“[I]n a supremely ambivalent gesture, the future Buddha leaves behind the many subaltern women who literally define his princely existence to seek a new transcendent state. Is this a protofeminist act or simply another in the apparently limitless reinventions of phallocentrism?”
The question—taken from Ashley Thompson’s keynote lecture, which launched the Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories symposium in October 2017—promises a traversal of disciplines and methodologies including politics and history, theosophy and deconstruction, as well as a ranging from South to Southeast Asia, also encompassing their diasporas. The Hiram W. Woodward Chair in Southeast Asian Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, and the author of numerous publications in English, French and Khmer, Professor Ashley Thompson is known for her theoretically rich interpretations of both the premodern and contemporary art and culture of Southeast Asia, with a special emphasis on Cambodia.
Thompson’s keynote lecture, titled Figuring the Buddha, discussed artworks ranging from ancient Buddhist sculpture to contemporary performance art. This set the tone for the three days which followed. Intellectually ambitious, methodologically experimental, and ideologically committed, Thompson’s lecture was grounded in close visual analyses of artworks and their contexts. This commitment to looking closely at artworks as well as archives was a common thread linking the otherwise quite diverse presentations and discussions in the symposium and workshop.
Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories announced itself as the first event of its kind, and the international Call for Papers received a strong response, with around fifty submissions coming from leading universities across four continents. From these, ten papers were selected for presentation, by both early career (graduate students and postdoctoral researchers) and mid-career researchers. Topics ranged widely, for example from 19th century photography in Thailand to infrastructural critiques in the Philippines. One of the key aims of the symposium was to provide a platform for a diverse range of perspectives and research topics. Funding from the Asian Studies Association of Australia, as well as several other sources, were crucial in the achievement of this aim, allowing the organisers to provide travel and accommodation assistance to several early career researchers and scholars without institutional support, most coming from Southeast Asia.
Hosted by the Power Institute at the University of Sydney from 11–13 October 2017, Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories was well attended, and discussions were lively and engaged. There was a palpable feeling that together we were building a new cohort of researchers invested in the intellectual project of furthering studies of sexual difference and gender in research on art and visual culture in and of Southeast Asia.
The event was organised along three broad trajectories: (1) writing women into Southeast Asian art histories; (2) picturing gender in Southeast Asian texts, paintings, films and photographs; and (3) the politics of the feminine in the visual culture of this region. Panels structured around these questions were chaired by invited scholars. The lively discussions continued with the launch of Dr Wulan Dirgantoro’s book, Feminisms and Contemporary Art in Indonesia (Amsterdam University Press, 2017), by Professor Thompson.
In line with the stated aim of building the capacity of early career researchers, and strengthening transnational scholarly networks, the third day of Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories comprised a full schedule of workshops on sexual difference and related issues in Southeast Asia. Thompson conducted a “masterclass” for symposium participants and invited guests. This entailed a close reading of several texts by Jacques Derrida that were circulated in advance. A second workshop led by Dr Clare Veal gave participants and invited scholars an opportunity to speak frankly about their research experiences, including challenges faced, with a focus on issues of sexual difference in fieldwork and writing.
The three-day symposium closed with a brief discussion of plans for future research into gender and art in Southeast Asia, with many of the participants agreeing that more events like this, and other opportunities for critical discussions of ideas, would be useful and important.
With this in mind, the conference convenors are now planning an edited volume of the journal Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, published by NUS Press (Singapore), which will feature revised papers from the conference. The issue will be published in March 2019, and will also include archival documents from Southeast Asian feminist art events which have not before been publicly available.
The convenors are also planning a second event, to be held at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University in November 2018. This will expand the purview from the Sydney symposium, to also include discussions of architecture and other forms of design. To be titled Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories and Visual Cultures: Art, Design and Canon-making, the Chulalongkorn event will be structured around workshop discussions, and will grapple with how feminist critiques of the canon might intersect with other methodological questions specific to Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art and culture.
Featured image: Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Wat Tha Suthawat Angthong (detail), 1994. Photograph by: Aroon Permpoonsophon.