What is the morally appropriate region in which to think, write, and curate?
In the many attempts to write an art history of an ‘elsewhere’, the art historian who chooses to dispense with the nation or the global/world as a framework will inevitably need to delineate a geographical parameter (however contained or expansive) to account for the locality of art and its affinities. In such cases, rather than assume that a region is a predetermined set of geographically-fixed coordinates with a set of corresponding cultural essences, the writing of art history in Southeast Asia offers disciplinary lessons on the commitment of a scholarly/curatorial community in search of a ‘perspective’ to call one’s own.
As a perspective, Southeast Asia as a region is replete with all the trappings of an imagination. Though conceived under the aegis of the cold war, this concept of the region has prospected the perennial. As an acronym S.E.A., it creatively spells out a unique cultural geography that has historical bodies of water as medium and conduit, even while ASEAN largely subscribes to a land-centric idea of sovereignty. It is only on sea that neatly delineated nation-state borders dissolve into a mess of contestations. This is however indicative of how a much more narrow geopolitical paradigm of identity has come up against an older sense of self with multiple, shifting and at times playful affinities to place.
Yet anyone operating within the constantly shifting tectonics of the art world today will learn of other competing paradigms. Nanyang, the Malayo-polynesian, the Nusantara, Indian Ocean, Asia-Pacific, Afro-Asian/non-aligned, ASLIA, Mekong, and even Berlin, are/were parallel forms of regional, sub-regional or intra-regional imagination. At moments when we might be overwhelmed by different types of entanglements that have coloured curatorial discourse, some might feel compelled to ask, what is the most morally appropriate region in which to think and write about?
In asking this question rhetorically, I am in turn bringing into view our tendency to fall back on the formulaic. As we ‘locate’ Southeast Asia, we often fall back on tried and tested templates of an art historical narrative that often privilege aesthetic objects legible to the West. Recent discussion of the region seems to merely reinforce the national – conforming to the geopolitical pact with ASEAN member states and a number of neighbouring countries with demonstrably deep economic stakes in the region.
In a recent article, art theorist David Teh attributes this to a theoretical inertia that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by emerging scholars who show ‘little interest in complicating the geography that increasingly frames their output.’ Teh suggests a much more robust potential can be discovered if we give theory its due, since ‘Theory affords a reflexivity that complicates and enriches a more factual art history, dislodging assumptions about what makes art important or valuable.”
I wonder then how we might proceed with this theorisation? How can theorisation be thought of in less exclusive terms but in terms of contemporaneity – the capacity for regions not only to overlap, but to co-exist?
In Malaysia, the concept of nusantara as a region has gained compelling resonance as a cultural unit and identity, on some occasions, even fuelling an exclusivist ethno-nationalist imagination of belonging. In teaching Southeast Asian art history, this however does not mean that one is required to dispense nusantara with suspect in toto.
Instead, when discussing ideas of regionality, ideas and values that make the nusantara such a compelling imagination are also accorded to other regional affinities so that these other forms of regional enchantments are made equally compelling. I have tried to place art and culture against an expanded set of cultural vectors. In surveying the art of a region that I’ve often suspended in brackets that we named ‘Southeast Asia’, the regional unit made up of ten official member nation-states are seen as one prism in a kaleidoscope that, when slightly tilted, offers us a different permutation of world-affinities, each equally vivid, urgent and aesthetically redemptive.
Moreover, it is also an invitation to see many new kaleidoscopic permutations as ongoing thought-exercises. As art historian Joan Kee suggests, comparison as a method has the potential to offer new vectors of prospective regionalisation, ‘one in which geographic affiliations matter less than the recognition of contingency, where sites are configured as being connected, but not beholden, to each other.’
Just as Jame Scott’s study of the anarchic highlands of mainland Southeast Asia is being creatively applied to understanding the sulu zone, in our search to find a region we can feel at home in, it might be worth reminding ourselves that, like our constant shifting state of mind, these are homes on the move. In this space, can the Malay world be productively thought of in comparison to the Carribean?
This short reflection has in fact repurposed the title of Arundhati Roy’s essay What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?. In Roy’s essay, she weighs in on India’s postcolonial debate, and the role of English, a language fraught with imperial legacy, in a post-independent India. At the same time, the multi-ethnic society of India was equally suspicious of any local language accorded with new state-sanctioned preeminence at the expense of other equally vibrant forms of linguistic expression. In addressing the question, Roy instead concludes that the most morally appropriate language in such a scenario is the ‘language of translation’. By highlighting language’s fluid, renewing and connective registers, Roy instead chooses to recognise language’s capacity to bridge cultures rather than operate as citadels of identity.
In returning to Sabapathy’s call for the development of a perspective, it is timely for us to revisit the ambition of this prospect and recognise it as a journey rather than a destination. Instead of arriving at a definition of what kind of a region Southeast Asia is, we might one day learn that the clearest and most comforting idea of self is the one that exists in between multiple belongings, and that the aesthetic work we do is necessarily one that carries meaning across different interpretive frames.
Published February 2021.
 T K Sabapathy, ‘Developing Regionalist Perspectives in Southeast Asian Art Historiography’, in Caroline Turner and Rhana Devenport, eds, The Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1996, p 16.
 David Teh. 2020. ‘Regionality and Contemporaneity’ World Art, 10:2-3, 363-4.
 Joan Kee. 2011. ‘Introduction Contemporary Southeast Asian Art The Right Kind of Trouble’ Third World 25:4 July, 381(371-381).
 Arundhati Roy. 2018. ‘What is the morally appropriate language in which to think and write?’ LitHub, 25 July: https://lithub.com/what-is-the-morally-appropriate-language-in-which-to-think-and-write/
About the Writer
Simon Soon is an art historian based in Kuala Lumpur where he lectures at the University of Malaya. He is also a team member of Malaysia Design Archive. His research focuses primarily on 19th and 20th-century art and visual culture in Southeast Asia, although the region he studies is framed along two temporally and spatially expansive and overlapping corridors: the Indian Ocean and the Third World. He occasionally curates exhibitions and makes artworks. His recent curatorial work includes collaborating with Azril K Ismail and Hoo Fan Chon on Bayangnya Itu Timbul Tenggelam: Photographic Cultures in Malaysia for Ilham Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. In his artistic practice, Simon works chiefly in collaboration. To learn more about his interests and activities, visit: www.bawahangin.cargo.site.