A Habit of Shores: Seni and Seafaring in Dunia Melayu

I am presenting seemingly unrelated variables to tell the story of the SEA and the various shores on which they meet the land. It has been a convention now to present an outline of the presentation and I do so not only to give a semblance of cohesiveness but to trigger your imagination. Warning: We need a good amount to last us through this longish lecture.


Glass Sponge at the Corning Museum of Glass
Roberto Feleo

Labor and Seafarers


Sufi Merchants 
Pandits and Pandays


Among these variables, I try to find traces of a pre-existing dimension, let’s call it a pretext for the existence of art and religion. What comes before art and artists? How are conditions created to make an art scene? Specifically and conceptually, I aim to reconstruct a historical understanding of Art in Southeast Asia (Since attending Cornell I’ve been thinking about developing perspectives from the region) through related ideas of Agimat, Keramat, Azimat, Agama, etc. Terms I do not claim to fully understand yet but will hopefully operatively define by the end of this course.

I am comforted by the fact that I am definitely not the first to think of such regional art concerns. In his essay, “Address of Art: Vicinity of Region, Horizon of History.” Art historian and my former professor Patrick Flores puts forward the Malayan and Tagalog term, “Alamat”.

In Bahasa Indonesia and Melayu, address is alamat; in Filipino, alamat is lore or legend. In this universe of language, origin is more than just locus or inscription that hews, oftentimes even overdetermines, identity. It is a cosmological condition. It is a world conceived not in terms of possession or domain that condenses in discursive property; it rather ramifies in myth and tale, in a conjuring. It is more atmosphere than territory. In such a scheme, the art that must find its address does not necessarily have to take on the habit of identity, because it must not. It must, in fact, refuse it. After all, apart from being fable or saga or parable, address is speech (text, texture, context), a performative act that signifies as well as dissembles; its truth contingent on its telling and its teller, the very procedure of its history in an expressive public sphere.

I felt that Flores was on the brink of something in this essay which appeared in the book “Charting Thoughts: Essays in Southeast Asian Art”, a volume which employs the metaphor of mapping and seafaring to frame the possible futures of Art History in Southeast Asia. I speculate, if my dear former professor had thought of the “Agimat” whose etymology seems to fuse both the understanding of address and belief (Alamat + Agama) in imbuing objects with power. We misrecognize this word as a talisman (that’s the Anting-Anting) but I argue that it refers to a complex of image worship and belief in the power of objects.

Keywords: agimat, manilamen, glass sponge, galleon trade, alamat, patrick flores

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