By Richard Fox
Image 1: Roundtable discussion on the future of Timor-Leste studies, with Lisa Palmer, Fidelis Manuel Leite Magalhaes and Susana de Matos Viegas, and chaired by Elizabeth Drexler.
The 2017 conference in Toronto marked the beginning of an ambitious two-year initiative devoted to raising the profile of Timor-Leste studies—both at AAS and in the wider North American academy. With generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Southeast Asia Council’s (SEAC) Indonesia and Timor-Leste Studies Committee (ITLSC) hosted a series of special events, including an all-day pre-conference workshop attended by senior scholars, students and public intellectuals from Timor-Leste as well as North America, Australia, Europe and other parts of Asia.
Looking ahead, the ITLSC is planning a similar series of events for 2018 in Washington, D.C. Let us know if you’d like to get involved and help to shape the future of TL studies at AAS—additional information and contact details are included below.
Image 2: Excerpts from two of the photographic exhibits presented in Toronto, Fataluku Death and Life (left) and The 30th Anniversary of East Timor Activism in Toronto (right).
Highlights from Toronto
Among the many exciting developments at this year’s conference was the launch of a North American chapter of the Timor-Leste Studies Association (TLSA), which also has chapters in Melbourne (Australia) and the capital city of Dili in Timor-Leste. The ITLSC is looking forward to working closely with the TLSA to help develop and support TL studies at AAS and beyond.
The pre-conference workshop was an important first step in this direction.
Highlights from the workshop included an outstanding series of photographic and ethnomusicological exhibits, alongside a series of well-attended panels and roundtables. A detailed program of events can be downloaded here.
Image 3: Aaron Pettigrew prepares the interactive musical exhibition (left), with a screenshot from the accompanying website (right).
The first photographic exhibit was entitled The 30th Anniversary of East Timor Activism in Toronto, and was organized by David Webster. Through an evocative sequence of photos and related images, local activism in Canada was linked up with more global developments in the struggle for Timorese independence. Photographs and other materials from the exhibit can be accessed online.
Rui Graça Feijó and Susana de Matos Viegas organized a second exhibit, called Fataluku Death and Life. Accompanied by an essay prepared by David Hicks (which we hope to make available online soon), the photographs presented in Rui and Susana’s exhibit were divided into two parts—the first examining Fataluku tombs, with a primary focus on the juxtaposition of traditional funerary posts and Christian crosses; the second exploring the iconographic practices associated with graves and memorials dedicated to the martyrs of the Timorese struggle for independence.
Image 4: A well-attended panel discussion on Religion, Culture and Tradition.
Accompanying the photographic exhibits, Aaron Pettigrew and Philip Yampolsky set up an array of iPads and headphones to provide workshop participants with access to an innovative online exhibit surveying scholarship on Timorese musical traditions. Although some of the material was only accessible on the day of the workshop, Aaron and Philip are continuing to develop the online component of their exhibit for use as an Open Access research and teaching resource.
Image 5: Continuing the discussion over lunch at a local eatery.
The more discursive component of the workshop centered on a pair of panels focusing respectively on issues of (i) Religion, Culture & Tradition and (ii) Polity, Economy & Society. This was followed by a roundtable discussion of priorities for the future of Timor-Leste studies—with Lisa Palmer, Fidelis Manuel Leite Magalhaes, and Susana de Matos Viegas, and chaired by Elizabeth Drexler (see Image 1, above). Input from participants in the roundtable will figure centrally in the planning for TL events at next year’s AAS conference in Washington, D.C.
Additional events in Toronto included a book launch for Michael Leach’s new volume on Nation-Building and National Identity in Timor Leste (Routledge 2016), and a SEAC-sponsored panel on the Transformation of Religion, Culture and Society in Timor-Leste.
Image 6: David Hicks (far right) acting as discussant for the SEAC-designated panel on The Transformation of Religion, Culture and Society in Timor-Leste; other panelists include, from left to right, Josh Trindade, Rui Graça Feijó, Michael Leach, and Lisa Palmer.
Background: History & Challenges
Albeit valuable and interesting in their own right, the Timor-Leste events in Toronto were directed to a broader purpose—namely developing TL studies both at AAS and in the wider academy. The study of Timor-Leste is woefully underrepresented in North America. The number of scholars working in TL studies is growing internationally. But comparatively few of those teaching and conducting research on Timor-Leste had their primary training in North America—where, at present, there is a dearth of pertinent in-country experience in the humanities and social sciences. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that there would be little if any attention to Timorese issues in undergraduate courses in Asian Studies. This has had a knock-on effect in the deficit at graduate level, and so in the interests and foci of young faculty. And the process has been recursive, preventing TL studies from gaining wider traction. With critical support from the Henry Luce Foundation, the new initiative at AAS aims to reverse this process by raising the profile of TL studies—through conference activities in the first instance, followed by efforts to cultivate a broader and sustained engagement with Timorese history, culture, and society.
Image 7: From a photo taken by David Webster.
Looking to the Future
The two-year initiative at AAS will serve as the foundation for the future development of a wider-reaching program directed to developing and supporting TL studies at all levels of the academy—from liberal arts to graduate education, and more advanced research. In addition to building up a scholarly network here in North America, this will require strong and sustainable relationships with institutions of higher learning in Timor-Leste. Among other organizational activities, our plans for the future include running competence-building workshops at the National University of Timor-Leste (UNTL, Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e) and the National Center for Scientific Investigation in the capital city of Dili. These workshops will focus on the preparation of academic grant applications and conference panel proposals. The immediate aim of the latter is to facilitate Timorese involvement as conference participants, and especially as organizers of their own panels and related scholarly endeavors. But, taking the longer view, this is also meant to establish a more participatory and collaborative approach to the study of this important Southeast Asian nation.
The Timor-Leste studies initiative is just getting underway, and we’ve now begun planning for next year’s AAS conference in Washington, D.C. If you would like to get involved, or simply learn more, please contact the Chair of the ITLSC, Richard Fox, at