The Negative Presence: Gender and (In)visibility in John Thomson’s Photographs of the Siamese Court

Clare Veal

LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, Singapore

Feminist art histories of Southeast Asia have often attempted to redress the gender imbalance in the region’s emerging canons by ‘recovering’ women’s contributions and writing them into history. However, the assumed values implicated in this passage from ‘invisibility’ to ‘visibility’ are often left uninterrogated. This paper considers what is at stake in the desire to ‘visualize’ in relation to a series of photographs of the Siamese court, which were taken by the Scottish itinerant photographer, John Thomson, during his travels through the country from 1865 to 1866. Specifically, I will consider the absence of King Mongkut’s (Rama IV, r. 1851–1868) wives in these images in conjunction with recent curatorial attempts to visualize the ‘agency’ of Thomson’s photographic subjects. In so doing, I will not only highlight the gendered limits of Thomson’s mobility within the architectural context of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but will also address the ways in which his images have been received and reconstituted in Thailand and elsewhere. As I will argue, the multiple receptive contexts that Thomson’s images have generated, highlight the radical instability of visibility and invisibility, making clear that the desire to ‘see’, or ‘bring to light’, is not necessarily neutral.


Biography:

Dr Clare Veal is a lecturer in the MA Asian Art Histories programme at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. She undertakes research on Southeast Asian photography, art and visual culture, with a particular focus on questions of sexual difference, subjectivity and agency.

ABOUT THE ASSOCIATION

The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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