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Reviewed by:
  • Southeast Asia in Ruins: Art and Empire in the Early 19th Century by Sarah Tiffin
  • Hélène Njoto
Southeast Asia in Ruins: Art and Empire in the Early 19th Century. By Sarah Tiffin. Singapore: NUS Press, 2016. xii+ 316 pp.

Sarah Tiffin's Southeast Asia in Ruins is the inaugural volume under NUS Press's new series dedicated to art history in Southeast Asia, the first of its kind since Oxford University Press stopped its publications on Southeast Asian art in the 1990s. This impeccable art history scholarship is the result of long and thorough doctoral research on decoding narratives hinted in landscape paintings and prints of Southeast Asia's Hindu and Buddhist sanctuaries in ruins. This pioneering engagement of the author with the topic is evident in the numerous notes—occupying almost a third of the book—that contain references to primary sources and related poetry, artworks and publications. Tiffin demonstrates how images, when analysed with historical text and other sources, can help to unravel the otherwise concealed aspirations and anxieties of British "progress and power" (p. 2) encoded in colonial art and image production of the British in Southeast Asia, more specifically in the Malay world. In particular, she adapts the postcolonial discourse of Edward Said [End Page 714] and Linda Nochlin to shed light on Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles's intentions in establishing British influence and presence in the region, his wider political agenda, and the reasons for his failure to convince the government and the East India Company to establish their power in Java.

The author analysed a corpus of eighty-two colour illustrations depicting sanctuaries in ruins from the Malayan archipelago and Burma, but more specifically Java. Tiffin observed that ruins were a common leitmotif in Britain's eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century art on Southeast Asia that fed a growing demand on the part of British audiences for information about the frontier region. Tiffin chose to concentrate her study on images that were available for view by these audiences. These images include works on public display at exhibitions, illustrations in publications such as Raffles's The History of Java (1817), and images that were available to an "official audience" (Tiffin 2016, p. 3) at the East India Company offices, library and museum. The book also builds on rich scholarship of the history of British Imperial presence in India and Southeast Asia. These materials include John Bastin's study of Raffles and British policy in the region (see for example, Bastin 1957, 1965 and 2009), The History of Java (Raffles 1817), and the collections of curators and scholars—for example, John Bastin, Nigel Barley, Mildred Archer, Pauline Rohatgi, Patricia Kattenhorn, Bea Brommer, Annabel Teh Gallop and others—of early illustrations procured by Raffles.

Southeast Asia in Ruins follows the interpretive anthropology pioneered by Anthony Forge (1994) in which he uses a specific corpus of human figures from The History of Java (Raffles 1817) to show Raffles's intention to depict the Javanese as belonging to a literate civilization—and hence favouring Java as a colony. Tiffin builds a coherent corpus of images—mostly distributed among the British Library, the British Museum and the British Museum of Natural History—on the theme of ruins in Southeast Asia. This thematic collection of images is probably one of the most extensive corpus outside the Natural History Museum pertaining to Britain's [End Page 715] presence in Southeast Asia in the early nineteenth century. It is also the most extensive corpus of images for which the creative process and meaning are systematically analysed in the historical, art historical and political context of the British Empire. The author convincingly shows how Raffles's The History of Java (1817), and the series of drawings he had commissioned depicting melancholic landscapes with ruins, were a subtle way for him to "imbue a sense of loss" (Tiffin 2016, p. 210) of the Javanese civilization's glory, and by extension a lost opportunity for the British in not colonizing Java.

The book also confirms the findings from Tiffin's article published in 2008 which was shortlisted for the First Sir George Staunton Prize. In that article, she shows how Raffles...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1793-2858
Print ISSN
0217-9520
Pages
pp. 714-717
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-14
Open Access
No
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