern, as befits a migrant society, seeking to balance the old and the new. This reflects the second generation experience of growing up in a belief system whose reality is at odds with the world outside. In Unpolished Gem, the novelist Alice Pung weaves a parallel story as a Chinese Cambodian growing up in Melbourne’s West.

I could hear Grandmother’s voice in my head: “Stupid white ghosts don’t understand bugger-all about real people, about the need to be protected.” They were already ghosts, what need did they have of protection from ghosts?  

Like Pung, TIeu returns to the “superstitions” of her childhood world. This western Sydney version Chinese auspicious culture prescribed which direction to face when sleeping, what sacrifice to make for an ancestor and the need to finish every grain of rice in her bowl (or she would marry a husband as spotted as that). It is an art of careful alignment, a world of Feng Shui.  

It’s useful to step back here into the Chinese culture from which Tieu is descended. With the arrival of Buddhism in third century BC China, came an appreciation of the symbolic meaning of flowers. Peach blossom evokes the gods in heaven, who dwell in the Far West. Tang flower poetry and Southern Song painting reflect the importance of nature in representing human affairs.

The eleventh century Song poet Ouyang Xiu draws on West Lake for inspiration:

The painted boat is punted in to where the flowers are thick.
Fragrance floats round golden cups,
Mist and rain are so, so fine…

The apprehension of beauty is made poignant by its fleeting quality. This is at odds with our consumerist response to attractive things, which is to seek to possess them—as purchases or photographs. During the Song dynasty, acquisitiveness seemed contrary to the spirit of harmony in nature. The ideal was to “view flowers on horseback” (zou ma kan hua)—catching beauty with a casual glance.

For us today, seeing Tieu’s work in a gallery imposes a similar distance. Such precious objects invite the hand. We long to hold one between our fingers and watch the dance of light as patterns evanesce. But these are not ours to touch. Instead, like the art lover on horseback, we hover around them, enjoying the play of glittering copper and blood red lacquer.

Circling dimensions invites us to circumambulate like the lid of the cylinder. Connected harmony is an ornamental version of a calendar: one side has the Chinese lunar date and the other its Western equivalent.

Tieu’s objects are alive. The lacquer forms a translucent skin that contains the precious interior. And like succulents, lacquered objects require a humid atmosphere to develop. In a relatively dry city like Sydney, Tieu must place her objects in a humidity box, containing a layer of plaster of Paris, and left on a warm window sill. Tieu adds to the unpredictability by using copper as a metal inlay, which slowly turns green with oxidation. The Spring transitions necklace presents metal in flux like seasonal change.

So how does this fragile orchid of a craft survive in such an arid continent? The poet Les Murray articulated as well as any other Australian writer the battered environs of his culture, where “hot water crinkles in the tin wash dish.” But at the core of this world, Murray saw a careful regard for things that is almost Japanese in its sense of aesthetic order. As he wrote in Aqualung Shinto:

Oh Zen makes colonials of a few
but each people has its proper Shinto
Distinctive as verandah beams.

Tieu has found her own “proper Shinto” in lacquer. Drawing from her Vietnamese inheritance, she makes precious rings from eggshell (Moon Autumn), the poor man’s pearl. The object Twang distorts the perfection of the vessel into a unique broad shape, like the broad Aussie accent Tieu acquired growing up in Sydney’s West. And her Prunus Bowls are vessels with minimal inner volume—like a niche to house a sacred symbol rather than a store a thing of the world.

Tieu has sat at the feet of a Japanese master. Through tireless application, she has learnt the delicate language of fragile materials. After endless polishing, she has gradually revealed the preciousness within. But her work is not trapped in time. It is open to the world around her—the air and the light and to us who find ourselves momentarily stilled.  


Jahss, Melvin, and Betty Jahss. 2013. Inro and Other Miniature Forms of Japanese Lacquer Art. Tuttle Publishing.

Knapp, Ronald G. 1999. China’s Living Houses: Folk Beliefs, Symbols, and Household Ornamentation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Pung, Alice. 2009. Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother and Me. London: Portobello Books Ltd.


A new broom: sweeping changes to folk art in Asia

Sometimes, it’s worth stating the obvious in order not to be so.

We’ve come to accept that art is a profession. To become a recognised artist, most need to follow an institutional path. According to art world specialist Peter Hill, ‘the usual route is to attend a university school of art, and there are approximately thirty of these around the country. One can leave such an institution with an undergraduate degree, an honours degree, a variety of Masters degrees, or a PhD by project.’ Once out of university, the artist then needs to be selected for exhibitions in commercial or public galleries. This institutional route winnows out those who are serious from the part-timers.

While the logic of this system is self-evident, it has its limitations. The inherently elitist trajectory is seen to exclude a particular kind of art which is not beholden to the academic field. For the critic Russell Jacoby, the academicisation of cultural life encourages internecine concerns. Yet apart from some experiments in relational aesthetics, the outsider artist is an increasingly rare phenomenon in the West. This is a significant point of difference with countries in our region.

It is often remarked that Asian cultures do not have a word for art that is distinct from other forms of creative expression. The closest equivalent in Sanskrit is shilpa, which means ‘diverse’ and includes horsemanship and cooking. Given the continuity of tradition, there are often strong communities of artists who exist outside the academy, yet are not hobbyists.

Consider folk artists. Their context includes temple decoration, festival costumes and ritual events such as weddings. In the West, public decoration is largely a commodified domain involving advertising and industrial printing. Folk art is the remnant of a world when it is easier to make something by hand than buy it in a shop.

Within a ‘third world’ framework, such art is backward, provincial, staid and crude. Lacking the innovation that comes from contact with the wider world, it prime value is for tourists. Better to embrace more professional art forms, such as painting on canvas.

The inexorable power of this story was demonstrated to me in 2006, when I met with the board of the National Gallery of Mauritius. For a population around one million people, the prospect of such an institution was more an aspiration than a reality. Though the building for their gallery had been promised by successive governments, it is yet to eventuate. Instead, I was shown photographs of their collection, which consisted almost exclusively of paintings, many by Europeans passing through.

While Mauritius has a rich history of folk crafts, particularly from the kreol communities, aspirations for art followed quite foreign European lines. Of course, there was a logic behind this. Why create a collection in order to preserve what can already be found outside on the street? Yet, as the place to tell the story of a national culture, much was swept under the carpet.

But we know that this developmental push isn’t the only story emerging from the West. The English writers William Morris and John Ruskin provided an alternative path based on labour as a form of creative expression. For Ruskin, ‘Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.’

In the West, this provided an ideological platform for the revival of folk crafts in the 20th century, leading to the emergence of studio craft as modernist art form parallel with painting and sculpture. This sometimes uneasy alliance is described in Glenn Adamson’s classic text Thinking through Craft: while craft reflects how things are made, visual arts presents the final image. The DIY movement that has since eclipsed studio craft has more affinities with folk craft though it is more about individual expression than cultural traditions.

The Arts & Crafts Movement had a more political value in non-Western countries. In the early 20th century, the Japanese drew on the ideas of Morris and Ruskin to develop a craft aesthetic in opposition to Western culture. The Mingei movement (from minshuteki kogei ‘popular crafts’) emerged in 1926 from a meeting of Kanjiro Kawai, Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach, who cel@ebrated the aesthetics of honest labour in Asian ceramics. As the recent publication Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State argues, the concept of bijustu (art) was perceived during this period as a Western imposition on Japan.

There are echoes of Mingei still in contemporary Japan. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa celebrates artisan craft. As the director of the Yuji Akimoto says in a recent interview: ‘It wasn’t all that long ago young artists were interested in creating universal artwork, abandoning techniques and aesthetics like those rooted in kôgei. But now people are finding local art and craftwork modern and interesting once again.’[1] His 2012 exhibition Art Crafting towards the Future features older art forms like lacquer and ceramics in dialogue with manga, design and contemporary art.

In India, the profile of modern folk art has strong roots in nationalism. For Gandhi, Ruskin’s ideas helped critique the Western quest to save labour through technology. His attempt to forge a nation state independent of Western influence involved mandating members of the Congress Party to spin cotton every day; Gandhi laboured as a spiritual exercise to stay in tune with village culture. This call was extended by activist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to the founding of the All India Handicrafts Board, representing up to 200 million village artisans.

While many crafts now operate within the market, the ornamental folk traditions that are tied to festivals and rituals persist in India. According to the latest census, 70% of the population still live in villages.

In the West, folk arts are usually presented as anonymous. This can be either as ethnography, such as the Paris Trocadero, or as appropriation, such as Australian painter Robert McPherson’s ‘swamp rat’ road signs.

Indian folk artists began to emerge as named individuals in the 1980s. The artist J. Swaminathan sought to establish a distinctly Indian school of art that drew from folk traditions rather than external movements like Abstract Expressionism. Through the Bharat Bhawan museum in Bhopal, Swaminathan set out to collect work from the region. The museum was soon home to an extraordinary group of tribal artists, including a woman named Sonabai, whose creatures in clay and straw conveyed a charmed world. Many then found opportunities beyond Bhopal. Sonabai was featured in the Delhi Crafts Museum, a visionary institution set up by Jyotindra Jain to living traditional artists. She was even invited to create an installation for the 1999 Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane.

It is interesting to see quite divergent narratives about Sonabai’s creativity. The US writer Stephen Huyler describes her as a self-taught artist whose inspiration came from the purely personal experience of loneliness: ‘she is herself an archetype of the unrecognized woman who creates beauty in her life’.[2] For Hyuler, Sonabai is a lone genius who deserves wider recognition. Accordingly, fellow villagers who make work in this style are seen as imitators trying to cash into her success. By contrast, Jyotindra Jain’s account in his book and exhibition Other Masters places her within the culture of her village, specifically the annual ritual chherta harvest festival when houses are re-decorated.

But now, a new interest in the more collective folk traditions has emerged. Two recent exhibitions have focused on the most humble of decorative arts—broom making. Despite its utilitarian function, the use of natural fibres affords a strong regional variation. The Arna-Jharna Desert Museum of Rajasthan was established in 2008 by musicologist Komal Kothari. As a ‘laboratory of the ordinary’, its first three years were devoted solely to the broom. The museum described itself as having ‘consciously prioritized social relationships generated by objects, rather than a purely aesthetic or ethnographic focus on the objects themselves.’[3] The broom is positioned as part of a knowledge system that interconnects environmental and social domains. As part of its expanded role, the Broom Project considers practical issues such as health issues, urban waste management, education and political rights of broom makers.

A parallel urban exposition of brooms was developed by the Asian Heritage Foundation, established by Rajeev Sethi, a designer who returned to India from Paris to work with traditional crafts. In 2020, the Foundation was inaugurated with an exhibition dedicated to the broom— Sweeping Change: Transforming Attitudes towards the Humble Jharu (Broom) at Gandhi Smriti in Delhi. While the exhibition featured a purely aesthetic taxonomy of brooms, it also involved the broom community directly, such as broom sellers performing their cries.

The exhibition had been designed by Ishan Khosla, who has also returned after a period abroad to take up the many opportunities back home. Khosla has since established a graphic design practice working closely in collaboration with artisans. For a book cover, he commissioned a traditional Rajasthani kaavad painter to reflect on the publication’s contents.

Now folk artists are increasingly accepting commissions. The Australian sculptors Rodney Glick and Wanda Gillespie have drawn on the skills of Indonesian artisans —Glick from Balinese carving and Gillespie from bird cage painters in Jogjakarta. This follows a trajectory for folk artists to take on an increasingly active role in their creative practice.

This development is an important manifestation of the changing world order. Where previously the Third World was seen in a relatively dependent position toward the developed world, with the emerging superpowers in Asia and Latin America, there is an increasingly bilateralism in international relationships.

Folk art need no longer be seen as anonymous cultural flora. Nor need it be the work of a lone genius, waiting to be plucked from obscurity by a visiting curator. It is a form of creative expression with its own political interests. Love my art, love my people.

Previously published:

Murray, Kevin. “A New Broom Sweeping Changes to Folk Art in Asia.” Artlink 33, no. 1 (March 2013): 64–67.


[2] Stephen Huyler Sonabai: Another Way of Seeing Mapin publishing in association with Mingei International Museum, San Diego, 2009, p. 39