Lecture: Javanese Mouse Deer and Chinese Lions: Early Islamic Sinicised Imprints in Java’s North Coast Sculpture (15th – early 17th century)



Dr Hélène Njoto is a Visiting Fellow at the Nalanda–Sriwijaya Centre (NSC), ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She specialises in Indonesian art and architecture history from the 15th to the early 19th centuries CE. After graduating from the Sorbonne (BA and MA), she received her PhD from the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS).

During her fellowship at NSC, Hélène Njoto has conducted research on the early Islamic Javanese art history. In addition, she recently lectured Art and Architectural History for the 2015 NSC Archaeological Field School in Cambodia. She co-convened a workshop on cultural heritage in Southeast Asia, and is co-organising an Art History and Conservation Summer Programme in July 2016 (SOAS & NSC).

Her publications include articles on the Javanese mosque (BEFEO 100, 2014/January 2016); Pasisir wooden sculpture (Archipel 2014); Western representations of Indonesia from the 17th to the 19th c. (Histoire de l’Art, 2002); historical studies of Indonesian institutions such as those related to the art market (Archipel, 2006); and cultural heritage conservation (IRASEC, January 2016).

Little is known about the early Islamic period in Java due to the scarcity of textual and material sources from the 14th–15th centuries onwards. The rare historical sources available, however, agree on the cosmopolitan nature of initial Muslim communities along Java’s north coast and the large presence of Chinese among them. Some of the most prominent Muslim lords of this period, considered as the first propagators of Islam in Java, are thought to have been of Chinese descent. Revered as Holy Men (wali) until today, these Muslim lords’ mausolea are visited throughout the year by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims mainly coming from Java and other parts of the Malay world.

The current research sheds light on the identity of these early figures of Islamisation through analysis of material culture. More specifically, it concentrates on wooden and stone funerary art as well as palace sculpture. This source of information dating approximately from the 15th to the 17th centuries CE remained almost unstudied. The focus concerns eight funerary sites containing the mausolea of the earliest Muslim lords, five of whom are among the most revered holy men of Java, also referred to as the “Nine Saints” (Wali Songo). The stone and wooden sculpted décor of their mausolea exhibits a blend of local and foreign motifs, which provide rare historical data on cultural exchanges that took place during this period.

The main narrative on this transition period’s artistic production emphasises a strong continuity of shapes and motifs between the Hindu-Buddhist period and early centuries following the coming of Islam. However, the inclusion of a few unique sinicised motifs such as the Chinese lion in most of the research sites seem to suggest an emergent appreciation for symbols of power seemingly inspired by China and Vietnam among the new Muslim elite of Java.

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Mar 29 2016


10:30 am - 12:00 pm


ISEAS Seminar Room 2