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Ask MOA: What Is This Bowl?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case is about an object that the inquirer purchased at a thrift store.

Question from inquirer:

“Please tell me what this beautifully decorated object is used for. I found it at the thrift store in Tsawwassen and thought it was a pretty bowl. I brought it home and my mom suggested it could be a lid for a larger basket. It appears to be quite ancient. It has small white beads sewed onto it in floral patterns. There is a fabric background which is quite faded but the original deep colours show under some of the beadwork. It appears to be made from woven bark. The work is very delicate and thorough, as you can see all the stitches on the inside. I’d also love to know if it is a local weaving. It is possible it could be from another country altogether.”

Answer from Karen Duffek + Fuyubi Nakamura:

Well, this piece sure sent the MOA Curators on an interesting journey of discovery—and we even learned more about our own collection in the process. None of us knew immediately what it was. We tossed around all sorts of possibilities: eastern Indigenous North American, African, South American, Asian… but we couldn’t find examples to back up any of those ideas. Even identifying the materials was a challenge: one curator thought the interior looked like birchbark, another thought the edge looked like bamboo; the beads are typical of many beadwork practices around the world, but the tubular metal ones were unlike anything traditionally used in North America. One curator, looking at the floral beadwork designs, proposed that the piece might be from the Dene Nation of the Northwest Territories—but again, the other materials didn’t match up. Initial investigations into whether it could be from India or Indonesia found no examples.

Then finally, using a rather vague Google search for “bowl with beads,” we found success! There we spotted one very similar piece on someone’s blog, where it was identified as an offering bowl or basket used by the Hindu community in Bali, Indonesia. Now we could narrow down our search. Your offering bowl is made of dried leaves from palm trees known as lontar in Indonesia. The stiches you can see inside connect the lontar strips into a bowl shape, and attach the beads on the outside. Beadwork in Bali has traditionally been used to decorate sacred items, and has now become popularized through beaded designs on clothing, bags and sandals.

Offerings in Bali are called banten and are made for a variety of reasons. There are several types of offerings. Simple daily offerings known as Canang sari—fruit, flowers, rice, betel and incense—are placed in trays made of woven coconut or banana leaves, and left around a home, a family shrine or along the road. They are perishable goods and ephemeral works of art, and are a sacred way for Balinese Hindu worshippers to express gratitude and represent their devotion to the Hindu gods. More elaborate offerings are made for religious festivals, rituals at temples or at ceremonies.

Delighted that we were finally able to identify your bowl, we realized that MOA also has some similar bowls in its large Asian collection—but they too require research! This is how an inquiry like yours can sometimes give us an opportunity to get to know our own collection better and add to its documentation. Below are a couple of examples of MOA’s pieces—you will notice similarities and differences in their design.

MOA Collection Ib454. Photo by Derek Tan.
MOA Collection 985/4. Photo by Jessica Bushey.

The British Museum also has several bowls of this kind in its collection, for instance.

Congratulations on finding such an interesting piece at the thrift store!