South and Southeast Asian art scholar passes away in Berkeley at 84


Professor Emerita Joanna G. Williams, one of the foremost and distinguished scholar of South and Southeast Asian art, passed away at her home in Berkeley on June 16, at the age of eighty-four. Williams was well-regarded for her seminal work on fourth- and fifth-century sculpture and architecture as well as later folk traditions.

Born in southern Indiana, Williams received a B.A. from Swarthmore College in 1960 and an M.A. from Radcliffe College in 1961. She then received a Ph.D. from Harvard University for her dissertation titled Buddhist Wall Paintings of Khotan (1969).

Williams joined the faculty at UC Berkeley in 1967, where she held a joint appointment in the Departments of History of Art and South and Southeast Asian Studies.

Her distinguished career extended over four decades and included landmark publications such as The Art of Gupta India: Empire and Province (1982) and The Two-Headed Deer: Illustrations of the Rāmāyaṇa in Orissa (1996). Based on extensive fieldwork, The Art of Gupta India offered a groundbreaking analysis of Indian sculpture and architecture of the fourth and fifth centuries.

The Two-Headed Deer focused on narrative strategies that were mobilized by Orissan artists to visualize the epic. She also undertook several curatorial projects, including Kingdom of the Sun: Indian Court and Village Art from the Princely State of Mewar (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2007).

Essays such as “A Recut Ashokan Capital and the Gupta Attitude toward the Past,” Artibus Asiae (1973) and “From the Fifth to the Twentieth Century and Back,” Art Journal (1990), among others, redefined the history of South and Southeast Asian art history. Her trailblazing research was supported by grants and honors from the Phi Beta Kappa, the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the American Institute of Indian Studies Fellowship, and the Guggenheim Fellowship, among others.

In 2009, Williams’ contributions to the fields of South and Southeast Asian art were celebrated by her former students in the panel “Margaand Desi in the Art of South Asia” at the 38thAnnual Conference on South Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In celebration of her retirement in 2010, a double-issue festschrift edited by her former student Padma Kaimal (Ph.D., 1988) was published in Artibus Asiae.

Williams was a mentor extraordinaire, an exceptional teacher, and a compassionate advisor who was committed to fostering the study of a region and a field that she cared about deeply. Her students went onto win many awards and publish groundbreaking scholarship that radically reimagined South and Southeast Asian art history’s place in the world.

In 2012, the Joanna G. Williams Endowment was established to honor her vision for the field of South and Southeast Asian art history by supporting students with their research, visits to museums, summer travel for fieldwork, language study, travel for presenting papers at conferences, and fellowship support.