Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories

Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Wat Tha Suthawat Angthong (detail), 1994. Photograph by: Aroon Permpoonsophon
Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Wat Tha Suthawat Angthong (detail), 1994. Photograph by: Aroon Permpoonsophon

Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories, 11-13 October 2017, University of Sydney

Convened by Yvonne Low, Roger Nelson, Clare Veal, and Stephen H. Whiteman 

Speakers included: Ashley Thompson (SOAS, University of London); Eileen Legaspi Ramirez (University of the Philippines); Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol (University of Michigan); Eksuda Singhalampong (Silpakorn University); May Adadol Ingawanij (University of Westminster); Roger Nelson (National Gallery Singapore); Soumya James (independent scholar); Tina Le (University of Michigan); Wulan Dirgantoro (University of Melbourne); Yvonne Low (University of Sydney); Siobhan Campbell (University of Sydney).

“[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, and 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 pre-modern 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: Defining Experiences (Amsterdam University Press, 2017), by 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.

Wulan Dirgantoro and Ashley Thompson at the launch of Dirgantoro’s book, Feminisms and Contemporary Art in Indonesia: Defining Experiences (Amsterdam University Press, 2017). Photograph courtesy of Clare Veal.


A report of the event was published on Asian Studies Association of Australia. To view the full symposium program, click here to download.

Supported  by the Asian Studies Association of Australia, the Power Institute, the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, the School of Literature, Art and Media and Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.

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