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Encounters: the Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800

Bhawan Ruangsilp's report on the exhibition and the conference on encounters between Asia and Europe.

Under the title "Encounters: the Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800", the aim of the conference, which was taken place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was to examine various aspects of the encounters between Asia and Europe in the early modern period.

The 12-13 November conference featured speakers from, among others, the University of Illinois in Chicago, University of Vienna, University of Oxford, Clark University, Leiden University, as well as The India Office Records. The audience was a colourful mixed crowd of scholars, curators, artists, students, amateur researchers and people with interest

In the opinion of Bhawan, the conference was rather successful in trying to balance the content between the views from the Europeans and their Asian counterparts, although the speakers were limited within those from Europe and North America.

"This conference was nicely eye-opening thanks to its rather different approach from my own, namely through sources which are mainly the representations in material culture," said the researcher on Dutch/European perceptions of early modern Siam.

Bhawan's report

This international conference was an integral part of the exhibition of the same title, which was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 23 September to 5 December 2004.

The programme was divided into two days and two main themes. The first day, dealing with 'Perception and Reality', discussed "how the meeting engendered visions of Asia and Europe in the imagination of the other". The second day, thematizing 'Interaction and Exchange', offered "new perspectives on the cultural and material dialogue between the East and the West".

The conference was opened by Anthony Farrington (The India Office Records) by providing 'The Trading Background' of the encounters. Starting with the fifteenth-century European penetrations into the trade systems of and between the Indian Ocean and China which met in Southeast Asia, he carefully reminded the audience that European trade and shipping contributed only a small part in the whole Asian context. The speaker gave a general account of the exchange of goods as well as the meeting of peoples by using examples and anecdotes largely drawn from the archives of the English East India Company. The quest for knowledge of the other was the result not only of commercial interests but also of intellectual convictions.

The independent American scholar, Annemarie Jordan, gave a very interesting presentation on 'Exotic and Asian Curiosities and Luxury Goods in European Collections'. The collections concerned here are those of the Habsburgers in the Renaissance whose passion for exotica is testified, among other things, in the form of the royal collections later known as Kunst und Wunderkammers, or the chambers of art and wonder. For these European royal collectors, exotica served as "visual symbols of power and rule over world empires". However, these exotic commodities did not serve only as status symbol to distinguish the collectors from the rest; they also served as capital for further investment. Besides the famous collection of Emperor Rudolf II (r. 1576-1612), Mrs Jordan drew our attention to the one amassed by Catherine of Portugal (1507-78) and her role as an exceptional collector. The researcher addressed the sister of Emperor Charles V the 'first merchant queen' and, amusingly, the 'shopper'. How the Portuguese queen organized the acquisitions of the exotica is an interesting question to be answered in the future study.

The Europeans did not stop just at collecting. Imitation and adaptation of Asian styles of representation were among the most fascinating results of the interactions with the Orient. Dealing with the phenomenon of Chinoiserie of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Ebba Koch (University of Vienna) and Michael Burden (University of Oxford) demonstrated how the perceptions of the East were translated into the new elements in decoration art, music and performance art of Europe. Chinoiserie is seen as a response in the world of European arts to the encounters with the East, covering from South Asia and Southeast Asia to China and Japan. Professor Koch presented the work-in-progress of the restoration project of the Millionenzimmer at Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna. The Austrian court partly acquired the artefacts from India via the Dutch East India Company (VOC). This audience room designed for the service of Empress Maria Theresa (r. 1740-80) is adorned with the miniatures from Mughal India, annexed to the Rococo style of the room. The artists went further in creating their own fresco paintings with Mughal motives. With help of computerized simulation, Dr. Burden introduced the reconstruction of the earliest representation of Chinoiserie on the London opera stage, which showed Henry Purcell's Fairy-Queen with a Chinese garden as the setting.

Laura Hostetler (University of Illinois in Chicago) continued to guide us through the process of perceiving and representing the reality of the other, but from the other side of the meeting, i.e. from the Asian perceptions, by presenting the Qing Imperial Illustrations of Tributary Peoples from 1751. This pictorial work, commissioned by Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735-96), represents 301 different groups of peoples, including Europeans, and portrays a male and female representative of each group. Each picture stands in accompany of the ethnographic text describing "the history of a given country or region's relationship with China; the location of the country; the customs of its peoples; famous local products; and information on the colonial and trading activities of the country in question in Asia". The point of reference in this work is understandably the power relations between the Dynastic China and the others. Unfortunately the question as to how the artists, who were commissioned to conduct this work, did gather their information about the peoples they depicted is still unanswered.

Gauvin Bailey (Clark University) began the second day with the question of cross-cultural interactions, exchange of ideas, and the hybrid identities they created. The story of the almost contemporary two Jesuit artists from different ethnic-cultural background, both practicing their belief and their arts in China, is intriguing. On the one hand is Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1768), an Italian who adapted his original painting style - didactic Euro-Christian religious - to the Chinese court style in the service of the imperial Qing Dynasty. On the other hand is Wu Li (1632-1718) who created Christian-Chinese poetical genre but remained true to Daoist and Confucianist painting style. Common in faith but differently in styles and directions, they both created the blurred boundaries between European, Christian and Chinese elements in Chinese art.

William Dalrymple, the famous writer of 'White Mughals', turned our attention to the meeting between peoples by presenting the case of the Delhi-based White Mughals who tried to "straddle the porous cultural boundaries linking the Christian West to the Indo-Islamic Mughal court". These Europeans who served in the Mughal army were assigned to live in a suburb outside Delhi known as Firingi Pura (Foreigner's Town), where their lives were torn between two lifestyles and two worlds.

The interactions between the Indians and Europeans were once more the topic of the conference co-organizer Amin Jaffer whose presentation dealt with the popularity of the Firingi (foreigner) style in the interior of the Indian courts. Like their European counterparts, the Indian rulers considered the exotic works from Europe as a means to "enhance their status and represent their authority".

The last three presentations concentrated on the interactions between Europe and Japan. While Timon Screech (School of Oriental and African Studies -SOAS-, University of London,) viewed the exchange of exotic and luxury goods as a trade itself, Cynthia Viallé (University of Leiden) examined the material exchange in the form of gift-giving as 'In Aid of Trade'. Dr. Screech investigated the "Experiment in Painting and Print Dealing between England and Japan" in early seventeenth-century. Ms Viallé showed how well the VOC, from the very beginning of their trade with Japan, was aware of the significance of gift-giving in the host society. In order to maintain sound commercial relations with the Japanese, the Dutch made great effort to understand the mechanism of the gift exchange and to participate in that process.

Anna Jackson, another co-organizer of the conference, closed the gathering with her investigation into the foreign influence in the fashion of the Edo Japan. The fascination with the foreign garments and fabrics, which the Portuguese, Dutch and English brought in from Europe and South and Southeast Asia reveals, in agreement with the views made in the two previous presentations, "Japan's broader response to the outside world".

Since I myself am conducting a research on Dutch/European perceptions of early modern Siam based on the written sources - European travel literature and mainly the VOC records -, in other words literary and textual representation, this conference was nicely eye-opening thanks to its rather different approach from my own, namely through sources which are mainly the representations in material culture.

However, the thought came across my mind of the almost absence of my own region and area of study, Southeast Asia, from this conference's content. As the curators of the exhibition and organisers of the conference, Dr Jaffer and Ms Jackson, pointed out, the conference and exhibition had to confine themselves within the major regions like China, Japan and India, for which a great number of material evidences of the early modern interactions is available. Southeast Asia had to remain in the background because of the quasi-lack of artefacts that could be available for the display in the exhibition.

For those who investigate the early modern encounters between Asia and Europe through written sources, especially the participants of the TANAP Programme who approach the historical interactions through literary and textual representation, it must be delighting to know that we still have much to contribute from the results of our digging into the archives of the VOC and the other, especially for the field of Southeast Asia.

Facing the reality that how selective history can be because of the availability and unavailability of, especially written, sources, interdisciplinary approach offers, though not a solution, an opportunity to explore more about the cross-cultural interactions.

My personal wish is that there would be an initiative from Southeast Asia to organise an exhibition cum conference of this scale. We may have more assets from the past available than we are aware of.

Last but not least, I would like to express my appreciation to the organisers of the conference and the exhibition for their efforts to confine such a vast field of study into one event and to bring together not only the artefacts but also peoples to share their expertise and to exchange their ideas. Being an open conference for the public, the audience was a colourful mixed crowd of scholars, curators, artists, students, amateur researchers and people with interest. The combination of conference and exhibition clearly brought academia closer to the broader public.

Seeing the divide between the East and the West in the past, each of us may have different idea as to whether that divide has been really blurred or actually just changed its form. For certain, the exchange of material and the meeting of people do continue, as Farrington had said at the beginning, out of commercial interests and intellectual convictions.

Curators of the exhibition: Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer

No paper was circulated. Some speakers were the contributors of the exhibition catalogue. Exhibition catalogue: 24 and 45 pounds

click here to visit the exhibition on-line
click here to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum

click here to learn more about the author, TANAP researcher Bhawan Ruangsilp


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