Revisiting the ‘Lands below the Winds’: Student Representations of Early and Early Modern Southeast Asian Material Culture
by Dahlia Setiyawan
Teaching about societies distant in time and space from students’ experiences poses a special challenge. As I prepared to teach History 176A (Southeast Asia to 1800) at UCLA, I found myself returning to a central question. How might I connect students to the region’s history during these eras in a way that would both illuminate this past reality and convey its relevance to the present?
The answer was a hands-on assignment that asked students to recreate objects from the past and present them in a public exhibit. Over the span of 10 weeks, twenty-one UCLA juniors and seniors from diverse backgrounds, interests, and majors worked individually and collaboratively to recreate Southeast Asian artifacts with modern-day materials and methods. They critically analyzed their objects’ historical contexts and investigated their current-day significance in research papers that they submitted with their finished products.
The culmination of their efforts was the exhibit “Revisiting the ‘Lands below the Winds’: Student Representations of Early and Early Modern Southeast Asian Material Culture.” Co-sponsored by the Department of History, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and UCLA’s Powell Library featured a range of student projects that replicate the styles of pottery, temple carvings, religious iconography and other forms of material culture found throughout pre-1800 Southeast Asia. Reflecting a time when Southeast Asian peoples selectively embraced and interpreted outside cultural influences to reinforce existing beliefs and traditions and to establish new world views, the objects on display illuminate the diversity of the region’s cultural heritage.
Collaborations with campus and community partners helped the students decide on the objects that they would submit to the exhibit. A. Jade Alburo, Librarian for Southeast Asian Studies, Pacific Islands Studies, Pan-Asian Studies, and Religion at the university’s Charles E. Young Research Library provided suggestions for finding sources from among the library’s print and digital collections. A guest lecture from Julie Romain, an art historian and Assistant Curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), introduced the types of art and artifacts produced throughout Southeast Asia before 1800. The application of interactive education as a means to summarize several centuries’ worth of Southeast Asian material culture for an undergraduate history course presented Julie with an appealing challenge. She showed the students that material culture presents a valuable way to interpret Southeast Asians’ selective incorporation of Chinese and Indian influences in the establishment of early social, cultural, and political systems. “I have always been interested in developing a more integrative approach to teaching the history of the region through object-based learning. It seemed logical to link the art and artifacts I study in the museum to the major themes explored in the course,” she explained.
A timely Center for Southeast Asian Studies colloquium from environmental and cultural conservationist Alan Potkin of Northern Illinois University offered still further inspiration as work on the projects progressed. The students who attended the talk saw the link between their own efforts to recreate historical artifacts and those of scholars such as Dr. Potkin who uses virtual reality technologies to archive, interpret, and replicate South and Southeast Asian Buddhist art forms, cultural heritage sites, and landscapes. “The key connection I made to my own project [to reproduce a 15th C. Vietnamese dish] is that [even] damaged artifacts can still be replicated with simple methods such as using a projector to trace the original pattern,” history major Deepeaka Dhaliwal observed, noting how a good replica can retain the authenticity of an original piece.
Through replicating historical objects the students became deeply attuned to the insights to be gained from the hands-on study of Southeast Asian material culture. As he researched Cambodian stele, Hayden Speck, a biology major, came across an inscription found at Sdok Kok Thom, an 11th Century temple. Speck said, “I came to the realization that it was an extremely important part of the foundation of the Angkor Empire’s history because it chronicles the history of a family of priests who served the kings of Angkor from its founding to 1052 CE.” Inspired by his find, he chose to replicate the opening lines of the stela for his exhibit piece. For their project, history majors Erica Beebe and Blake Selig and psychology major Jordan Murrel collaborated to reproduce three Javanese masks dating from the 1st through the 19th Centuries. “This project allowed us to take a look at Java through the eyes of artists [and] it was also a great way to see hundreds of years of Javanese history in three pieces” they explained, reflecting upon the significance of their work.
In addition to learning the importance of material culture, sharing their work with the UCLA community has encouraged the class to recognize the value of public history. The students’ enthusiasm to exhibit their projects is shared by Inquiry Librarian and Lead for Exhibits and Programs Catherine Brown, who offered the Powell Library rotunda as an exhibit space and oversaw the installation of the finished work. She believes that collaborating with students and instructors to produce such an exhibit is particularly important to the College Library: “Since we’re devoted to undergraduates, an ideal Powell Library exhibit features student scholarly or creative work. This unique exhibit features both, and we’re thrilled to host it!”
The consensus among all who have participated in this endeavor was that the process of building an exhibit by replicating historical artifacts has been extraordinarily fulfilling, not in the least for its potential to inspire other instructors and students considering similar projects. “It is far from impossible to bring an ancient work of art back to life,” states Randall Ellis, a junior biology major. “Creating something extraordinary takes meticulous effort, but after completion, the results and satisfaction speak for themselves.”
Dahlia Gratia Setiyawan received her Ph.D. in South and Southeast Asian history from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2014. She is currently a lecturer in the UCLA Department of History.