Just ten years ago, if you had asked whether Southeast Asia possessed its own modern art history, you would have encountered little critical consensus. After all, the area is enormous and highly diverse, comprising Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, various individual islands, and even parts of India. Yet today many Global South critics and scholars insist on the cultural specificity of artistic change in these countries, contending that Western (i.e., largely northern trans-Atlantic) canon-making has for too long served as a fundamentally hegemonic, imperialist model in this equatorial Pacific zone—and, indeed, in the world as a whole.
The outlines of this renegade brief were sketched several decades back by a remarkably rigorous and empathic thinker, T.K. Sabapathy (b. 1938), author of the new anthology Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia, 1973–2015. After extensive graduate training in Western art history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of London in the 1960s, Sabapathy returned to his native Singapore, where in the early 1980s he became a kind of regional “influencer,” at once resident institutional adviser, exhibition curator, essayist, symposium contributor, and university educator.
In keeping with Sabapathy’s postwar Euro-American schooling, this compendium—including monographic articles, catalogue essays, newspaper features and exhibition reviews, conference papers, and public speeches—reflects his highly eclectic but always thoughtful take on Southeast Asia’s modern art developments. Drawing on the theoretic and iconographic methods of Western scholars such as Michael Baxandall, E.H. Gombrich, Rosalind Krauss, Herbert Read, Barbara Rose, and Michael Sullivan (all amply cited in his texts), Sabapathy demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the visual, tactile, and symbolic qualities of artistic mediums. Writing in the early 1990s on Malaysian artist Latiff Mohidin, Sabapathy remarks of a Berlin-period painting:
Pictorial form and space are articulated convincingly, and integrated with a view towards enhancing sensory values. Winter Landscape (1962) is an arresting representation of forces that appear to slither along the surface, about one another, and finally coil into muscular knots in the inner recesses of the picture space. The sense of movement is palpable, even as it is silent.
If there is something retro about Sabapathy’s close, empirical engagement with the materiality of artworks (these days, such reading is often equated in the region with a self-indulgent “formalism,” if not an “elitist” art-for-art’s-sake hermeticism), there is nevertheless a real point of convergence between him and the emerging generation of more conceptually and politically oriented art historians featured in Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, 1945–1990, a volume resulting from symposiums conducted over several years under the auspices of the Getty Foundation. The project answers, in effect, Sabapathy’s early rallying cry for a distinctly regional, supra-nationalist art history, one that compares themes—and simultaneously notes divergences—among specific nations and peoples. This new understanding would then be complemented by public exhibitions conceived as critical vehicles. Indeed Sabapathy effectively proposed an art-historical activism: “Alterity and rewriting are predicated on notions or acts of resistance, resistance against prevailing practices and orthodoxies, conducted overtly and/or covertly.”
Ambitious Alignments, featuring fourteen contributors, signals the advent of that new art-historical “alterity” that Sabapathy prescribed. New Southeast Asian art histories are being written by academics and curators throughout the territory (additionally both diasporic and foreign colleagues are situated in Chicago, New York, and London). Lately enjoying the lavish support of the Getty Foundation—which over the last three years has pumped some $800,000 into Connecting Art Histories conferences and symposiums in the region—and complementary support from institutions like the University of Sydney and the National Gallery Singapore, recently minted PhDs are returning from Western universities and swiftly ascending professionally. They have already established a “regionalist school” of scholarship with its own peer-reviewed journal, Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia.
Like this overall venture, Ambitious Alignments is characterized by a mix of propitious turns and baffling glitches. On a decidedly positive note, the book brings together ten personal essays and a multiauthor introduction, all intelligently addressing diverse hot-button issues. Among the topics are postwar nationalism; geopolitical Cold War dynamics; growing currents of internationalism, globalism, and Communism; social and historical traumas; and government censorship. Less felicitous is the dense, didactic quality of the essays, some of which are brilliant but unnecessarily juridical.
The authors all aim to fruitfully complicate heretofore “conventional,” “superficial,” or “sentimental” accounts. Seeking to flesh out a history virtually obliterated by the Khmer Rouge–directed Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s, Roger Nelson (a curator at the National Gallery Singapore) provides an intense sociopolitical reading of two agricultural landscape paintings by Khmer artist Nhek Dim (1934–1978). The essay is a virtual demonstration piece, as Nelson closely tracks the artist’s “transmedial polymathy” (i.e., his frequent shuttle between fine and commercial art practices).
Thai scholar Chomchon Fusinpaiboon (Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok) examines the culturally hybrid postwar architecture of Prince Vodhyakara Varavarn (1900–1981). The first of its kind in the English language, this article categorically qualifies as a godsend. In it, Fusinpaiboon chronicles the prince’s attempt to reconcile Euro-American influences—especially half-timbered Tudor construction—with traditional Thai social mores and building styles.
One of the most impressive aspects of Ambitious Alignments is its examination of how Southeast Asia frequently navigated, with real agency, the complex Cold War politics shadowing the region’s postcolonial development. Brigitta Isabella (a member of the research collective KUNCI Cultural Studies Center, Yogyakarta) offers an insightful review of the subject from the perspective of Indonesia’s cultural diplomacy. Unfortunately, however, her intriguing hypothesis about the diplomatic discourse of the period shifting away from the term “ally” to “friendship”
(presumably to mask imperialist ambition by the United States) is left begging for more concrete substantiation.
This tendency to privilege ideological revisionism over all other analytical tools ultimately makes Ambitious Alignments a prime example of didactic, decolonial art writing. As new methodologies and newly uncovered histories struggle to emerge simultaneously, the volume becomes a dazzling performative spectacle. If at certain turns the performance seems shaky, that may be inevitable, given the authors’ underlying ambition. Midcareer curator and academic Patrick D. Flores (University of the Philippines), an omnipresent adviser to the regionalist camp, has already provocatively proposed that new art histories of the region should embody “a kind of critical writing that resists the requirements and customs of Western academic writing.”
Although that might sound like sophistry, Flores is clearly on to something important and exciting. Will the real “new histories” of Southeast Asian modern art be written by some future generation, whose members will never have felt the need to journey to the West for professional credentials? Flores, who has never studied outside his native Philippines, makes for a powerful exemplary figure in that regard. (He is currently artistic director of the Singapore Biennale, on view through March 22, 2020.) In the meantime, both Writing the Modern and Ambitious Alignments merit serious attention for making—to borrow Flores’s Singapore Biennale title phrase—“every step in the right direction.”
This article appears under the title “(Re)making History” in the December 2019 issue, pp. 34–36.