The Newsletter 77 Summer 2017

National imaginations in Southeast Asian art

Hélène Njoto

The Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute convened the workshop ‘National Imaginations in Southeast Asian Art’, on 20 January 2017. This workshop welcomed both senior art historians and younger specialists from the region including Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, as well as Australia, the Netherlands, the USA. Designed as an open forum, the one-day workshop gathered a large crowd of over 140 people from cultural institutions such as galleries, museums and universities. Clearly, there was great public interest in the region’s art history, a discipline still in its infancy in Southeast Asia.

The workshop, organised by Helene Njoto and Terence Chong, addressed the theme of national consciousness in Southeast Asia and the role of the arts in the formation of nationhood. It asked how the art world, its agents and the images produced, can shape this region and how much this region’s ‘national imaginations’ are shaped by the arts. The workshop examined the role of arts not only from the point of view of artists and their artworks or through other dialectical frameworks such as modernism or globalisation. It also sought to address a broad range of local socio-economic factors from which art is manufactured as well as the cultural intermediaries like curators, critics and gallerists who promote or exclude artworks. It questioned ‘nation-building’ as a heuristic/relevant framework about 60 years after the creation of the first sovereign nations in Southeast Asia. This question seems ever more relevant today as artists tend to abandon local cultural signifiers and adopt more global idioms.

The workshop was divided into three country panels to highlight singularities among Southeast Asian nations. The morning was dedicated to Indonesia and the afternoon saw two consecutive panels on the Philippines and Thailand on the one hand, and Singapore and Malaysia on the other. The speakers covered a wide timespan from the 19th century to the present with an emphasis on the pre- and post- independence era (1940s to 1970s) when most artworks and writings on nation-building were produced. Dr Daphne Ang showed how artistic genres such as portraiture served the purpose of establishing colonial authority in Malaya.

Most speakers observed that the role of arts in forming national imaginations is an on-going process. In the Philippines and Indonesia, artists from the colonial past (19th century) are lauded for being pioneers of modern art and national heroes “avant l’heure”, though not without triggering some reaction as shown by Dr Sinnardet, Dr Baluyut and Dr Scalliet in their respective presentations. In the Indonesian panel, Ms Katherine Bruhn and Ms Brigitta Isabella spoke of how certain ethnic or provincial groups in Indonesia were excluded from the national narrative, while Mr Matt Cox challenged the territorial boundaries of ‘national art’ by looking at diaspora artists. The very limitations and relevance of the ‘national’ framework were also touched upon by Mr Brian Curtin who spoke of contemporary Thai art. In the late afternoon Dr Sarena Abdullah looked at the effects of the promotion of religious and ethnic values in national Malaysian arts. Last, Dr Yvonne Low and Ms Grace Hong addressed the challenges faced by Singapore to construct a national curatorial line while coveting a more global position in the region. Find below short summaries of three presentations given at the workshop.

Helene Njoto is Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (