“Rarely Seen Southeast Asia: Art, Artifact, Ephemera,” an exhibition of more than 150 pieces curated by Northern Illinois University professor emeritus Richard Cooler, is on display at NIU’s Anthropology Museum.
Drawn from the museum’s Southeast Asia collection and private sources, the exhibition celebrating the Center for Southeast Asian Studies’ 50th anniversary year is, in Cooler’s words, a “contemporary curiosity cabinet” of sculptures, ceramics, textiles, rattan, wood and leather carvings, silver repousse, mother-of-pearl inlay and paper ephemera. Most of the objects are rarely exhibited for reasons ranging from rarity to cultural taboos.
“Many pieces are finely made of beautiful materials, with some used for anachronistic pursuits such as head hunting, snaring song birds or chewing betel nut,” he said in a news release.
By displaying these rarely seen objects reflecting the culture of indigenous peoples and ethnic groups, Cooler said that he hopes to deepen people’s experience of Southeast Asia beyond Angkor Wat, Bali and other popular tourist destinations.
“I don’t think these people and these objects should be forgotten, because they’re being quickly eclipsed by international forces,” he said in the release.
For example, people at all levels of society in Southeast Asia used to chew betel, a seed from the areca palm. Today betel-chewing is considered an unhealthy habit like smoking and has fallen out of common use. The exhibit includes a display of artfully designed boxes used to store the nut and ceramics decorated with illustrations of betel culture.
Some of the objects in the exhibit are so unusual, Cooler said, even seasoned Southeast Asia scholars might be surprised at them. He pointed out such items as a Vietnam War-era Lao weaving that includes helicopters and guns among its motifs.
An art historian whose love of collecting goes back to childhood, Cooler has worked tirelessly over the past year on the exhibit, collaborating with interim museum director Sara Pfannkuche and with new director Jennifer Kirker-Priest, who arrived at NIU in mid-summer. The museum opened in its new location in Fay-Cooper Cole Hall in February.
It’s been a busy few weeks getting the exhibit ready, Kirker-Priest said, but she is looking forward to having “Rarely Seen Southeast Asia” in house through May 15.
“This exhibition is particularly exciting for the Anthropology Museum because it promotes one of the real strengths of the permanent collection and the university, which is Southeast Asia,” Kirker-Priest said in the release. “Through the passion and scholarship of our guest curator, Richard Cooler ... this exhibit offers something for everyone. From the artistic beauty of each piece to the story and cultural context behind each object, this is an exhibition that will spark interest in even the most casual visitor.”