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Breaking the Mold

Breaking the Mold

Art historian and museum curator Robert Brown takes over as director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies and Chair of the Interdepartmental Degree Program in Southeast Asian Studies.

By Angilee Shah
Staff Writer

Brown emphasizes the importance of area studies, of learning about regions and cultures in depth by reading their literature and acquiring their languages.

Robert Brown's office at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is behind an inconspicuous door in the back corner of the South and Southeast Asian collection. When you walk in, you see industrial metal shelves lined with sculptures and religious artifacts; each item -- some originating from as long ago as 400 BC -- is matter-of-factly wrapped and tagged. A large, deep red Buddha sits in the middle of the room, surrounded by rich chests and furnishings. Paintings hang on the walls -- even the reprints and homemade pottery on his desk look old and distinguished in the context of the 2,500 years of material culture Brown surrounds himself with everyday. He says he likes having his office in storage because it makes the art always accessible.

And accessibility seems to be the secret to his success. Brown is a distinguished professor of art history and serves as the curator of Southeast Asian art at LACMA. This summer he was named director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies and Ch. He follows historians Anthony Reid and Geoffrey Robinson in the position. He is also the current Chair of the Interdepartmental Degree Programs in Southeast Asian Studies.

"[Brown] is an exemplary scholar, with the kind of publication record the rest of us can only envy,” says Ronald Rogowski, dean of the International Institute, "But he is highly unusual in combining a scholarly career with a major curatorial one.”

Brown sees the art he works with as a tangible way to grasp something far away. By working with these objects and teaching about them as well, he is able to provide this unique kind of access to his students: "What I do here [at LACMA] is what I do there [at UCLA]," he says. His personal research has focused on the unique ways in which Hindu and Buddhist material culture and architecture were transformed in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand.

Brown emphasizes the importance of area studies, of learning about regions and cultures in depth by reading their literature and acquiring their languages. In academia, he says, there are two camps: One utilizes this area studies perspective, while the other chooses a more global approach, applying theories across cultures and countries. Brown says he is adamantly in the first group and believes that the role of CSEAS is to emphasize regional issues.

In order to accomplish this goal of in-depth area studies, Brown says it is imperative to hire additional faculty who focus on Southeast Asia. Although many UCLA professors use Southeast Asian countries or developments as examples in their teaching, Southeast Asia is often not the main focus of their courses. Brown is committed to seeing the creation of several new senior and junior faculty positions in Southeast Asian studies. The Southeast Asian Studies major has excellent faculty and a strong curriculum on Indonesia and Vietnam, he says, but more is needed on Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the study of Islam in the region.

Brown himself is one of the few art historians in the country who trains graduate students in South and Southeast Asian art history. He chooses students who are as multi-faceted as he is: One student, Roxanna Brown, lived in Thailand and was a curator at a Bangkok museum before completing her thesis about Southeast Asian ceramics last year. "I'm much more willing to take students who aren't in the exact [graduate student] mold," says Brown.

Rebecca Hall, third-year doctoral student in art history, was drawn to UCLA because her research focuses on textiles in northern Thailand and Laos, an area that does not traditionally fall within the realm of art history. "Not a lot of art historians are as open-minded as [Brown] is," she says. "He knows the field really well -- he really loves Southeast Asia."

Brown is both dedicated to and daunted by his teaching career. He advises ten art history doctoral students. His introduction to the art of India and Southeast Asia, which enrolled 230 undergraduate students last fall, is one of the largest of such courses in the country. "[Undergraduate students] are really demanding," says Brown. "They demand that you do a good job."

It was Brown's own experimentation that brought him to study South and Southeast Asia in the first place. In 1966, at 20, Brown joined the Peace Corps in the fourth year of the program's existence. He was sent to Thailand and had the opportunity to travel all around Southeast Asia and through India. "It was really a golden period -- it was a fantastic experience for me," he says. The Peace Corps marked the beginning of his fascination with and respect for the cultures and religions he now works among: "When I'm in India, I'm a Hindu; when I'm in Southeast Asia, I'm a Buddhist," he says.

When he returned to the United States in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, he was drafted into the army. But he was not sent back to Southeast Asia. Because he had been in the Peace Corps he could not be a part of U.S. intelligence so he was sent to Hawaii to work at a large communication hub for three years. "I ended up staying in Hawaii running a big computer," he jokes about his time as a soldier.

His interest in Southeast Asian did not wane, though. He went back to school and received his Ph.D. in art history from UCLA in 1981, and joined the faculty in 1986. He was on the committee that formed the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies in 1999, and has remained active ever since.

In 1996, he published The Dvaravati Wheels of the Law and the Indianization of South East Asia (Brill Academic Publishers), a work Rogowski says, "exemplifies the kind of global and cross-national emphasis that the International Institute is all about, focusing as it does on Indian influences on, and relationships with, Southeast Asian art, culture and religion." A Journal of Asian Studies review of this book says, "Brown is one of the few art historians I have read who appears well versed in the scholarly literature of the field and the issues and problems confronting Southeast Asian studies of this early era. This makes his work important not only to the study of art history of Southeast Asia, but also to the theoretical and methodological concerns of the field, particular to those of us who are committed to an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Southeast Asia." The review goes on to say that, "Brown's work should be required reading (in its entirety) for graduate students in the art history of Southeast Asia ..." (Aung-Thwin, May 1997, 545-547). Brown also edited Art from Thailand (Marg Publications, 1999) and Ganesh: Studies of and Asian God (State University of New York Press, 1991).

Brown has become an expert on the art of South Asia (today’s India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc.) as well as Southeast Asia and much of his work compares and contrasts the two. At LACMA, he was initially hired as their South Asia Curator following the completion of his Ph.D. In 2000 he assumed responsibility for the Southeast Asian collection.

The diversity of his graduate students focusing on South Asia mirrors those researching Southeast Asia. For example, one is one of the few Westerners who has lived in Bhutan and speaks Bhutanese; a current student is the president of the Sri Aurobindo Center of Los Angeles, a spiritual center for followers of the modern yogi.

Outside Brown's LACMA office door is an exhibit of Indian landscape paintings designed by one such graduate student, Gianna Carotenuto. Carotenuto was part of a LACMA internship program that gave her the opportunity to do hands-on work at the museum while studying at the university. She has been Brown's student, in all, for nine years, from the time she was doing an honors project as an undergraduate student, through receiving her master's, and now working toward her Ph.D. Brown has both a collector's eye and an academic's mind, she says, a combination that makes his teaching very effective.

Carotenuto previously worked in marketing at Artforum International Magazine, a publication about cutting-edge art from around the world. She says that Brown's style of teaching is to make sure his students understand the basics and then to let them explore. "He's very concerned with making sure students understand the history," she says, "but what he allows for is experimentation, which is the key to intellectual thinking."

Center for Southeast Asian Studies