Unified yet one? A Continued Plea for Regionalist Art History in Southeast Asia

Figure 1: Albert Samreth, Some days (2014), mixed media, 300 x 210 cm


Angkor, the famed 12th century archaeological site in Siem Reap, Cambodia, attracts around 2.5 million visitors a year. Its most famous attraction is the ancient temple complex, Angkor Wat, which has been imaged multiply: on the country’s flag, on postcards and through replicas, including a 1:1 scale plaster cast at the 1930 Paris Expo. The “discovery” of Angkor by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860 was used as evidence of a highly sophisticated civilization and fueled further speculation and research by foreigners. Early historians traced a connection between Angkor and early Indic aesthetics, understood through epigraphy, bas reliefs, religious rituals and forms, revealing how from early interactions of colonization there was always a relationship between archaeology and art to determine territory.[1] This site has also been a source of imagination for many visiting artists including the surrealist Max Ernst, silent comedian Charlie Chaplin; it was even the playground for fictional video game adventurer Lara Croft (played by Angelina Jolie) in the 2001 movie Tomb Raider. For both Cambodians and the world at large, Angkor represents our intrigue with an ancient civilization: a religious monument filled with artistic depictions and designs of a different time and world. Historian Penny Edwards suggests the “hypnotic appeal” of Angkor was part of an image regime initiated by French colonizers, that “rebuilt Angkor as a totem of the Western imagination.”[2] To this day, visiting Angkor remains a priority for many in the touristic pilgrim mage of Southeast Asia.

Albert Samreth’s artwork Some Days (2014) is a composite of sunset paintings, in romantic hues of lemon and blazing tangerine, ancient monuments and tropical cabbage trees. These paintings, stitched together, hang casually off a railing, with the canvas puckered. Within the various paintings stands the monument of Angkor, the Bayon and other markers of Cambodia such as sugar palm trees swaying in agrarian landscapes. It is an image which could be in the past or present tense. Despite the exoticizing and touristic tropes in this image, it is not simply a romanticized projection. There is something enduring about this sunrise at Angkor that visitors continually try and capture, whether it is this curiosity about an ancient civilization, or how this monument has continuously appeared, despite Cambodia’s more recent violent history. The touristic pilgrimage to see a sunrise at Angkor as an emblem of tourism then is surely under critique by Samreth, stitching together paintings of sunrise and sunset made by local artisans, the same ones that cater to the visitors at Angkor and often sell their wares within the ground of Angkor Wat itself. Samreth’s paintings hang casually off a railing like a curtain. Does he want us to pull the curtain back and see what is behind? We can assume that what is behind is the empty gallery wall, a reminder that an image is, in one sense, simple signifiers we project our desires and longings onto. It’s a sort of Wizard of Oz trick: perhaps behind the curtain there is a commander of images, who we assume is all-powerful and knowing. However, like the magician Oz, these images can take on different manifestations, become smoke and mirrors representations. In this way they operate as a metaphor for the projection of power fueled by our desire for meaning.

This notion of the exotic sunset has become an image shorthand for a stereotype of images that reference an exotic idea of Southeast Asia. The experience of visiting Angkor at sunrise is supposed to be a transcendent experience of seeing a piece of ancient history in real time. However, with thousands of people surrounding you, all with recording devices, that experience has become completely absorbed by the capitalist consumption of pre-packaged culture. The touristic pilgrimage to see a sunrise at Angkor then is surely under critique by Samreth, stitching together paintings of sunrise and sunset made by local artisans, the same ones that cater to the visitors at Angkor and often sell their wares within the ground of Angkor Wat itself. When thinking about regional art histories, particularly in Southeast Asia, there is a conundrum between looking at images which reference a glorious past, from which modernity is absent as these images which have become essentialized, as indicators as of place. Such images all exist within a representational regime that the mechanisms of art history have helped pave a way for.

In Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, there is street adjacent to the open-air National Museum. While the museum holds objects owing to the grand civilization of the Angkorian Empire, the street itself is full of shophouses selling the products of contemporary artisans who largely cater to the tourist market. This stark contrast is not surprising, given that art is never outside of these circuits of cultural tourism, and the ownership of objects is a form of shorthand for the absorption of new cultures. The country’s artistic talent was bolstered during French colonization between 1863–1953, where the establishment of the Royal University of Fine Arts in 1917 was a place where locals would be trained in ancient craft, to fuel a demand for objects that perpetuated the beauty and uniqueness of Angkor as something that without intervention would disappear.[3] Hence, the perpetuation of Angkor as image has partly endured because contemporary artisans continue to make objects to fuel a lucrative tourist market which connected geography with artworks as something that could travel and be owned stemming from the initial instrumentalization of Angkor as an artistic site of export wares. This form of imaging/imagery was endorsed through state policy, as a reminder of a nation shaped by a history far beyond its modern borders. Angkor was not merely a temple, as if often articulated in contemporary travel brochures, but was part of a city, an empire that traversed spaces across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before the birth of the nation state.

Samreth’s Some days confronts us with tropes that have characterized and branded images of Southeast Asia to the Western world: existing in the past tense, mysterious, inviting, and beautiful. Early area and anthropological studies articulated Southeast Asia through similar cultural characteristics which were determined as: a belief in spirits, monsoon climate, rice cultivation and relative equality of the sexes. Other articulations have defined the region in relation to two  “grander” civilizations, South of China and East of India (which gave its directional namesake Southeast), and the cultural diffusion of forms and customs from those places.

However, determining culture solely through these compass bearings is not straightforward. Take Samreth’s own biography, born in 1987 as part of the Cambodian diaspora in the United States, and consider how this also complicates understandings of what is included and excluded under the umbrella of “Southeast Asian art.” Even though Samreth has been distanced by birth from Cambodia, his painting references an image of beauty that has endured different and often violent regimes, a monument which was consciously cultivated to define the Khmer Empire and notion of Cambodia.[4] It is this  “double-bind” which is the subject of this essay—one that cannot escape the encapsulation of frameworks of representation, and constantly seeks to go beyond it. Cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall used the double-bind to describe the process of representation where claiming a cultural category plays into essentializing notions of culture, however going without it only leads to invisibility.[5] It is here the term “Southeast Asia” and its relationship to art history becomes heightened, as a frame of reference that on the one hand allows a broader context to be opened up, and on the other hand locks artworks into a particular geography that has always been fluid in regards to its borders and its cultural definition.

This essay will introduce some ideas on existing ideas on regionalist approaches in Southeast Asian art history. I attempt to demonstrate how intertwined political ideas of Southeast Asia have undoubtedly been with art historical discourse, which as a discipline has in turn contributed to an idea of territoriality. Even though I reference Cambodia in this introduction, one of the 11 nation states that make up the regional territory, I use this artwork as a starting point to think through a particularly powerful mode of image making. This mode takes into account the myth of the nation, iconography, and how images are umbilically tied to ideas of place. Through unpacking our desire to project the idea of place onto such images, in order to understand them, perhaps we can begin to understand how regional art histories function. Through this we may also see our own relationship with regionalism more clearly, and how broadly this impacts our fundamental belief systems about the links between art history and territory, within a globalized moment.

Learning Through T.K. Sabapathy’s Southeast Asia

While many art historians in the region have turned their attention to particular countries, T.K. Sabapathy continues to passionately advocate for regional perspectives when writing about modern art history in Southeast Asia. Sabapathy has always been recognized within Southeast Asia as a visionary in terms of championing regional approaches and does so without the romanticizing tendencies of regional cooperation often found through more civic events such as Biennials or inter regional exchanges led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Having trained in art history in the United States (University of California, Berkeley) and the United Kingdom (SOAS, University of London) as well as taught in both Penang, Malaysia (University Sains) and Singapore, Sabapathy was intent on pursuing the questions of the modern within a Southeast Asian art historical context. The prolific work of Sabapathy was recently published as a volume Writing the modern (2018) by Singapore Art Museum. His writings have stood the test of time—they are critical of facile engagements with the nation state and critical of art being instrumentalized as celebratory exercises of diplomacy.

It was the onset of ASEAN artistic exchanges, and biennial culture which drew Sabapathy’s critical attention to go deeper than “the cocktail gatherings” of cultural statecraft, admonishing these initiatives as “smug, inward looking, and is the playground for the select and same few—those selected to participate are politically correct and diplomatically safe.”[6] Sabapathy’s notion of Southeast Asia was not caught up in these novel plays of soft power; instead he took a historiographical approach through looking at interregional connections that existed before the birth of the nation state. In these historical articulations of South East Asia, the initial diffusion of aesthetic patterns for example seen on through the decoration of religious monuments was considered. This was also linked back to a need for a larger “nuclear, legitimizing center” such as India, and the dynamism of cosmopolitan movement between places before the advent of colonization. This regional conception of culture, through Indianization, was limber in its reach, adapting to local practices but ultimately hinged to “a view of culture as a civilizing force entwined with the projection of India as embodying a tradition that is universalist, unitary, and benign.”[7]

ASEAN was established in 1967 as a political reaction to regional security and economic growth. Although primarily centered on economic cooperation, the underlying rationale for ASEAN was not only geographic proximity and political opportunism, but the idea that the region was brought together through intrinsic cultural values as well as unifying through a mutual fear of communism. The cultural department of ASEAN produced a raft of symposia, exchanges, artistic competitions and displays, which inevitably carried undertones of harmonious cultural diplomacy. As the expansionist tendencies of ASEAN grew so did discourses relating to Southeast Asia, revealing how the political lines of art history are often tied to economic and social circumstances of artistic production, as well as the geographic location. Those considered allies or enemies to the association altered the artistic framework of culturally relating through channels of ASEAN, what was considered neighborly began to formalize as political fraternity. Furthermore, since its inception as an agreement between five countries, ASEAN has grown to include 11 member states,[8] revealing how cultural frameworks are elastic dependent on the political definition of a region. Although ASEAN has been instrumental in creating fora for artistic dialogue across the region, these initiatives are often underscored by the sunnier side of cultural diplomacy rather than critically unpacking what it means to be part of a region. Given that ASEAN initiatives tend to veer away from contentious conversations on culture, it is often regarded as a more celebratory platform for art. 

In Sabapathy’s seminal text Developing Regionalist Perspectives in Southeast Asian Art Historiography (1996),he cites three scholars as providing a “binding art historical identity” for Southeast Asia. The first two, Ananda Coomarswarmy (1877–1947) and Georges Coedes (1886– 1969), make crucial links between the emergence of sculptural forms found in Southeast Asia and the diffusion of Buddhist Hindu cults to Southeast Asia. The other scholar is Madeleine Giteau (1918–2005) who acknowledges these connections but also champions intraregional connections, claiming that innovation of form was not merely from an external  “elsewhere” (always something scholars noted in a somewhat patronizing tone) but rather developed through dynamic interchange with neighbours within the region.

Sabapathy followed Giteau’s line of enquiry, lamenting how such regionalist approaches had somewhat disappeared with the arrival of the modern nation state. Surely, in advocating for regional approaches, Sabapathy was driven by his own experience as someone who had lived through territorial shifts. He was born in 1938 in the British Straits Settlements, then part of the Malaya Federation, which subsequently transitioned into Malaysia and finally to independence in 1965, where the nation state of Singapore was born. Singapore is not unique in the region in terms of these tumultuous territorial shifts. All of the nations in Southeast Asia encapsulate diverse and often clashing ethnic groups, multiple indigenous and foreign languages contained within the same country, and many different religions and colonial legacies as well as other hierarchies, making these regional categorisztions—which may outwardly sound quite homogenous—problematic.

 However, despite the diversity of the region, there are lineages of aesthetics which points to a similar family as seen through the influence of Indianization. These intraregional connections also highlight the novelty of nation state divisions as a framework, one that excludes forms of art that do not conform to the remits of modern boundaries. Given the current return to protectionist nation-states, Sabapathy’s plea resurfaces as a timely reminder that confining histories and art to strict border divisions can be simplistic and harmful, while regionalism may serve as a more generous alternative to the exclusivity and politicized essentialism that nation state divisions enforce.

The idea of categorizing art through a regional framework is often met by contemporary artists with disdain, particularly in Southeast Asia. This is unsurprising considering how past attempts at doing this often come from a top down level, from municipal organizations such as biennials, art fairs or museums, which blatantly instrumentalize and capitalize upon frameworks of diversity to parade a unique selling point and faux sense of regional harmony. Cringey exhibition platitudes in titles such as “We are Asia,”[9] or “If the world changed,”[10] do little to exhibit the critical rigor needed to unpack what exactly we mean when we say Southeast Asian art and art history. In these contexts the term  “Southeast Asia” as a measure of classification and is taken as a given. By contrast, Sabapathy argues for a critical regionalism based on “extraterritoriality” which adopts approaches from other disciplines.[11] Critical regionalist approaches, which go across territories, can also cut through some of the biases formed through the cultural chauvinism of each particular nation state within the region.

Figure 2: Photo of panels taken at Angkor Wat in 1963 by Shui Tit Sing. From Koh Nguang How’s Singapore Art Archive Project.

An example of Sabapathy defining a style of art in the modern era that was cross regional can be seen in 1979. Sabapathy and Malaysian artist and art historian Reza Piyadasa defined the term ‘Nanyang’ style to describe a group of artists and artworks made by Chinese émigré artists across Southeast Asia’s independence era (1950s–1970s) particular to the social landscapes of Singapore and Malaysia. Nanyang is a term in Mandarin, which translates into “South Seas,”’ and refers to the wave of Chinese migration into Southeast Asia at the beginning of the 20th century and the establishment of roots by these migrants. Nanyang came to refer to not only a particular ethnic group but also a concept centered around migration and mobility. In terms of an artistic style, these artists often kept the principles of Chinese ink painting such as “combining the procedures of observation with graphic skill” and included “ fishing and rural villages, riverine scenes, cityscapes and views of mosques and temples.”[12] These were combined with philosophies learned from the School of Paris such as “a freedom from institutional constraints” where “the obligations of traditional iconography were either minimized or neutralized by formal and technical considerations.”[13] Because of this “modern status of the artist,” the Nanyang artists were free to focus their attention on local subject matter as well tropical conditions of light and color. In adapting their painting technique to locality of modern form, Southeast Asia became less distant as a place of exoticism. This fertile ground became home and took on a role as a new landscape to reckon with through both existing Chinese painting traditions and modern routes through European salon schools. As a modern art style, the Nanyang designation gave shape to the conceptual project of Chinese diasporic artists who at the time were seemingly ‘caught’ between two traditions, and became a way of acclimatizing to new local conditions.

Chinese art critic Marco Hsu called attention onto local landscapes as a source of inspiration, in contradiction to the perceived notion that Malaya was a “cultural wasteland”[14] because it lacked the long entrenched academic traditions of both China and Europe. This idea that was hotly contested through the fervent activity of, for example, the Ten Men Art Group, a Singapore based artistic group operative between the 1950s–1970s who took a studious approach, in what can now be understood as the Nanyang Style. In their quest to acclimatise to the region they actively sought out subject matter through study trips in neighboring countries. Curiously, it was not urban centers and an assertion of modernity that they depicted. Rather their focus was on tradition as located in rural form, through ancient monuments and through continuity of activities from traditional life, and on the endurance of cultural practices in spite of encroaching urban modernization. It is curious that they focused their attention outwards into the region rather than on Singapore itself. Surely this demonstrates a sense of lament, for the loss of modernity they saw around them through Singapore’s rapid urbanization, while  the region remained the site of authentic living history. In the work of one the Ten Men members, Shui Tit Sing (1914–1997) we can see how during a field trip to Angkor he documented bas reliefs of Angkorian panels which depicted daily life scenes, and then found evidence of these traditions continuing to exist within local village life; he would later would recreate this scene as a painted ink image. This multi-tiered approach to image making seemed to be a way of showing continuity between premodern form and rural life as it continued in front of him.

Figure 3: Images of Apsaras based on Angkor Bas Relief Panels by Shui Tit Sing (1963).
From Koh Nguang How’s Singapore Art Archive Project.

When writing about the Nanyang, both Sabapathy and Piyadasa expressed excitement over a new modern style that was uniquely regional. Through focusing on Chinese diaspora which also appeared across all nations of Southeast Asia (even though they were specifically referring to Malaysia and Singapore, and perhaps to an extent could include Chinese diaspora in Indonesia) there was a certain fluidity in which they were describing even though they perhaps overlooked intersectional perspectives which enabled these artists, such as class and even ethnicity/race. These aspects of racialization are often unaccounted for within intraregional dynamics, aside from more recent debates over discrimination and marginalization particularly of Chinese in Indonesia (and perhaps to an extent Malaysia). However, when discussing regionalism in art history unpacking these dynamics are only now beginning to surface in a more pronounced fashion. The Nanyang Style therefore demands some reassessment, as art historian Kevin Chua has recently noted,[15] as it perhaps oversimplified the racial dimensions of new émigré artists and their adaptation to a new place—particularly as these dynamics varied greatly between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Although the Nanyang focused on a specific social milieu, middle class Chinese émigrés to the region, there were transnational aspects about the group such as being part of a large diaspora which transcended the cementing borders around them. Of course, their social milieu also enabled them to travel the region and approach it with fresh eyes and modern painting and pictorial techniques that separated themselves from the ‘tradition’ that more local or indigenous artists used as an artistic language. For example, in many of the artworks of the Ten Men, the sense of perspective is distant, with the artist standing firmly outside of the pictorial frame in the position of observer. When thinking through the Nanyang Sabapathy stated that:

Indeed the iconology of the Nanyang, as well as the loci of its genesis, were transnational and translocal. Of course these terms were not known then but we worked our way around the situation by framing approaches in terms of regions and regionness, which were not seen as fixed and stable but as mobile, interpenetrating and in flux.[16]

The Nanyang artists gave a perspective both foreign enough to give a fresh set of reflections on local representation, and local enough so that it was not too alien. This was also a context in which new art histories could be thought about, as the group embraced the challenges of modernity.

Scholar Brian Bernards has argued that the Nanyang was its own kind of creolized culture,[17] to which I add that because of Chinese émigrés efforts to indigenize to Southeast Asia, carried with it a certain perspective (and at the time, privilege) of foreignness. Although Bernards focused on Nanyang literature of Southeast Asia, his critical approach to both what was encompassed within the term Nanyang can provide a fruitful comparator with what Sabapathy was doing in terms of defining Nanyang artists and their perspectives as a kind of artistic style. The dichotomies between local and foreign are seen to destabilize through the shifting borders of Southeast Asia’s independence era. Of course, the position and experiences of ethnic Chinese differed substantially across Southeast Asia, particularly as the strength of China shifted during the Cold War era. Tensions arose because many Chinese immigrants prospered economically and in some countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia suffered discrimination and limited rights because of increasing nationalism in policies which entrenched ethnic divisions. Violent Communist purges (which conflated political leanings and race) occurred in Indonesia between 1965–1969 as well as many racialized riots across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which made being Chinese within the region a sticking point of at times dangerous and other times opportune difference. In Singapore, multiracialism was considered foundational to the country’s biography and a more even keeled footing was distributed across the three main ethnic groups of Malay, Indian, and Chinese, a situation quite different than Indonesia and Malaysia. These social divisions in Singapore were further fueled by the myth of meritocracy, instilled and implemented through government policy to the extent that the Chinese diaspora socio-economically superseded the more localized and indigenous Malays.

The varying positionalities of different ethnic groups within the region highlights the heterogenous experience of being part a region, and how perspectives shift, even within the same racialized cultural category. Bernards’ understanding of the Nanyang is creolized through the idea of the “archipelagic imagination”: the role of Chinese movement and migration as crucial to this designation. Using Glissant’s notion of creole, a cacophony of intermixing and interaction based in the plantation, Bernards also interrogates how migration was crucial to the formation of diaspora in Singapore, and how to navigate this locality through archipelagic thinking. Bernards states that, “in expressing national cultures, the archipelagic imagination conceptually differs from the continental imagination, prioritizing contact, exchange, heterogeneity, and creolization instead of racial, ethnic, or linguistic uniformity and singularity.”[18] This frames the ecological state of bodies of water, and porous borders, as part of the Nanyang experience. Bernard’s deploys Glissant’s notion of the archipelago—a site which is necessarily plural—allowing us to further unpack the often exclusive synonyms of race, ethnicity and nationalism.

Of course, Sabapathy’s prolific scholarship on the region deserves much more attention than what I’ve introduced here and is far more expansive than this example. However, I hope it reveals how art history of Southeast Asia has always had transnational underpinnings, as well as a confusing conflation of territory, concepts of race and art, as reflective of various collisions of ethnic groups. Although Bernards’ calls for reading these islands and their intermixing through Glissant’s notion of creolisation—where migration and mixing is crucial to interactions—this enables us to draw attention to movement between islands, not only between ethnic groups, but to how the region is always underpinned by transnational movement. Sabapathy’s insistence on regionalism also emphasizes this notion of movement as part of regionalism and highlights the co-dependent nature of art and culture as unbounded solely to nation states. Through emphasizing fluidity and regional comparison, Sabapathy has always been a relevant and guiding example on how regional art history can be a space of ambiguity and inclusion, through critically examining the strict definitions often imposed and essentialized through the nation. Given more recent resurgence to populist thinking, citing this openness and porousness of cultural borders feels more urgent than ever.

Regionalist Concepts of Southeast Asia

As so far discussed, “Southeast Asian art” was initially used as a way to categorize an incredible legacy of archaeology, interpreted according to territory as it was demarcated before modern nation state divisions. Materials under this category demonstrated a relationship with notions of Indianization, and were seen to be as part of the same cultural family through aesthetic links. Despite these premodern formations, the term Southeast Asia actually emerged through the demands of both warfare and academia as late as 1948,[19] during what has often been regarded as the modern period. This makes regionalist Southeast Asian art history a relatively recent field of inquiry despite, much earlier references to a region.[20] Shortly after Southeast Asia studies was established in European and American academic departments,[21] the region was further spotlighted through events of the Cold War, soldering the region as a cohesive identity.

One of the landmark events in this consolidation was held in Bandung, Indonesia, between 18–24 April 1955, where Asian and African nations formally gathered for the first time in recorded history. This meeting, formally known as the Asian-Africa Conference, or the Konferensi Asia-Afrika, has been mythologized as the Bandung Conference. The Bandung Conference was a meeting of newly independent Third World states to carve out their alliances and reservations amidst Cold War tensions, particularly in relation to the larger superpowers of the Soviet Union, United States and China, as well as frustration over historical colonizers from Western Europe. The catalyst for this was not necessarily the search for shared culture, similar religious beliefs, mutual political interest or even a similar skin tone—those themes that informed definitions of ‘cultural characteristics’ within the then-burgeoning discipline of area studies. Rather, this coming together at Bandung was founded in mutual frustration at being “the despised, the dispossessed, basically the underdogs of the human race.”[22] These impassioned and palpably frustrated words, written by African American writer and civil rights activist Richard Wright, capture a spirit of that Bandung moment, one which has been reflected on by many notable historians and cultural leaders since, as an alliance of black and brown nations, through identity politics, an alignment that set forth the momentum of decolonization around the world. The conference has been etched into global history as a spectacle in what historian Naoko Shimazu called the “theatre of diplomacy,”[23] because of the way power was paraded at Bandung through the charisma of the leaders present and through their proud display of nationalist and ethnic dress. The initial message of Bandung—as a gathering that was both anti-racist and anti-colonialist—was further developed in 1961 as the Non-Aligned Movement, which again brought together members from Asia, Africa and the Middle East as well as created further points of connection to Latin America and Eastern Europe. There were all countries on the periphery led by some of the leaders that were prominent at Bandung. These alliances, based on regions that had been marginalized within the hierarchy of the global order, suggest a moment in history where the possibility of power looked different.

Figure 4: Delegates at the Bandung 1955 Asia Africa Conference

Bandung was part of a moment where the world opened up to not only to nationalism, in relation to the international, but also cemented an idea of regionalism. Historians have often designated the Bandung Conference as a failed political moment of optimistic third world solidarity that never quite reached its potential, however, it is also positively remembered as a moment in which a different world was imaged. These machinations of the third world “as a project not a place,”[24] saw image culture take the form of speaking back against dominating forces. A striking example of this was the ‘panel play’ at the Games of the Non-Aligned Forces (GANEFO), staged in Phnom Penh in 1961 an alternative to the Olympics, with participating countries based on the new alliances of power through the Non-Aligned Movement. Through what must have been stringent choreography, the panels, in which the stadium audience was choreographed to hold up different coloured cards to collectively create a group image, depicted at the newly built modernist Olympic Stadium fluctuate between national iconography in premodern form and overt political messages such as “US go home.”

Figure 5 & 6: Panel play at GANEFO, Phnom Penh, Cambodia 1966

Of course, these articulations of regionalism, like their premodern counterparts, are not entirely novel constructions and have precedents in existing empires which in their turn gave shape to the region. The term Nusantara, which refers to the Indonesian/Malay archipelago (depending on which side of the border you are on) is made up of the Sanskritic words“islands” (nusa) and  “between” (antara), which are still part of the Indonesian vocabulary. This term, which refers to the entire archipelago, now home to maritime Southeast Asian countries Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and East Timor (as well as the more contested territories of West Papua—still vying for independence), was found in earliest texts from the 15th century.[25] The term Nusantara weaved sporadically in and out of fashion over the next 400 hundred years but made a relative comeback between 1940–1960s, alongside independence movements and the birth of nation states of both Indonesia and Malaysia, with prominent politicians and thinkers resurfacing this term as part of burgeoning nationalism. Nusantara even appears on a relatively recently opened (2017) privately funded art museum with public purpose in Jakarta, Indonesia, called Museum MACAN—a word in Indonesian that means “tiger”—with the letters of the acronym standing for Museum of Art and Culture in Nusantara.

Another instance of joining forces within the region—again not solely based on archaeological, geographic or political ties, but through an imagining which brought together different parts of Southeast Asia on the basis of race—is represented in Pangrok Sulap’s large-scale woodblock print Being Maphilindo (2014). The collective known as Pangrok Sulap (a play on the words Punk Rock with Sulap in Malay meaning magic) produced this portrait print showing a stereotypical orang besar or kingpin in what appears to be a form of social critique. The bureaucratic orang besar at the centre of Pangrok Sulap’s piece has four eyes, perhaps an allusion to an underlying shape-shifting nature of these figures. Surrounding him text emanates out like a damning halo, pointing out the responsibilities associated with a conglomerate of nation states banding together. These rays of text emanate out from the figure, with different words in English associated with his status. On the same continuum of these rays sits both capitalism, anarchism, socialism, and fascism perhaps a hint as to how these positions of power spout different ideologies but come from the same figurehead.  “Maphilindo”’ was a proposed union of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines in 1963, initiated in 19 parts of Southeast Asia that were seen as similar in being part of the “Malay race” and maritime Southeast Asia as an island archipelago.[26] (The large woodblock format is indicative of the collective approach by Pangrok Sulap from Borneo, which continues to be a territory which has been in contest for its own independence and separation from Malaysia. The medium connects to a history where woodblock has been used in other parts of the region, such as through the leftist Equator Arts Society in Singapore (active during the 1960s) and more recently by the collective and politically conscious Taring Padi in Yogyakarta, Indonesia who also make prints which engage with social issues.[27] Across the three contexts these collectives use print-making as a medium located within the voice of the citizenry, actively question what that is, and make socially critical images responsive to political shifts.

Figure 7: Pangrok Sulap, Evidently the Duty of Governing Three Nations Is Not a Simple Story (Ternyatalah Tugas Menjaga Tiga Negara Bukan Cerita Yang Mudah) (2015), ink on fabric, 157 x 284 cm. Collection of the Mori Art Museum. Image courtesy of the artist

Various concepts of the region as porous perhaps stem from early political models of spatial governance, as seen through Indianization, where it was theorized that instead of having singular and unified centers of power, there were multiple mandala centers of power.[28] The idea of mandala centers emphasizes that power was localized, ebbing and flowing out, that culture was diffused through overlapping onto each other. Although mandala centers of power were a phenomenon specifically found in mainland Southeast Asia, perhaps there is a similarity in terms of the ways power flowed and moved across different territories within the region.

Regionalism and Racialization

Although the Bandung Conference operated in parallel to formative artistic debates in Indonesia, there is no doubt that its impact changed visual culture throughout the region. The fervor of the Bandung Spirit enabled multiple lateral connections to be developed across archipelagos and locations of the third world, and interregional connections began to be discussed with more nuance. African-American Civil Rights activist and writer Richard Wright attended the Conference and described the event in vivid journalistic detail as “a gathering beyond left and right” where “Day after day dun-coloured Trotskyites consorted with dark Moslems, yellow Indo-Chinese hobnobbed with brown Indonesians, black Africans mingled with swarthy Arabs, tan Burmese associated with dark brown Hindus, dusky Nationalists palled around with yellow Communists, and Socialists talked to Buddhists.”[29]

Figure 8: Hendra Gunawan, Asia Africa storm, 1954. Collection of Oei Hong Djien

            A more recent work by Indonesia painter Basuki Abdullah, made in 1991 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Non-Aligned Movement, also asserts a different image of power than conventionally seen in Indonesia’s art history. Previous paintings of a diverse Indonesia with foreigners typically included an interaction with white colonial powers and locals.[30] However, in Abdullah’s commemorative painting, we see leaders of the Third World, painted as icons and busts. There are subtle abstract lines connecting them—one which looks like a thread or even an umbilical cord made up of the colors of the Indonesian flag. In other paintings of this series we can see these abstract figureheads against a backdrop that almost looks like abstracted islands or tectonic plates. While this image can be read as a diplomatic celebration, it is also a rare instance of international diversity on display on canvas which centers Global South connections. The busts stand on background of country flags, like islands moving through a shifting terrain.

Figure 9: Basoeki Abdullah, Empat Belas Pemimipin Gerakan Non Blok (GNB) dari Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia) – Ali Kafi (Algeria) (1992) from “Lukisan Baseoki Abdullah Perjuangan, Sosial dan Kemanusiaan” (2013).
Figure 10: Basoeki Abdullah, Sepuluh Pimimpin Gerakan Non Blok (GNB) dari Nicephone Sogloo (Benin) – Obed M.D. (Swazeland), (1992). From “Lukisan Baseoki Abdullah Perjuangan, Sosial dan Kemanusiaan” (2013).

            If we dig a little deeper and look at other artistic connections across the region, we find that even during a period of intense nationalism, through independence, these new alliances emerge. In a series of little-known Buddhist pagoda murals found in a rural area of Cambodia, we can also identify a shift in representational techniques in an iconic narrative known as “the distribution of the ashes.” In this foundational Buddhist story, the remains of the Buddha’s body are distributed as a metaphor for the eventual spread of Buddhism around the world. The distribution of the ashes is part of a series of stories all relating the Buddha’s life story and his journey towards attainting enlightenment which are commonly depicted on pagoda murals. In other iterations of the scene in other Cambodian pagoda murals, the world is seen as more localized. The recipients of the ashes are often depicted as different ethnic groups of Cambodia, or foreigners, demarcated as French in reference to the historic colonizers, or Chinese, which perhaps nods to early Chinese dignitaries who visited Angkor in the 13th century. However, what is fascinating is that during the 1960s, new representatives of the wider world are present to receive the remains of the Buddha. This particular story of the Buddha’s life has always been a worldly scene, however, the geographic horizon of the world continues to open up during various examples in the 1960s found in rural depictions, just as Cambodia and thus Southeast Asia’s relationships with the world also expands. Found in Wat Prasat Andaet in Kampong Svay area (within paintings dating to the 1960s) the scene is depicted as both diverse and chaotic (as often depictions of this scene are). However, what resonates is the figures the attendance of this scene, including political figures from of Cambodia’s independence period (1955–1975), also the period in which the Bandung Conference happened. In the foreground we see figures that not only seem to represent the UK (a Queen Victoria figure), but also figures wearing elaborate period costumes which denote different historical moments in global history. Overseeing the scene, occupying what appears to be Grecian classical architecture, are characters who could have been picked from an illustrated copy of Plato’s Republic. Curiously, in the midst of the chaos seems to be an African figure. Two different interpretations of this scene reveal an uncanny kind of mistranslation. In one of the images at Wat Kampong Thom he is wearing a pith helmet, in African contexts usually reserved for an image of the colonizer not the colonisózed, and in another depiction, at Wat Prasat Andaet (the image featured here), a feather headdress reminiscent of a stereotypical motif used signify indigenous Americans. Of course, given the rural area where this mural was painted, it is perhaps unlikely that the artist of these murals would have had direct exposure to these different cultures. Rather, these kinds of archetypal images would have perhaps more readily circulated through periodicals such as the American Life Magazine, National Geographic, or even the locally circulated American publication Free World which was translated in Khmer and funded through the United States Information Service. All these magazines had a particular popular ethnographic style in which they depicted world cultures, fueled by a curiosity for the world opening up.

While the Bandung Conference certainly opened up the scope for alliances within this new global village, it is also unlikely that there would have been many people attending from centers that were not Western or Asian. This makes the appearance of the African figure unique, and indicates that the geographic horizon of this relatively traditional painting is quite exceptional and reveals new forms of regional alignment. It is also interesting how, within a highly adapted and localised narrative, a traditional Buddhist scene, there is the suggestion that those were previously not represented within a local schema may also have access to path to the enlightenment. When thinking through notions of “unity in diversity”— a maxim which was used to coalesce the new nation state of Indonesia and  became adopted by ASEAN—within the spectrum of Southeast Asian art in the modern era, it is pivotal to rethink how diversity manifested on the picture plane.


In a recent climate of reckoning, it is time for us to reconsider the fault lines in which our histories have been built. Within a Southeast Asian context, it was not until recently that regional analysis has been returned to, influenced by museum and academic discourse.[31] However, as I have tried to demonstrate in this essay, fluidity of intra-regional movement, and connections between regions, fuelled cultures of exchange. The ground-breaking Bandung Conference was a unique moment in which both the world and the region was visualized more expansively. Given the current climate of discrimination, particularly racialized police brutality against Black people, revisiting these moments of solidarity (while acknowledging that they were flawed and fleeting) is more crucial than ever. While critical conversations within art history have always accommodated how dangerous representation can be, art history arrives belatedly to the discussion around regionalism, racialisation and representation. While researching for this essay there was very little available that interrogated issues of race and positionality within the region. The absence of these issues from existing research does not mean they do not exist, rather that there is a blind spot, while within research addressing the modern, much more attention has been given to issues of nationalism. Biennial culture for better or worse endorsed notions of strategic essentialism, whereby artists often had to perform or claim their nationality or ethnicity in order to be recognised within the discourse of global contemporary art.

Within an astonishing article by Quito Swan called “Blinded by Bandung” (2018) the author provocatively discusses how scholars have too nostalgically reflected upon the solidarity of the Bandung 1955 Asia Africa Conference, and ignored Bandung’s failures alongside other contours of solidarity.[32] Swan writes powerfully and critically about the failures of the Bandung Conference in relation to one of its own tenets: to be “an end to colonialism in all its manifestations.” In particular, Swan targets the Sukarno era campaign in Indonesia which eventually enveloped West Papua and East Timor, the edges of the Indonesian archipelago, into the nation state of Indonesia. Part of what makes Swan’s analysis so potent is the way he attributes this to an under discussed facet of discourse in Southeast Asia: the issue of colorism and race and in some respects acts as a challenge for us to reconsider these fault lines in our own regional backyard. Of course, being a “darker” region does not exempt Southeast Asia, nor Southeast Asian art history from the biases inherent to history-making discourses at large. Furthermore, if we accept this critical lens then it also becomes surprising how homogenous and nation state centric Southeast Asian art history is, particularly from the modern period onwards where national frameworks dominated historical analysis. While Pan-Africanism definitely inspired the momentum of Bandung, and later on the Non-Aligned Movement was said to feed into the spirit of Pan-Arabism, it is curious how a cultural movement within Southeast Asia from the ground up never really took off. Aside from uniting along the grounds of the Malay race from the Maphilindo movement, Pan-Asianism or even Pan-Southeast Asianism never was a cultural movement per se in the way that Pan Africanism was fueled by Black culture, and the notion of reparations and return to the continent of Africa, guided by Black thought leaders as way as political events such as the reign of Leopold Senghor in Senegal and the concept of Negritude. Pan-Arabism was also nourished through a commitment to language, as well as philosophical thought leaders, who seamlessly crossed both the political and cultural.

While earlier historians have cited cultural legacies in Southeast Asia as tracing more directly back to India and China, other links are worthy of exploration. For instance, Swan cites the “Black Pacific” as a vein of thinking which connects East Indonesia (West Papua and East Timor) to Melanesia, respectively linked to Africa through migration around 3000 years ago. Identifying these links also reveals an ever-present strategy of alignments in the region which attempt to look for cultural similarities and similar traits often through the channel of art. So, while Sukarno and many other Southeast Asian leaders were arguing for a creation myth of the nation that linked back to indigenous ideas of ancient empire, they were also disregarding other points of Third World connection. Swan also points to the inherent biases in excluding these nations, based on existing racist hierarchies, something which scholar Ayu Saraswati alerts our attention to in her study of Indonesia’s penchant for lightness of skin as exemplar of both beauty and modernity in transnational Indonesia.[33] The closer the image of Indonesia was to whiteness, so too its proximity to the modern. The task for regional art history, particularly in Southeast Asia is to pay attention to these nuances and recognize how we are complicit in our own racial hierarchies through inclusions and exclusions. By claiming diversity in a region of 11 languages, religions, ethnicities our task is fairly represent them all as well as identifying misrepresentations.

When Indonesia gained independence in 1947, then President Sukarno used the adage “unity in diversity” from a 14th century Javanese poem known as the Kakawin Sutasoma to describe the diversity of around 1,300 ethnicities, 700 living languages, and multiple religions across the Indonesian archipelago, a terrain united through being a fluid body of islands rather than a singular land mass. This expression has also been translated as “united yet one” to describe a certain harmonious coexistence that was promoted as demonstrative as a peaceful and sophisticated culture. This idea of unity in diversity, which has been translated through various iterations, all with slightly different meanings, became a way to characterize the diversity of artistic forms. Indonesian art critic Takdir Alisjahbana also encouraged Indonesian artists to find a closer lineage to the Asia Pacific,[34] rather than keep on reverting back to imported forms from more dominant art historical discourses in Europe and America. He cites these islands as places of multiple movements and cultural influences emerging from mountainous islands and archipelagic circumstances. Alisjahbana believes the Asia Pacific to be home to established traditions from the major world religions interacting with vernacular forms of animism, creating dialogues “criss crossing” between different forms of interaction and cultural contact.[35] In terms of understanding diversity in a Southeast Asia framework, it is only recently that artists have began addressing what diversity means within the region itself. In some respects, these links between newer regions and connections are still ripe for fleshing out.

[1] The historian Oliver Wolters laid forth the theory of Indianization which was the notion that many mainland Southeast Asian nation states were unified through citations of either culture of power back to India. See O. W. Wolters, History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives (Singapore : ISEAS, 1982).

[2] Penny Edwards, Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945, Southeast Asia–Politics, Meaning, Memory (Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 2007).., 21.

[3] See the pioneering research of Ingrid Muan, “Citing Angkor: The “Cambodian Arts” in the Age of Restoration 1918 – 2000” (New York, USA, Columbia University, 2001)., for a more substantial discussion of this idea.

[4] In Penny Edwards’ volume she goes into much more granular detail about the way the icon of Angkor was consciously cultivated both by the French and later co-opted by Cambodians as an homage to a great civilization and a sign of “Khmerness,”

[5] Stuart Hall, “Media Power: The Double Bind,” Journal of Communication 24, no. 4 (1974): 19–26, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1974.tb00404.x.

[6] T.K. Sabapathy, “The ASEAN Project: The Future or Bust,” in Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia 1973–2015 (3rd ASEAN Travelling Exhibition of Painting, Photography and Children’s Art (Symposium), Kuala Lumpur, 1993). .265.

[7] T.K Sabapathy, “Developing Regionalist Perspectives in Southeast Asian Art Historiography,”, in The Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, by Queensland Art Gallery (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 1996), 13–17., .57.

[8] The 11 members of ASEAN and their joining of the organization are: Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

[9] This was the tagline of the now defunct Art Stage Singapore event which was operational between 2011–2018.

[10] The 2013 Singapore Biennial enlisted a large team of 27 curators all from Southeast Asia for this edition.

[11] T.K Sabapathy, “Preliminary Observations on Art History in Southeast Asia (1995),” in Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia 1973–2015 (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2018), 361–76.

[12] T.K Sabapathy, “The Nanyang Artists: Some General Remarks,” in Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia 1973–2015 (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2018), 340–45., .341

[13] Ibid.

[14] Marco C. F. Hsü, A Brief History of Malayan Art (Singapore: Millenium Books, 1999).

[15] Kevin Chua, “Painting the Nanyang’s Public: Notes towards a Reassessment,” in Eye of the Beholder: Reception, Audience, And Practice of Modern Asian Art (Singapore: Asia Research Institute, National University Singapore, 2004).

[16] T.K Sabapathy, “O No! Not the Nanyang Again!” in Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia 1973–2015 (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2018)., .402.

[17] Brian Bernards, Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature (Singapore: NUS Press, 2016).

[18] Bernards.

[19] Donald K. Emmerson, ‘“Southeast Asia”: What’s in a Name?Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 15, no. 1 (1984): 1–21.

[20] Donald K. Emmerson, : 1–21.

[21] The first departments were established at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, USA and SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom in 1948, respectively.

[22] Richard Wright, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1956).

[23] Naoko Shimazu, “Diplomacy As Theatre: Staging the Bandung Conference of 1955,” Modern Asian Studies 48, no. 01 (January 2014): 225–252, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X13000371.

[24] Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations a People’s History of the Third World, New Press People’s History (New York: New Press:, 2007).

[25] Hans-Dieter Evers, “Nusantara: History of a Concept” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 89 (1 January 2016): 3–14, https://doi.org/10.1353/ras.2016.0004.

[26] The idea of banding together through a racial framework also became somewhat instrumentalized at this time, as hinted earlier, often through exclusionist and violent means showing the potential darker shades of a regional framework.

[27] Pungrok Sulap is a collective based in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo formed in 2010, with members who are indigenous Dusun and Murut. Pangrok refers to the group’s punk rock ethos of fluid membership and socially conscious practice which aims to empower rural communities. 

[28] For a substantial theorisation of Wolters’ concept see Wolters, History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives.

[29] Wright, The Color Curtain.

[30] For a striking example of this see The Arrest of Pangeran Diponegoro (1857) by the historical Indonesian anti-colonial figure Raden Saleh (1811–1880). 

[31] In “Chapter 3: Interdisciplinary” of Benedict Anderson, A Life beyond the Boundaries (London New York:Verso, 2016)., he outlines the history of area studies and how comparative studies was foundational to area studies then somewhat abandoned with a strong country based focus. Issues of cross regional translation also were a barrier to this.

[32] Quito Swan, “Blinded by Bandung? Illumining West Papua, Senegal, and the Black Pacific”Radical History Review 131 (2018): 58–81.

[33] L. Ayu Saraswati, Seeing Beauty, Sensing Race in Transnational Indonesia, Southeast Asia––Politics, Meaning, Memory. (Honolulu : University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2013).

[34] S. Takdir Alisjahbana, “Philosophy, Religion and Arts of the Asia Pacific Age from Indonesia and ASEAN Perspectives,” Budaya 7, no. 3 (December 1984): 161–77.

[35] Alisjahbana, 177.

Vera Mey is a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London. Her research looks at regional tendencies of Southeast Asian art during the Cold War eras in Cambodia, Indonesia and Singapore, paying particular attention to tensions of modernity and tradition, and intersections of racial plurality within regionalism Prior to this, she spent several years working as a contemporary art curator in institutions including ST PAUL St Gallery, AUT University, New Zealand and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, a contemporary art research centre in Singapore led by Prof. Ute Meta Bauer. More recent independent work has included co-curating and curating exhibitions in New Zealand, Bangkok, Paris, Phnom Penh, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo including in 2017, “SUNSHOWER: Contemporary art from Southeast Asia 1980s to now” at the Mori Art Museum and National Art Centre Tokyo which was the largest survey of Southeast Asian artists to be exhibited, working in a team led by Mami Kataoka. In 2015-16 she was a scholar on Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, a research initiative of the Getty Foundation. She is co-founder of the peer reviewed journal SOUTHEAST OF NOW: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia published by NUS Press (Singapore).

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