Where is the Indo-Pacific? 

Design by Cleo Maloney

Elm City Scrapbook is a column alternately written by Daniella Sanchez (MC ’25) and Catherine Kausikan (GH ’25), which reflects each week on different artwork in and around New Haven.

The term “Indo-Pacific” is difficult to define. Broadly speaking, the region encompasses 60% of the world’s population, but its exact geographical scope differs depending on whom you ask. Its immense cultural diversity defies any coherence that would traditionally hold regions together. 

No wonder, then, that the Indo-Pacific display at the Yale University Art Gallery also only holds together nebulously. The collection is incredible: I find myself delighted by glimmering Javanese gold and the whimsy of an anthropomorphic bowl made by a Kankanay artist in Luzon, Philippines. Yet, every time I step into the gallery space, I feel uncomfortable. The sheer number of cultures presented creates a display that both lacks coherence and generalizes diversity without distinction. The arrangement of objects in space is fundamentally ethnographic, a move that Otherizes these cultures as objects of Western fascination. And if we consider that the Indo-Pacific Gallery directly faces Modern and Contemporary Art in the YUAG, the contrasts in these displays suggest a primitivism in the Indo-Pacific that is difficult to swallow. 

Perhaps this is a problem with universal survey museums generally. The term “universal survey” refers to museums that hold a microcosm of the world’s cultures in a single building. Yet, these institutions typically position all non-Western cultures as secondary to European paintings and sculpture. The YUAG must do better. Why not acquire artworks by contemporary Southeast Asian artists, or conceptualize what exactly defines this rich, complex region? I long for the day that I can step into this gallery and feel at home.

Leave a Reply