The fascinating story behind our Sumba statues

Sumba statues from Indonesia
Sumba statues from Indonesia

Our new collection of Indonesian accessories includes traditional Sumba statues, and as many of you have asked to know more about their origins, we thought it would be a great subject for a blog post.

Our Sumba statues, along with our Toraja and Penji stone carvings, are simple stone statues, hand carved from sandstone by local artisans. Traditionally, the statues would have been placed in and around the entrance of a home to provide health and protection to the occupants.

Sumba is an island in Indonesia, and is one of the last places in the world where the Marapu religion is still practised. Both Christians and Muslims on the island tend to combine their faiths with Marapu. This is because all Indonesian citizens are required to identify as a member of a sanctioned religion by law, and Marapu is not an official religion of Indonesia.

Followers of the religion believe in temporary life in the world and eternal life in the world of spirits, or heaven. Marapu teachings concern the balance of universal life through which happiness can be gained. This balance is symbolized by the Great Mother (Ina Kalada) and the Great Father (Ama Kalada) who live in the universe and take the forms of the moon and the sun. In mythology, they are husband and wife who gave birth to the ancestors of the Sumbanese.

Devotion to their religion and ancestors is reflected in the continuing construction of impressive stone burial monuments, vestiges of one of the last surviving megalithic cultures on the planet. In many cases, individuals will put their families into generations-worth of debt to fund the building of these traditional tombs.

Funeral ceremonies and burials can be delayed for decades, during which the bodies of the deceased are kept in the homes of the living. This is similar to Torajan custom (see our Torajan statues) and coincidentally, there was a fascinating  BBC Radio 4 programme a few weeks ago on this (listen again here.) Once sufficient funds have been raised, it is not unusual for several generations of Sumbans to be buried or reburied together in individual compartments of the tomb.

To construct the tombs, although winches and cattle trucks are sometimes now used to lift and transport stones, in many cases slabs of rock weighing up to 70 tons are still hauled by hand with the help of log rollers. The funeral event is preceded by months of negotiations between clans and villages, culminating in hundreds of men participating in the tarik batu stone-pulling ceremony. Failure to perform the necessary rites, including the butchering of large numbers of buffalo, cows and pigs, and nightly protection rituals at the quarries where the stones are cut, risks a violent reaction from malevolent ancestral forces.

While the influence of evangelical churches is growing in Sumba, many islanders still practice their beliefs. More and more however, young people are abandoning their traditional religion for more pragmatic reasons. Indonesia formally recognises five state religions and sought-after positions in the civil service, police and military are closed to Marapu practitioners.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08lfcfm

China update: some special antiques chosen for our next shipment from Beijing

I’ve just returned from another one of my regular trips to China, where I’ve been catching up with our suppliers in Shanghai and Beijing and selecting chinese antique furniture to ship with our next consignment. It was a bit of a whistle stop tour this time but I managed to pack everything in that I wanted and have some wonderful new pieces lined up that I can’t wait to share with you on our website. The first set of antiques should be up on the site in the next couple of weeks and there will be plenty more to come – about 70 items of furniture in total as well as plenty of interesting and unusual accessories. All being well, the vast majority of these pieces will arrive with us in a couple of months from now.

Elm Tapered Armoire, Shanxi
Elm Tapered Armoire, Shanxi

I’ve pictured just a few of my favourites from this time around. First up is a tall, elegantly shaped ’round cornered’ cabinet from Shanxi province in central China. This style of armoire was common throughout northern China and has an ingenious design, with doors mounted on rounded dowels that slot straight into the top and bottom frame of the cabinet. This means that no metal hinges are needed, resulting in a beautiful, sleek, simple look made even more elegant by a taper from bottom to top. Taller cabinets that have long, full length doors rather than drawers at the bottom tend to be more highly valued and this is one is a lovely example.  It has the old fixed shelf with two drawers inside and the bottom apron still has the original open carvings intact, showing heavenly dragons.

Also from Shanxi but very different in style is a lovely little red lacquer cabinet – small enough to be used as a bedside table. Like the armoire, the finish is entirely original, a muted red that shows the ravages of its near 200 years of life. When it was first made the red finish would have been deep and lustrous and the paintings, now very faded but still visible, would have been in shining, bright gold leaf. This decorative technique was known as ‘Miao Jin’ and was seen on the more refined furniture of Shanxi. It reached its peak of popularity in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, used to decorate what were effectively luxury goods for the upper classes. These days it is rare to find an item of furniture with the Miao Jin paintings in their original state – they are almost always retouched. The more stable black base below the gold leaf tends to survive better than the gold and other lighter colours, as is evident in this case where the gold has largely faded away leaving subtle, dark outlines.

Another piece that stood out for me was a lovely desk, with a lattice shelf at the base in the familiar ‘cracked ice’ pattern that was commonly seen in window panels and dividing walls throughout China. Also from Shanxi, the desk still has its original dark finish and beautifully carved spandrels on all four sides. The carvings depict scrolling dragons – a sure sign that this piece would have been produced for a customer of considerable importance. The four legs each end with a scrolling foot, a motif that was common in the early Qing dynasty.

Some of my favourite Chinese antiques come from Shaanxi province (not to be confused with neighbouring Shanxi which lies to the North East). These are usually highly distinctive, with heavy, ornate carvings and iron hardware. Furniture from this part of China includes decorative coffers with drawers and cabinets with beautifully carved spandrels. These pieces are becoming more difficult to find and good quality, well preserved pieces have increased considerably in price over recent years. The table shown here is a lovely example, with heavily carved drawers and still with traces of the original, once highly colourful lacquer. It is made from elm wood and dates from the beginning of he 19th century. The deep carvings on the drawers include stylised dragons and a central good luck symbol on the lower drawer. This is a stunning piece in a highly original condition that, along with the other items here, I’m looking forward to getting over to our showroom in a few months from now.

Over the next few weeks we will be adding these antiques onto our website along with dozens of others so keep an eye out for more details. You may also want to check our Facebook page for a few more sneak previews of what’s coming. More about my recent trip to follow soon …

James Cottrell, Director, Shimu

 

Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day)

Chinese festivals are truly fascinating and we love to share what we know with you.

One of many intriguing festivals is the Qingming Festival. It started during the Zhou Dynasty and has a history of over 2,500 years. In the year 732, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty declared that respect should be paid at ancestors’ graves on the first day of the Qingming solar term. From then on, sweeping tombs on the first of Qingming gradually became popular with both royal and common families. They offered sacrifices to their ancestors and beseeched them to bless the country with prosperity, peace and a good harvest. It is an important day of sacrifice for the Chinese people to go and sweep tombs and commemorate their ancestors.

Learn more about the death culture in China!

Various activities are observed during the festival,  including tomb sweeping, special outings to enjoy spring and kite flying. Placing willow branches on tombs and front doors is said to ward off evil spirits. Traditional pictures of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, often show her seated on a rock with a willow branch in a vase of water at her side. The goddess used this mysterious water and branch to scare away demons.

Qingming is also called the Taqing Festival – Taqing means a spring outing, when people get out and about to enjoy the warmer weather.

Kites
Flying kites for Qingming Festival

Flying kites is an important custom. Little coloured lanterns are tied to the kites or to the strings that hold the kites so when kites fly in the evening, the lanterns look like twinkling stars. In the past, people cut the string to let the kite fly freely as it was believed that this custom can bring good luck and eliminate disease.

The Chinese love food and incorporate different dishes for each festival. Food for the Qingming Festival is cooked one or two days before and eaten cold. Traditional foods eaten include delicacies such as:

  • Sweet green rice balls
  • Peach blossom porridge
  • Crispy cakes
  • Qingming snails

The 2017 Qingming Festival took place earlier this week on Tuesday 4th April when Shimu Director James was in China.

 

Indonesia inspired with our latest range of home accessories

We’ve been busy at Shimu over recent months looking for more new and exciting products to expand our range. Whilst our collection of Chinese antique furniture and accessories is constantly updated as we source and ship new pieces from our supplier network in Beijing and Shanghai, we have been looking further afield recently to find even more interesting and beautiful items to bring you.

The first of these new pieces have just arrived from Indonesia, and include some unique and unusual accessories for your home and garden. We’ve just added the majority of these onto our website so you can view and purchase online, or see them in person at our Yorkshire showroom.

Indonesian rice house
Indonesian Rice House
Large-Wood-Panel-ASC-CL-08a
Rice House Carved Panel

As with our Chinese and oriental accessories, many of these items are old or recycled and have a story behind them. The large wall panel shown here is from a ‘rice house’ in the Toraja region of Sulawesi – an area of Indonesia with a vibrant tribal culture and identity. These storage huts were  raised off the ground to keep the rice dry and to deter rodents. Rice growers would rest underneath, passing the time by carving decorative patterns onto the underside of their hut’s foor. Today these intricately carved panels make wonderful wall hangings.

Also from Toraja and from the islands of Java and Sumba are carved stone statues and figures, traditionally placed in homes in Indonesia to protect the family and to ward off evil spirits. Each one is hand carved and therfore unique, making unusual decorative objects.

Amongst the new collection you will also find shell necklaces from Papua, supplied with stands to take pride of place on a sideboard or shelf, as well as petried wood from the ancient teak forests of Java and Sumatra – with their wonderful, colourful patterned striations formed over millions of years.

Wooden Buddha
Wooden Buddha

We also have wooden and stone buddhas, vintage glass bottles and, for the garden lover, old teak planters, lava stone bowls and palm plant pots.

Over the coming months we will be shipping more beautiful and unusual pieces from Indonesia and elsewhere in the far east as well as from China. We look forward to bringing you an even wider range of sumptuous items for your home in the future. In the meantime, keep an eye out for these and all our other latest products in the new arrivals section of our website.

 

2017 The Year of the Fire Rooster

Celebrations for the Chinese New Year took place this weekend, and 2017 sees the start of the Year of the Rooster (or cockerel, as we tend to say in Britain).

The Chinese zodiac moves in a 12-year cycle and those born in 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993 and 2005 are known as Roosters.

Chinese lanterns
Year of the Rooster

However, not all Roosters are equal. There are five different types, each with different characteristics. This is the year of the Fire Rooster, which last fell in 1957.

Fire Roosters are known for being trustworthy, punctual and responsible (especially at work). Other types are Wood Roosters, Earth Roosters, Gold Roosters and Water Roosters.

On the whole, Roosters are considered to be active, amusing, popular, healthy, outspoken, honest, loyal, talkative and charming. They are known to enjoy the spotlight, but can be vain and boastful.

Famous faces born in the Year of the Rooster include Prince Philip, Serena Williams, Beyonce and Roger Federer.

The luckiest things for Roosters:

  • Numbers: 5, 7 and 8
  • Days: The 4th and 26th days of a Chinese lunar month
  • Colours: Gold, brown and yellow
  • Flowers: Gladiola, cockscomb
  • Months: The 2nd, 5th and 11th Chinese lunar months

Things Roosters should avoid:

  • Colours: Red
  • Numbers: 1, 3 and 9
  • Months: The 3rd, 9th and 12th Chinese lunar months

Storage ideas for the New Year

We hope you all had a wonderful Christmas, with plenty of time spent with family and friends.

The home is inevitably at its busiest over Christmas and New Year, playing host to dinners and celebrations. As we dig deep into cupboards for turkey platters and star-shaped cutters, it dawns on many of us just how much ‘stuff’ we have and how badly organised it is! And unless you’ve maintained a strict ‘one in one out’ policy with gifts, you might find you have even less space in your cupboards than before the hustle and bustle of Christmas. Thankfully, New Year is a great time to take stock, assess future storage needs, and lose unwanted items.

In this post, we’ll look at some great storage solutions, and next week we’ll cover how to get rid of the things you don’t need.

1) Organise bathroom clutter with attractive containers. The example on the left uses vintage drawers, but our antique Chinese wooden buckets would be perfect.

Image on left from Pinterest – topinspired.com. Antique buckets on right from shimu.co.uk

2) Store magazines in an upcycled crate like the one on the left, or choose our faded blue lacquer antique Chinese pails.

Antique Chinese pail
Crate on left from Pinterest – digsdigs.com. Antique pail on right from shimu.co.uk

3) A low stool is perfect for rolled up towels in the bathroom. This antique Chinese stool from Shimu is one of a pair and has stetchers just above the horse hoof shaped feet, acting as both footrests and supports. The dark, reddish brown colour is old but worn away on the seats to the elm wood below.

Antique stool
Image on left from Pinterest – eclecticallyvintage.com. Stool on right from shimu.co.uk

4) Hide TV-related clutter like DVDs, remote controls and games consoles with attractive and practical living room storage. This antique low sideboard in distressed blue lacquer makes a makes a perfect TV stand with lots of space below in cupboards and drawers.

Low sideboard
Low sideboard in distressed blue lacquer from shimu.co.uk

There are lots more stylish storage solutions online at shimu.co.uk, from wardrobes and armoires to media storage to attractive cabinets. Next week on the blog, we’ll look at reducing clutter and how to get rid of the things you really don’t need.

The art of arranging accessories

We’re constantly inspired by the pictures you send us of Shimu furniture in your homes. This week I wanted to write about the ways you can personalise a piece with carefully-chosen and beautifully arranged accessories, which is something I see all the time in your real-life images.

Here are my top tips for arranging accessories…

1) USE ART AS A BACKDROP

Complement a tabletop of accessories with a dramatic painting or carved screen. Don’t hang the art too high in order to create a visual connection between the items. Allow some of the accessories on the tabletop to overlap the artwork, helping art and accessories appear as a single unit.

Wooden screen
Here, our carved wooden screens provide an ideal backdrop to artfully arranged items

2) STACK UP BOOKS TO GIVE A LIFT

A great tip is to use books as colourful pedestals to give framed photos and other treasured objects a lift. Alternating horizontal and vertical stacks of books add interest. Try the same idea on any shelf. (Photo and tip from Better Homes and Gardens).

Use books on a mantlepiece to give ornaments a lift
Use books on a mantlepiece to give ornaments a lift

 

3) GO GRAPHIC

Fill the small space on a side table with a few carefully-chosen pieces with visual impact. Vary their size and shape to add interest. Here, our dramatic Miao headdress is a sculptural focal point next to a ceramic vase, antique calligraphy brushes and candles.

Artful accessories
Vary the size and shape of accessories for visual interest.

4) PILE UP THE CUSHIONS

A popular trick with interior designers is to pile up mismatched cushions in clashing colours to create a lush, voluptuous effect. This image from Houzz perfectly demonstrates this accessories tip. You can get a great range of cushions from Shimu, including sequinned, beaded and embroidered styles which are perfect for piling up!

Cushions
Have fun with soft furnishings and pile up cushions in clashing shades.

New! Exquisite Indian Tassar Patta paintings now in stock

Just arrived with us and perfect as a special Christmas gift are a series of beautiful Tassar Patta paintings based on the tree of life design. Tassar Patta is an ancient style of painting from the Orissa region in eastern India. Originally painted on palm leaves using natural pigments, they depict a variety of themes, usually mythical or with religious significance. They were often used to decorate the walls of temples and the palaces of the Maharajas of Orissa, or shown at religious festivals, and they are highly revered as one of the oldest styles of painting in India.

Today the paintings are produced on silk, still a natural material but longer lasting. The highly skilled techniques used to create them are the same as in ancient times, passed down through generations. We now offer eight different paintings, each created by hand and beautifully framed.

The paintings are the result of dedicated research by a family of master craftsmen in Orissa, who have a passion for the technique and have been trained in this wonderful, highly detailed style of painting. The family now employs unmarried, often otherwise destitute women in the city of Puri to pass on their skills and craft and to create these exquisite artworks. This provides an income to the women that they would otherwise struggle to achieve.

Each piece can take the artist weeks to produce or, for larger paintings, even months. The work is painstaking and highly detailed, with just a small lack of attention or carelessness likely to spoil a whole painting.

The designs we offer are based on decorative artwork in the Jagannath Temple in Puri. They have become well known in India and beyond and have received several awards from the Indian government.

We are delighted to now be able to offer these unique paintings to our customers and we hope you will appreciate them as much as we do. You can see the full current range under the wall art section of our website or visit our West Yorkshire showroom to see them in person.

Details tell a story in Beijing

I’m heading home from Beijing now so it’s a good time to reflect on another very useful few days. I’ve caught up with the main suppliers that we buy our Chinese antiques from and lined up more gorgeous pieces to ship in the new year. We already have one container due to leave Beijing at the end of the month so we are getting ahead of ourselves and making sure we have a nice selection of antiques for the spring. Whilst we are in a position where we can, and often do, select antiques from a couple of restorers from photos alone, I always prefer to choose them in person if I can. It is the only way to really appreciate the finish and beauty of the furniture even if, having worked with these workshops for several years, I know that the quality will be second to none.

It also means that I often get to learn more about the history of a particular item of furniture and any interesting quirks or features that it displays. I’ve been dealing with Chinese antiques now for about 12 years but every time I come out here there is always something new to learn.

I wrote in a recent post about some of the lovely detail that is often seen in the antiques that we have available, perhaps in the paintings that decorate the front of a cabinet or in the joinery that can indicate when a piece was produced. There is plenty more of this interesting detail in many of the furniture I selected on this visit. For example, the beautiful paintings of peony flowers on an old grain cabinet from Gansu province that would have symbolised the owner’s important status. Unusually these are sent against a pale blue lacquered background, now aged and crackled to give a wonderful soft, pastel finish.

Another cabinet from Gansu is decorated with scenes of figures that include two children and their parents, one child embracing his father. The paintings are worn but still clear against a pale background and it is fascinating to study the characters’ dress and facial expressions and to wonder what story is being played out.

Other features are more practical. For example, a simple elm table I chose from Henan province is in a plain finish but the upper part of each leg shows a short inscription in old Chinese characters. Unusually for Chinese antique furniture, which can be difficult to date accurately, these give the date of when the table was made on one leg, whilst on the other is shown the name of the shop or carpenter who produced it.

Lastly, even a modification or repair can tell a story. A little kang opium table shows signs of repaired scorch marks, perhaps caused by a lack of attention by the user when under the influence of the drug. Another table has a filled in section that is an old repair. This is not particularly unusual or well carried out but on closer inspection you can see that it is in the shape of a peach– a sign for longevity. Typical of Chinese carpenters, it seems who ever carried out the work took the opportunity to include an auspicious symbol even in a basic repair to the table top.

All of these little quirks and details in my view only add to the character of each piece of furniture. It makes you realise that each item really does have its own history and backstory and I can’t help wonder about what sort of events and turbulent times some of these beautiful cabinets, tables and trunks must have ‘lived’ through.

We’ll be working on adding my selection onto the website over the coming weeks, so look out for more details of these soon, along with some other projects that we are working on – more to follow in the New Year.

Sunny days in Shanghai

A fairly whirlwind few days in Shanghai saw me head out to the factory around 20 miles outside the centre of the city on day one to check on progress for our next container of Classical Chinese furniture. This will be our last shipment leaving here before Christmas and I had timed my visit to allow me to see most of the furniture nearing completion.

I was pleased to see that nearly everything was already finished, if only to the ‘woodwork’ stage, which actually provides a good opportunity to check on the quality of the joinery and construction of each piece as the craftsmanship is more evident before a final finish is applied – particularly on solid lacquer pieces.

As always, we also have several bespoke items of furniture due to ship this time, made to order for customers with specific requirements in terms of size, style or finish. I was able to discuss final details on one or two of these pieces and I look forward to seeing photos of the finished results in a week or so before we finalise everything for shipping later this month.

Saturday was a beautiful day in Shanghai and I had time to head out for a stroll along the waterfront at the Bund and down Nanjing Road to People’s Square – something I’ve not done for a few years. The Bund provides the classic backdrop of colonial era Shanghai, with its imposing deco buildings that were built to house the banking and trading organisations of the western settlements.

Looking across the Huangpu River to the newly developed area of Pudong, including the iconic Pearl Oriental Tower, the contrast between old and new is striking. Once an emblem of western power and influence, the old colonial buildings are now dwarfed by the gleaming steel and glass skyscrapers across the water, most of which have been built only over the last twenty years or so as the Pudong area has been opened up for development.

Among the huge throng of tourists enjoying the view were many brides to be, dressed up in their finery for wedding photos against the stunning background of the Shanghai skyline. This is something I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post on an earlier trip and a concept that is quite strange us in the west. Photos here are taken weeks in advance of the big day, with the bride, groom and bridesmaids all turning up in full paraphernalia. I guess it is one less thing to think about on a bride’s wedding day but it always seems somehow fake to my mind as the photos don’t have any real connection to the actual wedding other than the outfits, which are usually hired solely for the photos!

I also paid a visit to the Jing’an Temple, the large Buddhist temple on Nanjing Road. Originally built in the thirteenth century, it has been rebuilt and renovated many times and even served as a plastics factory during the Cultural Revolution. Made up of four halls, each one includes a wonderful statue of the Buddha in either stone, jade or camphor wood which date from as long ago as the 5th century. Built in a courtyard style, the architecture is wonderful, with carved lattice door and window panels all around and pagoda roofs.

Set in the noisy, bustling centre of Shanghai and so close to the hugely commercialised, crowded main drag of Nanjing road, the temple felt like a tranquil oasis – a great place to reflect and gather your thoughts before heading back into the throngs of people outside and the stresses of modern life.

On Saturday evening I went over to Xintiandi, an area not far from People’s Square that has been developed recently to house a myriad of bars, restaurants and shops. One of the most expensive places to live in the city, the area has become one of the main social centres and is a gathering place for ex pats and wealthy Chinese alike. It’s a great place to wander around and, along with the little shops selling mostly overpriced clothing and homewares, there are a couple of interesting little museums.

The whole area has been redeveloped based on the original old ‘shikumen’ (stone gate) courtyard houses and one of these (the Shikumen Open House Museum) essentially resconstructs what life would have been like in one of the houses at the beginning of the 20th century. The house is furnished as it would have been, with antiques and artefacts from the time. It is beautifully done and well worth a look.

There are other hidden gems in the area. I took a detour into an entranceway and up some stairs to find myself in the elegantly presented showroom of a company specialising in nanmu furniture. Nanmu is a beautiful wood used over centuries in China for some of the more refined pieces of furniture – ones that only the most wealthy could afford. We have had a few antiques in the wood ourselves over the years, always beautifully made and, whilst not on the level of the huang huali or zitan pieces that go for tens of thousands of dollars at auction, they are always something quite special. The wood is quite dense, with a tight grain compared to elm, and is very stable in changes of climate.

This Shanghai company is producing new furniture in the wood based on ancient designs and targeted firmly at the Chinese elite, who are starting to appreciate the classical styles and beautiful materials of their past. Most of us would have to remortgage the house to be able to afford much of the furniture displayed, but the quality and craftsmanship were remarkable. The designs shown included tables, chairs and cabinets that were reproductions of Ming dynasty furniture, with clean lines and simple style. Others were copies of the later Qing dynasty, with very elaborate, heavy carvings. The latter included a pair of huge cabinets, wonderfully decorated with highly detailed carvings of dragons.

I flew to Beijing last night so over the next few days will be catching up with one or two old contacts and visiting warehouses, selecting more Chinese antiques for shipping over to the UK in the New Year. I’ll let you know of any interesting finds soon.