International Seminar on Animism in the Arts of Southeast Asia Was Held

The presenters at the International Seminar on Animism in the Arts of Southeast Asia ⓒ SEAMEO SPAFA

The International Seminar on Animism in the Arts of Southeast Asia was held on 8 and 9 August 2019 at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand. Organized by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SEAMEO SPAFA) in collaboration with the Thai Khadi Research Institute, the event aimed to enhance the significance of the shared belief system of animism, which provides artistic inspiration to various art forms in Southeast Asia.

The two-day event was programmed as a series of lectures presented by distinguished scholars from Southeast Asia who shared their knowledge on a wide range of topics relating to animism in the arts of the region using different approaches and research methodologies. The lectures covered everything from a general overview of the belief system, including the conception and influence of animism in Vietnamese folk art to a variety of artistic expressions and indigenous customs on sacred objects, places, and characters. There were explorations of phenomena such as Iban pua kumbu weaving of Malaysia, animism performances in the U Min Kyaw wedding ceremony in Myanmar, the mythical bird Husadilingu of Thailand, the belief of animism shown in ambok (monkeys) and ayam (chickens) of Brunei folklore, the Ma-muad ritual ceremony of ethnic Thai-Khmer people, the performativity of the Babaylan in Phillippine communities, ornamental objects of the Basap tribe in Indonesia, the spiritual guardian Ta Reach of the Angkor community in Cambodia, the traditional Baci ritual of the people of Lao, and spirits that exist in Asian puppets.

Besides gaining insights and knowledge of animistic beliefs and practices, the initiative in using traditional objects in contemporary societies was remarkable. Introducing Iban pua kumbu, an animistic textile possessing the unique identity of the Iban community in Sarawak, Malaysia, Dr. Welyne Jeffrey Jehom (University of Malaya) addressed the importance of animistic beliefs and practices, then discussed how to preserve the tacit knowledge through digital art (Pua Explorer App for Android). Ideas for adding value to traditional heritage can also be learnt through the case of the Indonesian Basap people’s animistic ornamental objects, which are transformed into curriculum materials, fashion items, visual storytelling books, board games, and other media, according to the presentation delivered by Dr. Pindi Setiawan (Bandung Institute of Technology). Similarly, the Babaylan characters of the Philippines are developed to become content for museum exhibitions and competitions as presented by Dr. Ana Labrador, Assistant Director of the National Museum of the Philippines.

Ma-muad ritual performance by students from Surindra Rajabhat University ⓒ SEAMEO SPAFA-2

Notably, a witchcraft dance, a creative work developed based on the Ma-muad ritual of Thai-Khmer ethnic groups, was demonstrated by professors and students from Surindra Rajabhat University in Surin Province, Thailand. This featured the practice of paying respect to dance teachers and the messenger to help a patient to recover. That was an improvised performance art composed of traditional dance movements, ethnic music, and the harmony of actors. A wrap-up presentation was given by Associate Prof. Rasmi Shoocongdej (Silpakorn University, Thailand), showing the cultural diversity and integration and emphasizing the significance of animism to human culture and society. The final program of the seminar offered an onsite lecture at Bangkok National Museum where the registered participants took a study tour of Thai art and artifacts.

The International Seminar on Animism in the Arts of Southeast Asia was held under the ‘Sacred Universe’ flagship program on Spiritual and Religious Arts by SEAMEO SPAFA, which has the goal of guarding and promoting the cultural heritage traditions of Southeast Asia through further advancing mutual knowledge and understanding throughout the region. The previous flagship programs were seminars and workshops on Islamic, Buddhist, and Christian Arts, and Hindu Arts in Southeast Asia, respectively.