New Acquisitions: 2016
Until the 1960s, men in the rural community of Dan Kwian, in northeast Thailand, grew rice during the rainy season and made pots in the interval between the harvest and the next planting. Their utilitarian products were made of unglazed stoneware clay and fired in wood-burning kilns. While it too is a wood-fired, unglazed clay vessel, this charming and well-made Dan Kwian vase represents the recent transformation of ceramic production in the community.
The potters’ community is located on the banks of the Mun River, which vendors once navigated in narrow boats to reach a large regional market. Dan Kwian was one of a dozen or so villages in the northeast that, until recent decades, provided other communities with utilitarian stoneware. Perhaps the best-known examples were large water-storage jars, each capable of holding fifty liters. Placed beneath the eaves of a house, such jars captured rainwater for use in the household and the kitchen garden. The villages also produced lidded jars for fermenting scrap fish with salt to make a pungent, protein-rich sauce integral to the local cuisine, as well as jars for brewing rice beer. Then there were flasks for distilled liquor, bottles, mortars, basins, and bowls. These products are well represented in the museum’s collection, and our online catalogue was the first to tell their story.
Dan Kwian was distinct in one aspect: compared to the other villages, the community was relatively close to Bangkok. In the 1960s, as tourism flourished and hotels sprang up, Thai interior decorators realized that they could appeal to foreign visitors by featuring local products, such as the vividly colored “Thai silk” made famous through the costumes in The King and I on Broadway. Designers also turned to Dan Kwian potters for new forms of ceramics suited to hotel lobbies and guestrooms—lampstands, ashtrays, table bases, wall plaques, and tiles, as well as small ornamental pieces and tableware.
Dr. Sarah M. Bekker (1923–2013) acquired this vase sometime between 1964 and 1971, while living in Bangkok with her husband, Dr. Konrad Bekker. It embodies an unknown Dan Kwian potter’s mastery of new skills to suit a modern world. Instead of coiling and throwing the jar on a turntable, he threw small pieces on a fast wheel, shaped a silhouette that would appeal despite its lack of glaze, and added fancy touches such as the ornamental knobs circling the mouth rim. Maintaining the established technology, however, he fired the vase in the type of single-chamber crossdraft kiln that had been standard for many decades. Wood firing gave a toasty brown finish to the unglazed clay, akin to that on the earlier utilitarian products from this community.
Dan Kwian has continued its merger with the contemporary world. Today, the busy main road leading past the community is lined with booths selling local products—which now include garden ornaments, such as leaping carp and lotus basins, decorated with house paint—as well as products gathered from kilns throughout Thailand. Instead of a representative community making pots for the regional market, Dan Kwian has become a drivable destination for one-stop pottery shopping.