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Home / News / Why Asian Art? Part 3 (April 2012)

Why Asian Art? Part 3

April 2012


The contemporary art of Southeast Asia

I must state from the outset that I find the artwork coming from this part of Asia as the most exciting, possibly because it is such a relatively new movement and therefore there are a huge number of emerging artists with differing styles, techniques and influences from a range of diverse countries.

Also, this is not a definitive discussion, but just one to arouse interest and outline what, where and when, when looking at contemporary art from the region.

The most important contemporary art from this region comes from Indonesia, followed by the Philippines, and then Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia and Laos. Certainly, this wasn't always the case.

In the early part of the 20th century, the art coming from Vietnamese artists who had studied in France or had received training from those who had been there gave Vietnam a head start. These artists were acclaimed both at home and in France and commanded recognition financially as well as professionally. However, something happened and Vietnamese art was not to recover to its past glory.

What was this "something" and what has been the consequences?

I would argue that Vietnamese art declined from the start of the Vietnam War and it has never recovered. Vietnamese art had always had a decorative appeal, but in the war, there was the emergence of propagandist art coming from China and Korea to the north, yet it never had the impact or creativity of the work coming from its northern neighbours which is evidenced by the lack of academic research undertaken on the subject and the lack of information regarding this form of art, yet propagandist art from China and North Korea is the subject of much attention and is highly collectable. Also, contemporary Vietnamese art has drifted more and more to subject matter, that although traditionally Vietnamese, appeals more to a tourist market and is at best derivative of both the art of its past.

Where is the art that confronts in contemporary Vietnamese art? Where is the technical brilliance of its northern neighbour or the impact, energy and creativity of Indonesia or the Philippines? They have had similar histories, colonization and wars, but there is none of the drama in Vietnamese contemporary art.

The Philippines has produced artists of quite considerable talent since the early 20th century, many being influenced by the original (and much earlier) occupation by the Spanish and the strict Catholicism they brought with them.

Religious subject matter dominated Philippines art up until the early 20th Century when there was an arousal of Nationalism (like much of Southeast Asia) during this period, where the day to day life of the citizen was idealised and set as an example for all to follow. Unlike Vietnam, the Philippine artists had a very Hispanic influence, and their work was often far more realistic and darker.

After the Americanization of the country, there was a new blossoming of creativity and imagination in art which was challenging and promoted an individualism with the influences being taken from more modern figurative art or social realist art coming from the US in particular.

Indonesia is the giant in the region, in terms of population as well as the creativity of its artists. Indonesia in the 20th century was a place of huge social and political upheaval. Again, a colonial outpost of the Dutch, the influences coming into the country were predominantly from Dutch art and also from the comparative large number of European artists, particularly Dutch, who visited the region, in particular the exotic (then!) Bali.

Artists were drawn to this region like bees to pollen. The landscapes were sublime, the skies were as dramatic as any place in the world and the people as exotic, possibly more so, than those Tahitian's whom Gauguin had painted some 50 or so years earlier.

But underlying this, there was political and social dissent.

The Indonesians wanted their independence from the Dutch and also they had internal issues too. This lead to the universities producing young thinkers determined to change the world: some by their words, some by their actions and some by their art. Nationalism, like that in the Philippines, sparked a flourishing of art that has continued to this day.

Originality, not constrained by the religion of the country, blossomed.

Unlike other Islamic countries, the human form was the subject of much of the art and the human relationship with this Garden of Eden-like group of islands, was to influence a stream of artists. Added to this political commentary, the art of Indonesia grew in both confidence and stature.

Next time: Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

This article by Anthony Smith was originally published by Art Antiques Design


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