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Panel 12. Stranger Parallels: Foreignness in Southeast Asian Arts

Chair: Jun Zubillaga-Pow (King’s College London)

Before colonial domination over the region now known as Southeast Asia, there has already been artistic intermingling between the locals and the Arabic, Chinese, Indian merchants and explorers. Since then, Southeast Asia as the causeway between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea has been posited as a strategic region for American and European expansions in both the industrial and digital eras. While historical and ethnographical narratives by the trespassers have burgeoned, in situ perceptions by the natives have remained lacklustre. From the perspective of culture and the arts, this panel aims to reconsider Victor Liebermann’s otherwise-Eurocentric historiography of the region as an erstwhile disparate assemblage of polities resistant to cultural integration. Situated within the current politics of decolonisation, this panel is interested in how the foreign has interwoven themselves into the aesthetic discourses of both mainland and maritime Southeast Asia. How did the Chinese, the Indian and the Arabic shape the arts when they first arrive?  How have various aspects of the arts changed as a result of the incoming of the farang, the bule and the angmoh? How does that which is foreign figure in the literary, performing and visual arts? How have foreigners and/or foreign elements become involved in the arts of the last millennia? Papers of 20-minutes are welcome from all academics and postgraduates.

Session 1

Paper 1: Mongols and Chinese in the Murals of Pagan between the 11th and 15th centuries

Claudine Bautze-Picron (Centre National de la Recherce Scientifique)

The painted walls and ceilings of the temples at Pagan, Burma, offer little space for the depiction of historical characters – the illustrated iconographic topics being all related to the life of the Buddha, his jātakas or the Buddhas of the past. Human characters depicted in these murals are anonymous monks or lay people usually belonging to the illustrated event. And rare, if not practically inexistent, are the examples where one can identify as ‘real’ donor a character included in the murals – the only known such examples being the carved images of probably Kyanzittha and the monk Shin Arahan displayed in the Ananda temple. Thus, considering this apparent lack of attention paid to actual human beings, one may wonder about the evident depiction of foreigners, Mongols or Chinese, in temples from the 13th century up to the mid-fifteenth century temple where they appear as worshippers (and probably also as benefactors), hunters or soldiers. The present paper wants to consider these images which have mostly remained unremarked up to these days. Attention should also be paid to their position and function within the temples. Like various other features noted in the murals, for instance the presence of decorative ornaments inspired from Chinese ceramics, of patterns drawn from Chinese textiles and the existence of fragments of blue and white ceramics discovered in various parts of the site, such depictions testify to the existence of peaceful mercantile relationships between the Burmese of Pagan and their great neighbour and to the deep aesthetic impact of Chinese art in the local arts.

Paper 2: How Foreign is Foreign? Ideas of Ethnicity in Late Burmese Wall Paintings

Alexandra Green (British Museum)

Burmese wall paintings of the Nyaungyan and early Konbaung dynasties (the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries) contain representations of Buddhist biography, primarily the Buddhas of the Past, the life of Gotama Buddha, and the jataka tales. In the course of depicting these stories, there are many pictures of people who are not Burmese. Some are specifically named as foreign in the captions that are part of the murals; others are portrayed as having non-Burmese features or as wearing foreign clothes. Generally, these people are respectfully represented in the murals. In the second half of the eighteenth century, however, as King Alaungpaya, the founder of the Konbaung dynasty, attempted to introduce separatist ideas into national discourse, the manner in which foreigners are depicted and the roles that they play in the wall paintings change. Facial features are now often monstrous, rather than different but human. Additionally, ethnic groups not traditionally portrayed, particularly the Chinese, are now included, perhaps indicating a shift in ethnic roles within Burmese society. In this paper I explore the possible reasons for these new representations. Initially, in some instances, similar religious beliefs trump different ethnic identities, a fact encouraged by the fluidity of political relationships in Burmese during the Nyaungyan dynasty. In other situations, the differing appearance of particular individuals relates to types of interactions between Burmese and foreigners, such as the Thai, Portuguese, Spanish, Indians, and other peoples from the hill regions. The introduction of anti-foreign sentiment seems linked with efforts at unification after the chaotic dynastic change in the mid-eighteenth century, and finally, the use of monstrous appearances may reflect specific kings’ efforts, in conjunction with court brahmins, to make religious changes. Depicting ethnicity in Burmese wall paintings is therefore not a straightforward matter, but reflects a number of factors  ̶  religious, social, and political  ̶  operating in Burmese society.

Paper 3: Beckoning Fish-Dragons: Inscribing Ming Loyalist Ambitions onto the Southern Vietnamese Frontier Landscape

Claudine Ang (Yale-NUS College)

In the eighteenth century, the Mekong delta was a site of interaction between an expansionary Vietnamese kingdom and a network of dispersed Chinese Ming loyalists. Through works of literature composed on the frontier, immigrant Vietnamese and Chinese literati attempted to shape the cultural and political landscape of the Mekong delta. This paper examines an ambitious eighteenth-century literary project, which takes as its topic the landscape of the port city of Ha Tien (now located on the border between Cambodia and Vietnam). In this project, Ha Tien’s ten scenic sites were first described in poetry, then distributed via the South China Sea trading network to thirty-one other poets scattered along the Vietnamese and southern Chinese coast. I argue that the poems contained coded messages urging dispersed Ming loyalists to make Ha Tien their new capital. This diasporic Chinese political vision, however, faced competition from Vietnamese ambitions on the frontier, which found literary expression in the form of a set of ten parallel poems composed in response to the original ten-poem suite. Through a close examination of the two sets of landscape poems, this paper demonstrates the divergent ways in which Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants imagined the Mekong delta frontier in the eighteenth-century.

Session 2

Paper 1: Negotiating cultural hybridity in turn of the century Vietnam: visual art as a test-case 

Natalia Kraevskaia (Russian State University for the Humanities & Vietnam National University, Hanoi); Iola Lenzi (LASALLE College of the Arts-Goldsmith, Singapore)

Unease regarding cultural assimilation and hybridity pervades discussions about Vietnamese contemporary art and its future. This interest in processes related to interactions between cultures is rooted in an awareness of possible negative influences of cultural globalization, many fearing that external ideas may hamper the development of Vietnamese art. Is this a legitimate worry, and what are the consequences, material and intellectual, of foreign influence on Vietnamese visual art today? Though globalization is a relatively new term, the concept is in many ways a familiar one in Vietnam, and Southeast Asia beyond. Cultural exchange amongst different civilizations has for millennia been a defining characteristic of diasporic Southeast Asia. Yet despite this historically-established ability to absorb and successfully indigenise foreign cultural elements, people in Vietnam and elsewhere fret about cultural dilution. If contemporary Vietnamese art displays cultural hybridity, it is also often a conduit of national voice. In this connection, with twenty-first century vision, how should the art of the colonial period be understood: as pure Vietnamese, or contaminated? In what way does cultural exchange mark art today vis-a-vis that of the pre-doi moi period, and how do today’s artists filter ideas spawned by cultural exchange? Our paper also considers artists’ different approaches to assimilating the foreign. Analysing visual examples, we explore processing strategies, cross-disciplinary approaches, formal  idioms, themes, methodologies, ethical codes, and ideologies in Vietnamese art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Our paper raises these issues in the Vietnamese context, but also explores parallels in the wider Southeast Asian framework.

Paper 2: ‘Home scholarship,’ internalist perspective and scholastic fallacy in Southeast Asian Studies

Rommel A. Curaming (University of Brunei Darussalam)

About ten years ago, Ariel Heryanto raised the question, “Can there be Southeast Asians in Southeast Asian Studies?” (Mousson 20002) The cynical tone, if not also intent, of this question seems unmistakable. Yet, one may concede that it foregrounds some issues that ought to have been addressed earlier on, particularly about the unequal power relations between local and foreign scholars. With the apparent shifting of the gravity of Southeast Asian Studies from the outside into the region—as shown for instance in the increasing number of Southeast Asian ‘home scholars’ (Thongchai Winichakul 2003) doing Southeast Asian Studies, the rise of various institutions that seek to ‘Asianize Asian Studies’ (SEASREP, API, ASF), the proliferation of institutions in the region that ‘do’ Southeast Asian Studies, and the rise of the ‘regional perspective’ (Goh 2011)—it seems that Heryanto’s question has found, or is in the course of finding, an affirmative answer.

This development proceeds under the shadow of a long-standing but in recent years intensifying notion of the ‘crisis in area studies’ (Abraham 1999; Burgess 2003; Dirklik 2005; Gross and Wesley-Smith 2010; Miyoshi and Harootunian 2002; Szanton 2004; Water 2000;). The seemingly contradictory trajectory of Southeast Asian Studies in Southeast Asia and the ‘fate’ of area studies in general speaks volume to the growing confidence and vitality among the increasing number of ‘home scholars’ in the region who are seeking to chart the course of this field of study. While Benedict Anderson has long ruminated on this possibility and others (e.g. van Leur, Smail, Benda, Salazar, Covar and Enriquez in the Philippines, Sartono Kartodirdjo in Indonesia, and S. H. Alatas and S. F. Alatas in Malaysia/Singapore) have earlier explored some of its fundamental features, Goh Beng-Lan’s (2011) long and thought-provoking introductory chapter in the volume Decentring and Diversifying Southeast Asian Studies arguably constitutes thus the far the most developed and vigorous justifications for the internalist, local/regional perspective or approach to Southeast Asian Studies. It is not without significance that it came from within the region itself, at the time of the apparently growing confidence among Southeast Asian scholars. It seems to serve as a coming-of-age manifesto for what may be considered as the rise of ‘home’ scholarship in the field. One is seduced by the possibility of the region ceasing to be mere “object of study” and eventually become the “locus of disciplinary and scholarly enterprise,” as Mignolo ( 1999, 47) put it.

What this paper seeks to do is two-fold: to evaluate the justifications proposed for the internalist/local/ regional perspective and to identify a number of its politico-ethical implications. It specifically aims to address the following questions:

  1. Does this approach represent a truly progressive alternative to existing approaches, or it merely complicates or reformulates the existing pool of ideas, resulting in a sort of intellectual involution?
  2. How does Bourdiue’s notion of ‘scholastic fallacy’—the tendency for scholars to unwittingly privilege their supposedly disinterested ‘knowing’ position—help explain the difficulties in finding an analytic path more capable of truly empowering the sub-alterns, which progressive scholarship is supposed to be all about?
  3. What is the way forward from here on?

Paper 3: Strangers in Paradise: Exhibiting Southeast Asian Art and Identity in International Spaces 

Ana Maria Theresa P. Labrador (National Museum of the Philippines)

This paper proposes to examine representations of Southeast Asian artists that are exhibited in the ongoing 7th Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane as well as those recently held in Yokohama and in Dhaka that are Asian in scope. Since most of the selections are done by a group of curators whose filters are further sifted by curators in the local Southeast Asian art scenes, I would like to show the challenges to claims of artistic affiliations based on regions. I would further propose that these distinctions made are based on negotiated processes that are recreated in international art spaces. In many cases, Southeast Asia is a shifting concept in the contemporary art scene and I have often wondered of its stability as a category in classifying the work of artists in or from the region.