‘A Bazaar in the Coliseum’: Marketing Southeast Asian Handicrafts in New York, 1956

Jennifer Way

Abstract

This essay reconstitutes the meaning and significance of places, objects and people associated with an unstudied pavilion displaying handicrafts at the Southeast Asia Rehabilitation and Trade Development Exhibit held in the New York Coliseum from 25 June to 29 June, 1956. It pays particular attention to the ways the importance assigned to the pavilion correlates with general features of Orientalism that Edward Said analyzed in his book of the same name. Following its publication in 1978, some American cultural historians changed their focus from Europe to the United States, and from the West’s relationship with the Middle East to its relationship with Asia. In this essay, I move the geography of their scholarship from Asia to Southeast Asia and place emphasis on Vietnam. Furthermore, I identify the use of local material and visual culture in U.S. State Department aid programs active in the region, within American Cold War imperatives. The ‘tent-like enclosure’ featured in the Coliseum aimed to display ‘oriental objects’ in an environment that was to appear natural and convey the spirit of the places where they were made; it was to have ‘the atmosphere of an oriental bazaar’. The objects consisted of handicrafts that renowned American industrial designer Russel Wright collected during a recent trip he made to Southeast Asia on behalf of the U.S. State Department’s International Cooperation Administration. The ICA contracted Wright to evaluate the feasibility of establishing a multi-year program to produce and export handicrafts from there to the United States. I examine how Wright’s activity in Southeast Asia and New York City, along with the purpose, appearance and location of the pavilion in the Coliseum, prompted Wright, the pavilion’s designers, American government officials and the press to consider it ‘oriental,’ and its contents antithetical to characteristics of contemporary American culture yet also well-suited to serving its needs. At issue are ways the ‘tent-like enclosure’ established and modulated relations between Southeast Asia, Vietnam and the United States within an Orientalist framework emphasizing American authority, hierarchical distinctions regarding places, objects and people as well as types of belonging linking people to objects, and salvage, supplementation and adaptation. Much of this amounted to a process of domesticating Vietnam for America. Vietnam, which the U.S. State Department as well as Wright perceived to need American assistance, entered the domestic economy where it would contribute to enriching the homes of the American middle class.

Keywords: pavilion, Southeast Asia, handicraft, New York Coliseum, Orientalism, Cold War.

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DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.5456/issn.2050-3679/2013w09jw

Biographical note

Jennifer Way is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of North Texas where she teaches and research the history, methodology, theory and social and cultural contexts of art after 1945. This essay for a book project called Politics of Handicraft developed from research supported by grants from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Center for Craft Creativity and Design, and Design History Society, respectively.