In this seminar, Professor Edwin Wieringa examines examples of manuscripts from the 19th-century Court of Yogyakarta held in the National Library of Singapore and discusses the politics of representation and meaning-making in producing these illuminated manuscripts.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME
The Politics of Art in Southeast Asia Seminar Series
Monday, 23 March 2020 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a seminar on “The Politics of Javanese Book Art and Illuminated Manuscript Production”. Dr. Edwin P. Wieringa, a Professor of Indonesian Philology from the University of Cologne, delivered a lecture on the politics of representation and meaning-making in producing illuminated manuscripts from the 19th-century Court of Yogyakarta. The event was attended by around 15 people from the civil service, educational and research institutes, and the public.
Professor Wieringa began the lecture by underlining his personal and academic motivations to study these Javanese manuscripts. While the study of Javanese manuscripts may appear irrelevant in today’s context, Professor Wieringa suggested that studying them – a vast majority of which are still unstudied – may reveal present-day concerns. Moreover, the amount of time and effort invested by the Javanese to produce these manuscripts reveal their socio-political significance to the Court and society in that era.
Professor Wieringa then demonstrated what an illumination is. Through examples from various Javanese manuscripts, he showed how illumination differs from illustration, and emphasised that illumination is a “mere decoration” that has no relationship with the Qur’anic text – in this case, the Word of God. Although the illuminations may not have a direct relationship with the text, Professor Wieringa suggested that there is a strong relation between the illumination and the producer. His study of illuminations in many copies of the Qur’an show a number of characteristics that identified the producers as Javanese. In addition, Professor Wieringa posited that decorations or illuminations could also reflect elements of local culture. For instance, recent Qur’an copies that are printed appear to demonstrate their strong Islamic regional identity. The al-Qur’an Mushaf al-Bantani, for example, can be regarded as an effort by the provincial government of Banten to reflect a purportedly special Islamic orientation.
In discussing Javanese manuscripts, Professor Wieringa devoted a significant amount of time describing the process of acquiring the Serat Menak, a richly illuminated Yogyakarta Court version of a well-known Islamic romance. He described in detail the history of the manuscript before elaborating on the characteristics of the Surat Menak. Professor Wieringa then concluded the seminar by alluding to the politics of these manuscripts: as a form of regional and ethnic politics; colonial politics; courtly politics, especially since illuminated Javanese manuscripts are rare and would have belonged to the elite of Javanese society.
The 45-minute presentation was followed by a dynamic question-and-answer session with the audience. Discussion revolved around the social life and circulation of these Javanese manuscripts, mainly: who produced and consumed the manuscripts; the socio-political contexts surrounding the production of these manuscripts; how these manuscripts were acquired. Audience members also enquired about local cultural inflections that shape the characteristics of different illuminations and their symbolic and material values. The question of ethics and authenticity was also surfaced, leading to a discussion on the politics of representation and heritage.
This seminar is supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.