UCLA alumna on curating and researching Southeast Asian art
Mya Chau (standing fourth from the right) in front of Borobudur Temple

UCLA alumna on curating and researching Southeast Asian art

Mya Chau (UCLA 2020 Ph.D.) continues to draw from her study abroad experiences through UCLA to teach about Southeast Asian art and curate new exhibitions.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)

Roots in Travel

Mya Chau, who recently completed her doctoral studies in art history at UCLA, finished her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley where she was immediately drawn to a course on Southeast Asian art. Since then, her research has brought her to explore textile exchanges, Buddhist female iconography and numerous cultural and historical sites.

"Studying abroad in various places internationally sparked my interest in the field," she says. "We go to museums, churches and other cultural centers to study artworks and what they meant in the field." Chau cites travel as a life changing experience in her art history studies, having traveled to a variety of countries in Southeast Asia. Through programs in and outside of UCLA, such as the Blakemore Foundation Language Fellowship and Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship through the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Chau has spent time in Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore, interacting with local communities and histories.

"Seeing their museums and art collections, as well as their resources, archives and libraries, you can’t get that in the United States. Being there shaped a lot of my knowledge," shares Chau.

Bringing Her Knowledge Back to LA

Having personally visited these important sites in Southeast Asia, Chau sees it as her responsibility to return to Los Angeles and share the knowledge. When she is in the classroom teaching about Borobudur, a Buddhist temple in Central Java, Indonesia, she brings in anecdotes from her experience physically moving through the site and what she has learned from experts as they approached different artistic elements. "As you’re going up the four galleries, you’re ascending higher and higher, there’s a sense of elevation that changes your dynamic and perspective," she says. 

At UCLA, she taught and developed curriculum for summer session classes on Asian and Southeast Asian arts, Buddhist art and Asian mythologies. As a graduate student, she also took a seminar at the Getty Museum that granted her access to special archives and collections. Now, Chau works as a research assistant for the Scholars Program and Curatorial Department at the Getty Research Institute.

Her forthcoming writings will appear in The Creative South: The Great Religious Art Innovations of Medieval Maritime Asia and World Architecture and Society: From Stonehenge to One World Trade (2021). Her essay about the Mỹ Sơn temple complex will also be featured on Smarthistory.org. In addition, she is a contributor to the online encyclopedia, The Database of Religious History with recent entries on Buddhist and Hindu temples in Champa (modern-day southern Vietnam).

Curating an Exhibition

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, exhibitions are moving online and openings are often delayed. Still, Chau thinks that this could be an opportunity for more people to access art through digital exhibitions. 

With several other curators, Chau is working on an exhibition about a Vietnamese artist, Trần Hữu Chất, who specifically focuses on engraved lacquer paintings. Many of his portraits feature ethnic minority women and highlight ancient Vietnamese traditions, which are all meticulously carved onto plywood, with up to ten coats of lacquer that could take up an entire wall. However, he is not well known in the U.S., which is why Chau hopes to create a museum catalogue and present his art in an exhibition. 

While she is unable to access certain resources because many libraries and museums are still closed, Chau is connected to university archivists and librarians internationally, including those from the National Library in Australia. "They’re open to helping and sending sources that I need. Even research takes many international exchanges," she states.