Photographic, documentary of traditional cultures in Southeast Asia and North Africa

The photographs on this site are from a project documenting the traditional architecture, arts and culture of Cambodia, Indonesia, and Viet Nam (2008) and another period of work in the Moyen Atlas Mountains of Morocco (2007)

Uma, Batu, Benang
House, Stone, Thread

This is the theme that emerged during a project documenting the historic, vernacular architecture of Southeast Asia (2008). The project has taken me from the mountains of Central Viet Nam to the Manggarai and Ngada districts of Flores; from Tana Toraja to Minang Kabau, from the ancient Cambodian temple complex of Banteay Chhmar, currently under restoration, to an Urban Poor Women’s Development project in the slums of Phnom Penn; from Hué, the royal city of the Nguyen emperors to the Cham temple ruins of Central, South Viet Nam and Cambodia. In 2007, I was working with a group of traditional weavers in the Moyen Atlas Mountains of Morocco. There, too, house, stone and thread are the elements that bind tradition with life and craft it into modernity.

I was looking at traditional domestic architecture, but also at the ways people are living, working and building now. To what extent, and how are the forms of the past relevant, revered, used, in the present? Are people concerned with architectural preservation, and implicitly, cultural preservation? I found many diverse answers, but overwhelmingly,the people I visited place enormous value on the architecture, the arts and crafts that link them with their ancestors, and they welcome initiatives for architectural preservation. In every case, people need support, funding and alliances.

Uma, in Sanscrit meaning, “house”, is also the name of Shiva’s consort, the Goddess Uma. “Batu” is Indonesian for “stone”, and throughout the region, stone, symbolic of the ancestors, is the material from which people created civilizations, inscribed histories, carved tales and tombs. “Benang” means thread, and the ancient art of weaving, still practiced (primarily by women and to a decreasing extent in all the regions I visited), is both eminently practical and ritually sacred.

The photographs were created with financial support from the fulbright Scholar program, a program of the Department of State's Bureau of Cultural and Education Affairs, and with assistance from the Council for International Exchange of Scholars. The governments of Cambodia, Indonesia, and Viet Nam and the United States of America; the United States Peace Corps and the Ministère du Tourisme, de L’Artisanat et l’Economie Sociale, Maroc; and the Kementerian Negara Riset dan Teknologi, (RISTEK), Indonesia. I am grateful to my hosts at Hué University, School of Fine Art, Hué, Viet Nam; The Royal University of Fine Art, Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Udayana University, Faculty of Arts and Letters, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.

My Fulbright Research grant in Art History and Documentary Digital Photography, was designed to follow selectively in the path of American architect, Dorothy West Pelzer, Working throughout Southeast Asia from 1961-1971, Pelzer produced extensive documentary photography with lasting significance to art and architectural history, anthropology and Southeast Asian studies. Her purpose, expressed in her notes and manuscripts, was to research and document in photographs, the traditional “built forms” as she called it, their condition and use, in Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo), Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.

Containing more than 22,500 35mm black and white photographs and color slides, with notes, manuscripts and correspondence, the Pelzer Collection at The National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. and The Institute of Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Cultural Research Programme (SEACURP), Singapore represents a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary study in the history of architecture, photography, Southeast Asian Studies and anthropology.

Thanks to so many people throughout Morocco, Viet Nam, Cambodia and the islands and villages of Indonesia, who shared their houses, their homes, their villages, their thoughts and aspirations with me,.




Ain Leuh, a village in the Middle Atlas Mountains, about 1,600 meters high, was home for nearly two years (2006–2008), while I was working with a cooperative of women weavers, Tissage Ain Leuh (TAL) under the Moroccan Délégation Régional de l’Artisinat, Meknés and Hayat Salaam/Corps de la Paix/Small Business Development Sector, Rabat. A small village, not far from Azrou, Ain Leuh is a center for eco-tourism, mountain trekking and traditional Berber culture, including some of the finest weaving in Morocco. Ain Leuh’s Heyduz Festival, held annually in mid-summer showcases the best regional musicians. “Mountains of the Moon,” was what nineteenth century writers called the ancient crater lakes and rugged mountains around Lake Efnorir, now a bird sanctuary, about 15 km. trekking from Ain Leuh.

In southern Morocco, the ksar of Ait Ben Haddou, Ouarzazate, a traditional Saharan walled city built of earth and rock and sited on a hill was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Essaouira’s Gnaoua Festival, held annually in June, brings together musicians from all over the region and the world, in a fusion of traditional Moroccan, African, Arabic and world music. In the Sahara desert outside Merzouga, near the Algerian border, the dunes at Erg Chebbi shift and are blown by the wind as high as 50 meters. Volubilis (known locally as Oualili), 33k north of Meknès, is the largest, best-preserved Roman ruins in Morocco, also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally settled by Carthaginian traders, in the 3rd century B.C., the most impressive monuments were built during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. (triumphal arch, capitol, baths and basilica). When the Romans abandoned Volublis around 280 A.D., Berbers, Greeks, Jews and Syrians continued to inhabit the city until the 18th C. when it was plundered to build Moulay Ismail's palaces in Meknès. The 40 hectare site is partially excavated with most of the important artifacts moved to the Archaeology Museum, Rabat. Fascinating mosaics tell their stories to an open sky, and columns stand, where the only remaining inhabitants are storks.




In Hué, my project was to document historical architecture in the ancient imperial city of the Nguyen Dynasty. Hué boasts an unusual wealth of UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Dai Noi, the Imperial City of the Nguyen Dynasty rulers of Viet Nam during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Imperial City and many of the King’s tombs along the Perfume River are World Heritage sites. Extensive restoration has brought back the spirit of regal elegance and grandeur to the Citadel, the Royal Palace and Theatre, the An Dinh Palace, the Queen Mother’s Residence and many of the royal tombs. Court music and dance, called Nha Nhac, was declaired a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Nha Nhac musicians use a five-note scale and play bamboo and wooden lutes, zithers, stringed fiddles and xylophones, gongs and drums. The dances are based on histories and folktales. Nha Nhac, as light entertainment for the royal family, was introduced from China in the 13th Century.

In the Central Highlands around Kontum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot, I shot primarily the nha rong, steep thatched roof traditional houses of the ethnic minorities of Viet Nam’s mountain regions. Most of the structures were destroyed during the American War. Now they are being revitalized, rebuilt and used. These traditional houses, as well as Cham temple ruins in Cambodia, South and Central Viet Nam, show, in material culture, the historic and ethnic links between various peoples of Southeast Asia and suggest a wealth of exchange and interaction over millennia.

Hué University, College of Fine Art hosted the Mekong Arts Project Lacquer Workshop , (April 2008) bringing together artists from Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand to study techniques and create new works. In Sinh Village, outside of Hué, woodblock printer Hong Phuok, is third generation in a family of Chinese descent, to practice the craft of printing Buddhist diety images for prayer.





In Cambodia, I photographed Banteay Chhmar , a late twelfth-century temple located in northwest Cambodia, near the Thai border, built by the Khmer king, Jayavarman VII (r.1181-1219) late in his reign. Jayavarman VII constructed many of the greatest Khmer monumental sites, including the city of Angkor Thom with the Bayon at its center, the temple Preah Neak Pean (“coiled serpents”), the Buddhist monastery, Ta Prohm (1186) and Preah Khan (1196). Jayavarman changed the state religion from Hinduism to Buddhism and constructed monuments to advance an empire. Associating himself with the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Lokeshvara image, emblematic of the faith and of the king himself, as devaraja, (god-king), is prominent in the relief. Dedicated to Lokeshvara, Banteay Chhmar was built to honor Jayavarman VII’s son, crown prince, Indravarman, and four of his generals, all killed in battle against the Chams. The temple, one of the largest, and probably one of the last architectural projects undertaken by Jayavarman VII, encompassed an area of approximately 2.5 x 2 kilometers. The site, the vastness of the complex, the elegant architectural plan, and the fineness of sculptural relief place this monument with the greatest of Jayavarman VII’s reign. Because of the remoteness of its site, restoration work at Banteay Chhmar commenced later than work on other important temples in the Siem Reap province. UNESCO and the World Monument Fund (WMF) recommended attention to this threatened monument. In 2008, a project was initiated by the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in partnership with the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), of Palo Alto, California, to restore sections of the vast, temple complex.

In Phnom Penh, I photographed the Cham Roen Community, with the Urban Poor Women’s Development (UPWD) on May 24, 2008. UPWD has been working with Cham Roen for 3 years (since late 2004). The population is approximately 500; with 300 houses. This is the poorest of the communities that UPWD works with, a shanty town which has already been forced to move several times. UPWD assists with information, revolving funds, microfinance available for projects of primarily women’s empowerment and women’s livelihoods.





Nusa Tenggara Timur   ( NTT )

Manggarai, Flores

Although very little traditional architecture remains in the Manggarai region of Flores; the reconstruction of the clan house at Desa Todo, rebuilt in the mid-1990’s with funding from international donors is a significant example of an effort on the part of local people to reconstruct their lost clan house, approximately thirty years after it collapsed. Anthropologist Maribeth Erb relates the circumstances of the reconstruction as well as the details and significance of the Todo clan house in her book, The Manggaraians (Singapore: Times Editions, 1999). Pelzer’s photographs of the original house, taken in 1965, were used to help reconstruct the clan house. I was fortunate to travel with Dr Erb and with Keréang Vitus Tamor, of the royal family of Todo, to visit the new, traditional clan house. I’m grateful also to Agustinus Jehadut and family for their hospitality at Desa Deru N’Doso, (2-4 July 2008) where I photographed the devaraja and Circumpeng ceremonies to formally name Agus’s son, Hardianto and introduce the boy to his ancestors and to celebrate the well-being of the entire family. The thanks-giving ceremony was hosted by Agus’s mother, Margaret and the entire family.

Reading: Maribeth Erb, The Manggaraians, A Guide to Traditional Lifestyles, Vanishing Cultures of the World, Singapore, Times Editions Pte. Ltd., 1999.


Ngada, Flores

In the Ngada region of Flores (July 2008), I found many small, traditional villages supporting a population that deliberately chooses to maintain traditional practices, houses and Circumpeng (hamlets), while at the same time modernizing and moving outward. In the most traditional Ngada kampungs, the inner circle of oldest adat (traditional) houses is kept repaired and occupied, while new construction is permitted only outside the kampung. The problem is not lack of intent to preserve architectural forms and structures, it is lack of funding for materials, renovation and repair. The population in the most traditional villages is usually the oldest and poorest. I’m grateful to Eman Lawang of Bajawa and to Watu Yohanes Vianey, of Guru Sina, both of whom helped me understand much about Ngada culture.

Reading: unpublished PhD dissertation by Watu Yohanes Vianey on Kampung Guru Sina (Universitas Udayana (UNUD), Denpasar, Bali, 2008.


Sumba (July 2008)

In Sumba, I found a strong intent to preserve, maintain and use traditional kampungs (villages), especially in the hills, in East and Central Sumba. The oldest kampungs tend to be highest, some uninhabited, with newer villages built downhill and the most recent along roads more accessible to electricity and water.

The arts of weaving, spinning, dying, stone and wood carving are disappearing at the same rate as the traditional architecture. Economics, education, mobility, modernization all contribute to the loss of traditional skills. Without support, in terms of grants, funding, marketing and livelihoods development initiatives, the traditional forms will be left behind. I’m grateful to Umbu Daungu Napang, of Kampung Kabouduk, Desa Makatakeri and to Bapak Umbulangu, Toko Ketua Adat, Kampung Kambajawa and the other Merapu elders; and to Rambu Tamu Intan, in Rende, and many others who shared their knowledge with me.


Sumatera (September 2008)

In Nias, Minang Kabau, Toba Batak and Karo Batak areas in North and West Sumatra I found serious losses in domestic architecture. Traditional houses in the eight villages I visited in South Nias are threatened, with damage from the tsunami (December 2004) and earthquake (March 2005) still not repaired. Residents told me of funding promised for house restoration and repair, not yet received. They said they did receive funds and supplies for children, several times from UNICEF.

The Karo Batak village of Desa Lingga, (9 September 2008) was selected as a wisata (tourist destination) in 1975 along with Kampung Peceren and Barusejahe. At that time there were 28 traditional houses standing in Lingga; now there are 9. Twenty-one houses have been lost in the past 30 years. Of the 9 remaining, 3 have been recently renovated by a group in the village, using their own funds. Bapak Tersek Ginting told me that they intend to renovate all of the remaining 6 houses as soon as they can generate the necessary funds by selling crafts objects made by the older residents. Of approximately 15 houses in Kampung Peceren in 1975, only 3 are now standing and inhabited. Barusejahe has none left at all, according to Pak Ginting, who showed me around Kampung Lingga.



Sulawesi, Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja (June 24-26, 2008) was vital when I was there in June 2008, with houses and villages intact and functioning. New construction of traditional forms continues, while the oldest structures and sites seemed well maintained as tourism sites. I was lucky to go in June, a busy month of ceremonies with Torajans returning home from all over Indonesia.