Online Conference: The Art of the Borderland Across South and Southeast Asia

May 6-7, 2022 8:30-11:00 AM

Organized by Akshaya Tankha
(Postdoctoral Associate, Yale University South Asian Studies Council)

Conference registration at

Nagaland house

A house in a village in the northeast Indian state of Nagaland (erstwhile Naga Hills District) that was built to specification for the highest-ranking Japanese officer stationed there in 1944, when the Japanese army had occupied the region for a brief period during the Second World War

“The Art of the Borderland across South and Southeast Asia” is a conference that brings together research that explores the geographical contiguities across South and Southeast Asia through a focus on regional art, visual and public cultures, and media practices. By drawing attention to the inter-Asian borderland through a consideration of the region’s aesthetic practices, the presentations highlight regional narratives of modern and contemporary art that diversify critiques of master narratives of national modernities and our understanding of art worlds as plural. They also show how visual, public, and media cultures of the inter-Asian borderland enact imaginaries of space and place that transgress and challenge the region’s regard as territorially bounded and fixed. Further, they discuss what material practices in the borderlands of South and Southeast Asia reveal about the modern and contemporary visual culture of the state. In doing so, “The Art of the Borderland” challenges the region’s dominant image as an aberrant site of exceptionality, strengthening its regard as the ground from which to study and theorize Asia’s pasts and present.

Day 1: May 6, 2022

 8:30-8:40 AM

Opening remarks: Akshaya Tankha, Dr. Malathy Singh Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer, South Asian Studies Council, Yale University

8:40-11 AM

Panel 1: Making/marking the border

 Presentation 1: “Aesthetic Orientation and Narration of Originary Landing in the SG Bicentennial’s “Time Traveller”” by Jill Tan, PhD Candidate, Anthropology, Yale University

Abstract: In place of accounting for the originary violence of Singapore’s colonization by the British, narrations of Singapore’s history instead celebrate colonial origins and development as integral to the country’s future becoming. Between 2018 and 2020, a nation-wide SG Bicentennial campaign was held in commemoration of British colonization and rule of Singapore from 1819 to 1963. This paper analyzes the SG Bicentennial Experience’s “Time Traveller” multimedia theatrical performance, and the annotated historical timeline circulated as part of the public-facing materials for the SG Bicentennial. It charts how the narration of Singapore’s origins and turning points map onto a Derridian framing of the iterability, and alteration via repetition, of originary law in order to conserve itself (Derrida 2018). In the carefully choreographed movements in the passage between founding violence and representations of founding myths, these forms of celebration and commemoration produce remembrance on one hand, and elisions and amnesic misrecognition on the other.

Discussant: Nurfadzilah Yahaya, Assistant Professor, National University of Singapore

Presentation 2: “Seeing at the Border: Verrier Elwin and the Politics of Visualizing India’s Northeast” by Dr. Poornima Paidipaty, Lecturer in Comparative Political Economy, King’s College London

Abstract: In 1963, the year after China’s invasion of India, the scholar and administrator, Verrier Elwin, produced an unusual set of propaganda posters, depicting members of India’s “hill tribes” peeking through the jungle at dams and powerplants, at statues of Gandhi and Mother India.  In the archives, they are labeled “Anti-Chinese posters.”  Both striking and heavy-handed, these representations stood in stark contrast to images that Elwin, as director of India’s North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), had produced every year prior.  Before 1962, Elwin had overseen the production of NEFA calendars that featured different tribal communities, each in traditional dress, situated in the context of their signature handicrafts and artifacts.  Elwin had long been one of India’s most strident defenders of tribal autonomy.  In the 1930s, he had published a series of tracts that advocated greater administrative protections for adivasis and the separation of tribal areas from the rest of colonial India.  In the wake of China’s military excursion into the Northeast, the images starkly shift, partly to counter Chinese aggression and partly to placate mainstream Indian demands for better integration of tribal borderlands into a centralized, nationalist agenda.  However, rather than reading this moment primarily through the logic of rupture, this essay will examine a broader history of place-making that has been central to the creation of tribal and indigenous art-historical archives in South Asia.  In the process, the paper will grapple with how, as scholars, we might read colonial and postcolonial archives and repositories, using borderland histories to unpack and resituate anticolonial narratives against the grain of both colonial and nationalist historiographies.

Discussant: Aparajita Majumdar, Doctoral Candidate, Cornell University


Day 2: May 7

 8:30-11 AM

Panel 2: Crossing/transgressing the border

Presentation 1: “Sea and Land: Tepo mat on Omadal Island” by Simon Soon Sien Yong, Senior Lecturer, Visual Arts Program, Universiti Malaya & Yusra Zulkifli, Lecturer, School of Architecture and the Built Environment, UCSI University.

Abstract: The Tepo is a woven pandanus mat made by Bajau women. In addition to fulfilling domestic use such as sleeping or receiving guests, mats carrying specific designs carry significant cultural value. Their use are reserved for important festivities and religious ceremonies. Growing demand for tepo as craft commodity has created new opportunities for cooperation between two of Omadal Island’s segregated communities. Omadal Island was a significant node within the Sulu Archipelago. The island is home to the historically nomadic Bajau, who lived off the sea by trading and subsistence fishing. Over time, most Bajau have abandoned boat living in favour of a more sedentary lifestyle. Omadal island had one of the earliest Bajau settlements, serving as a gateway to a strategic port for the Borneo mainland. Today, the island is home to two segregated communities: the Malaysian citizens recognised as Land Bajau and the stateless Sea Bajau. However, they share similar language and culture, and a divided landscape cuts across the island. On one side, outnumbered but economically privileged land-owning residents of the island. On the other, a larger population of recent settlers living in stilt-houses on water are given only regulated access to island resources. Working together, however, puts into place a complex system of exploitation and goodwill. This paper explores how the political economy of mat-weaving and the structural features of the tepo intervene in the pre-existing social hierarchies of Omadal and provides new terms of collaboration for understanding the ‘hidden transcript’ of the island’s divided landscape.


Presentation 2: “The Buddhist Slide Lecture” by Dr. Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol, Curator, Singapore Art Museum

Abstract: The slide lecture is often considered foundational to modern art historical pedagogy, insofar as it affords rigorous comparative investigation into aesthetic form. But what good would a slide lecture serve if its basis rests not in accurate photographic reproduction and instead in amateur hand-drawn copies of artworks? The result may not be art history as we know it—or at least one less concerned with the presencing of the original—but a different mode of critical discourse around images, re-oriented towards the labor of mimesis and the ecology of mediation. I locate such conjectures in the Buddhadasa Bhikku’s Spiritual Theater (completed 1962), an art gallery and screening room that was the centerpiece of the scholar-monk’s monastic complex in Chaiya, southern Thailand. Tracing Buddhadasa’s departure from mid-century archaeological debates that concerned itself with asserting the centrality of Chaiya to the Srivijaya Empire, this paper explores the ways he pursued art history from the vantage point of the Malay Peninsula as a project of border crossings. The theater gathered an eclectic range of South and East Asian art in the form of radically re-interpretated copies of the original, which were then marshalled, through charismatic oratory, towards the creation of moralizing ecumenical and interfaith narratives. Buddhadasa’s project points to a model for engaging with images that, rather than holding to the fiction of the slide lecture’s capacity to replicate the past, grasps its performative potential as a practice of dislocation and translation.


Presentation 3: “A borderland aesthetic: films and graphic novels in contemporary Nagaland” by Akshaya Tankha, Postdoctoral Associate & Lecturer, Yale University

Abstract: Since the 1990s, access to digital technologies and the influx of copies of East and Southeast Asian films and television shows in India’s northeast, which is bordered by Myanmar in the east and proximate to China in the north, have animated regional film and new media cultures in states such as Manipur and Nagaland. The embrace of Asian cinemas and popular visual cultures in this Indigenously-inhabited region has been shaped by numerous factors including informal overland trade networks that connect the borderlands of northeast India with Southeast Asia and longstanding histories of political conflict with the Indian state, which maintains a heavy military presence in the region. Alongside scholarship on the expansion of digital film cultures across India since its economic reforms of 1991-92, the study of new media cultures in India’s northeast has enlivened debates on the visual cultures of Indigeneity, piracy, infrastructure, informality and identitarian conflict. Building on these studies, this paper discusses the way the central protagonists visualized in a film and graphic novel produced in contemporary Nagaland demonstrates that the significance of new media practices in this borderland region is crucially informed by their open-ended relationship to existing and/or relatively older media, which illuminates a borderland aesthetic.

Discussant: Mimi Yiengpruksawan, Professor in the History of Art, Yale University.


Participant Bios


Jill Tan: Jill J. Tan is a Singaporean writer, artist and researcher committed to collaborative practice and multimodal exploration through games, performance and poetics. As a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at Yale University currently in the field, Tan studies death and dying in Singapore and works with the funeral profession. She also writes about dance and social forms of art. Her work has appeared in Guernica, City and Society Journal, and the edited volume Resistant Hybridities: Tibetan Narratives in Exile (2020). Tan is currently a section editor for the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s Visual and New Media Review.


Poornima Paidipaty: Poornima Paidipaty is a Lecturer in Comparative Political Economy at King’s College, London. She received a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University and her work examines the intersections of decolonisation, governance and modern social science.


Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol: Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol will be joining McGill University as Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art in Fall 2022. Previously, he was Curator at Singapore Art Museum and Visiting Lecturer at National University of Singapore. He writes on modern and contemporary art, with emphasis on conditions of artistic production and reception for the global majority. Such conditions include the precedence of religious forces in modernity, chronic “illiberalism” and “underdevelopment,” and non-temperate climactic ecologies. His essay “David Medalla: Dreams of Sculpture” (2020) was awarded the Oxford Art Journal Prize for Early Career Researchers. He holds a PhD in History of Art from the University of Michigan.


Yusra Zulkifli: Yusra Zulkifli has been fascinated with traditional arts and crafts. She graduated from the Architectural Association School of Architecture with her final year thesis on a new reading of ornamentation for the 21st century. After being involved in both practice and teaching in academia concurrently for more than ten years, she is now a dedicated lecturer at the School of Architecture and Built Environment (SABE) at UCSI University. She is currently undertaking Masters in Arts at University Malaya with her thesis subject on Bajau pandanus mats. In addition, she enjoys teaching history and theories, and her design studio focuses on the arts and crafts movement.


Simon Soon: Simon Soon is a senior lecturer in art history with the Visual Studies Program, Faculty of Creative Arts, University Malaya. His research interest spans the 19th- and 20th-century, including the multicultural histories of photographic studios in Singapore and Malaysia. Besides teaching, he occasionally creates artworks, and curates exhibitions. He is a team member of Malaysia Design Archive. In his spare time, he creates GIS maps, photographs roadside shrines, and visits tiny temples.


Akshaya Tankha: Akshaya Tankha is an art historian of modern and contemporary South Asia. Tankha’s current book project, tentatively titled, An Aesthetics of Endurance and Emergence: art, visual culture, and Indigenous presence in Nagaland, India, explores the boundary work that objects and their makers perform across ritual and secular domains of practice, the contestations this process engenders and what that tells us about the significance of art and the political significance of the aesthetic in the Indigenously-inhabited postcolonial South Asia.



Mimi Yiengpruksawan: Mimi Yiengpruksawan completed graduate work at UCLA with a Ph.D. in Japanese art studies awarded in 1988. For her undergraduate degree at Occidental College she majored in medieval European art, followed by M.A. study at UCLA in the combined fields of East Asian (primary) and African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian (secondary). She lived in Japan from 1975 through 1984 and has also traveled extensively and conducted research in China, Tibet, India, Cambodia, and Thailand. Yiengpruksawan joined the Department of the History of Art at Yale University in 1990 and was awarded tenure in 1998. Yiengpruksawan’s academic interests focus on aspects of Buddhist visual and material culture from antiquity through the early modern period, primarily in the Japanese context, but also encompassing more global developments across the continental Buddhist ecumene to which successive cultures in the Japanese archipelago belonged. She takes her cue from the Heian-period statesman Fujiwara no Michinaga, who on presenting his bona fides in 1007, described Japan as a country on the Buddhist continent of Jambudvīpa, that’s to say, as part of a greater Buddhist cosmopolis. In so doing Yiengpruksawan takes a cross-regional and interdisciplinary approach in her work which emphasizes, rather than cultural isolation, contact and cultural exchange as primary factors shaping cultural production, along with stochastic and exogenous interventions such as epidemic, environmental catastrophe, and anthropogenic crisis.


Nurfadzilah Yahaya: Nurfadzilah Yahaya is a historian at the National University of Singapore. Her book Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia published by Cornell University Press in 2020 touches upon the Indian Ocean, Islamic law, and mobilities. She is currently writing a book on the history of land reclamation in the British Empire. She has published in Law and History Review and other journals. She is also a co-editor of the Asia section of History Compass and serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Southeast Asian StudiesJournal of Global History and Journal of Indian Ocean World Studies.


Aparajita Majumdar: Aparajita Majumdar is a fifth year graduate student at the History Department in Cornell University. Her dissertation titled, “A Tale of Two Bridges: Ecologies of Repair and Recalcitrance in the Borderlands of Northeast India”, studies the histories of violent resource extraction and the endurance of plant-based recovery in the shaping of Northeast India’s borderworlds. Her research uses archival and ethnographic methods and is supported by the SSRC IDRF.