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The Makings of Art from Southeast Asia and the Problems of Colonial Legacy

A conference organized by the Institute of Technology Bandung (ITB) and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)

Key issues:

  1. History and shifts of knowledge production on art from Indonesia and Southeast Asia;
  2. International artist and scholar networks;
  3. Tracing objects and networks to talk about politics of representation, collecting histories, and decolonization projects

The Makings of Art from Southeast Asia and the Problems of Colonial Legacy brings together artists, curators, and scholars from various disciplines to rethink artistic and curatorial practices, and histories of framing and collecting objects from Southeast Asia. It aims to facilitate discussions about the continuing colonial legacies in knowledge production about art in the region as evidenced in the makings of exhibitions and the institutionalization of art historical narratives and collections. The conference contributes to ongoing global discussions about what decolonization means for the knowledge production of art by following the perspectives that begin in Southeast Asia. It addresses the politics of representation by zooming in on the histories and networks of artists, scholars, and collecting institutions from the late nineteenth century onward.

Colonial scholarship positioned art objects originating from Southeast Asia largely within Hindu-Buddhist frameworks and failed to incorporate and analyze the presence of other religious and/or cultural forms, and these patterns form a legacy. For example, colonial scholarship on art in Indonesia commonly locates the “authentic” in the Hindu-Buddhist and pre-Islamic East Indies, arguing that the arrival of Islam led to a decline in creative productions and that Islam failed to inspire artistic creations (Sears, 1987; Sabapathy, 1996; Bayly, 2004; Shatanawi, 2014; Bloembergen 2017; 2021). Colonial categorizations of objects frequently extend to modern and contemporary artistic production and display, narrowing the possibilities of interpretation of art from Southeast Asia as either merely “nationalist” or still significantly engaged with the Hindu-Buddhist past. Modern artworks from the early and mid-twentieth century and the contemporary art produced since circa the 1970s from Southeast Asia are often framed as derivative, and consequently they are neither modern, original, nor avant-gardist according to Western conceptions of these terms. In the West, artworks from Southeast Asia dating from late colonial and early independent periods also tend to be stored in collections of ethnographic museums instead of in modern art museums, despite explicit resistance against such categorizations posed by local artists and intellectuals.

In response to these lingering institutional conventions, The Makings of Art from Southeast Asia and the Problem of Colonial Legacies seeks to address the following core themes: 1) to critically explore the impact of colonial legacies in knowledge production about art from Southeast Asia; 2) the socio-political biographies of art-objects across networks of art collecting and; 3) genealogies of ideas about the region’s artistic practice; 4) to provide a platform for the presentation and discussion of (historic, contemporary and future-oriented) artistic and curatorial strategies for thinking beyond ossifying institutional frameworks for representing art from Southeast Asia. To do so, we will invite participants to focus and expound on the following questions, and others: How, and to what extent do art institutions reflect on or question colonial legacies and attitudes in their teaching, research, and practices of display, and (why) should they? How do we transgress established categories and limited perceptions of art to acknowledge and encourage more diverse points of view that better resonate with contemporary societies? To find answers to the abovementioned problems and provocations, we will draw on the ways artists, curators, and scholars use local forms of knowledge to define art, and how they relate to the past and present of their profession and practice.

The conference is conceived of as a three-day gathering with presentations, discussions, seminars, and workshops set up in collaboration with ITB and KITLV. It will take place in Bandung, the symbolic site of political decolonization, where the spirit of liberation percolated in the staging of the Asia-Africa Conference in 1955. As two institutions that have strong ties to the history of colonization and as laboratories of colonial modernity in the East Indies and its metropole, ITB and KITLV serve as more than a symbolic site for epistemic change. Both institutions strive to produce research, artistic pedagogy, and practice that confront the shadows of colonialism. Taking Bandung as the inspiration for and connection to ongoing discussions about the decolonization of knowledge, the conference seeks to interrogate and break away from what is colonial about the representation of art from Southeast Asia.