These pioneers and rule breakers will change the way you view the regional arts scene.
Throughout history and up to the present day, it has been a challenge to define contemporary Southeast Asian art. One such roadblock comes in the form of a lack of proper archives and documentation. Another issue is that Southeast Asia’s diversity makes it difficult to make out a distinct regional contemporary art culture. It is hard for one to piece together and consolidate the region’s history.
And while works of contemporary nature exhibit signs of cultural origins, they are generally of localised subject matters, making it a daunting and insurmountable task to connect, for instance, Indonesian paintings with Vietnamese ones. This can be attributed to the artists’ different backgrounds, resulting in disparate artistic practices borne from their upbringing, cultures, and techniques that give rise to the unique identity etched into their works.
While the conventional centres of art have always been skewed towards the West with its well-documented art histories, contemporary Southeast Asian art has been relatively overlooked. However, there have been several renowned individuals working tirelessly to push this era of art in the region, producing defining work over the course of their careers. There are many, but here are five of established artists who have greatly influenced contemporary Southeast Asian art.
Note: This list is not exhaustive.
Artist #1: Lee Wen
Hailing from Singapore, the late Lee Wen was a performance artist whose works primarily focus on themes of social identity. Despite having studied in the Lion City for most of his life, it was his decision to study at the London Guildhall University – formerly known as the City of London Polytechnic – that led to him uncovering his true calling for performance art.
Lee Wen was best known for his “Yellow Man” performances, which involved him painting himself with bright-yellow poster paint to express exaggerated imagery of ethnic identity as a Singaporean citizen. He had subsequently expanded the series to incorporate works that involve painting, installation, and mixed media, dubbing it “Journey of a Yellow Man”.
Lee’s efforts quickly gained him international recognition, especially after his performance at renowned locations such as the Asia Pacific Triennial in Australia and the Gwangju Biennale. His exploration of the trends in contemporary art practices and his interest in the cultural constructs of identity have defined contemporary Southeast Asian art, and his efforts have been recognised with the Cultural Medallion award.
Artist #2: Han Sai Por
Widely regarded as one of Asia’s leading sculptors, Han Sai Por’s reputation has reached a global scale thanks to her participation in multiple international exhibitions worldwide. Her work often highlights the uneasy relationship between nature and man in the modern era and provides a social commentary on changing landscapes, both metaphorically and physically.
Han has been an effervescent presence in the art scene for decades, and her career has been decorated with plenty of prestigious awards and achievements, such as being crowned the winner of the sculpture and painting section at the 11th Indian Triennale and receiving the Cultural Medallion in 1995.
Han’s success has not slowed her down in the slightest. She has continued to define Southeast Asian sculpture through her involvement with Singapore’s Sculpture Society, where she has served as the organisation’s founding president since 2001 and remains as its Honorary President to this day.
Artist #3: Pacita Abad
When Pacita Abad left her home of Basco, Batanes, a small island in the Philippines, for the United States to study law, she may not have imagined her career pivoting to such extremes. However, the switch has clearly been the right choice, as her artistic career has spanned over three decades, exemplifying her devotion to the arts.
It is not a stretch to say that Abad has defined contemporary Southeast Asian art by painting the world. Throughout her 30 years in this field, Abad has travelled to over 50 countries, spanning 6 continents, and created over 4,500 artworks, many of which have been included in over 200 galleries and museums worldwide.
Abad is renowned for her quilting technique – trapunto – which is unique to her works. This technique involves stuffing and stitching her painted canvas to achieve a fascinating three-dimensional effect. Over time, she has honed her craft, developing the technique even further by incorporating various seemingly mundane objects, such as beads, shells, mirrors, and buttons onto the surface of her paintings, transforming them into a work of art.
With a career spanning several decades, it is not surprising to learn that Abad has influenced countless art scholars throughout her lifetime. Furthermore, she is one of the few artists of her generation who can claim to have received numerous prestigious international awards for her paintings.
Artist #4. Nyoman Masriadi
Some of the most influential artists of their times often possess a rebellious streak reflected in their art that elevates their work from the masses, and contemporary Indonesia painter, Nyoman Masriadi, is no different.
Masriadi’s work frequently depicts Indonesian history through his eyes, evoking a distinct spirit of rebellion. This defiant nature most likely stems from his upbringing under the authoritarian rule of the Suharto regime, where freedom of speech is a commodity in short supply. In fact, censorship in the arts and media is nothing new for several countries in the Southeast Asia region.
As such, Masriadi’s unique narrative, crafted through his art, often serves as a channel to bypass the lack of freedom of speech in Indonesia, providing witty social commentaries on global pop culture and contemporary life. This artistic rebellion has worked in his favour, propelling his career to new heights, as evidenced by the soaring auction records for his art.
Masriadi’s signature motifs, which include black-skinned figures, have significantly influenced many Indonesian painters. His works have even granted him international recognition, as a triptych of his work sold for a then-record USD$1.1 million at an auction in 2008.
Artist #5. Heri Dono
Heri Dono, a Yogyakarta-based artist, was the first Indonesian to break into the international art scene during the early 1990s, granting him an iconic status both abroad and at home. One of the main features of his work is derived from wayang, a traditional form of puppet theatre originating from the Indonesian island of Java.
Through his inspiration – derived from wayang – Dono was able to bring to life elaborate and intricate sculptural installations into the world of robots, television, and machines. However, his works are not merely aesthetically pleasing, as they are also bound with profound statements of globalisation, socio-political issues, and culture.
The nature of arts makes it ever-evolving, taking inspiration from the past to present a new façade to audiences. And the works of these great artists have undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the contemporary art scene in Southeast Asia, inspiring countless generations of artists to come.
As the contemporary art scene in Southeast Asia continues to evolve and progress, it will not be a surprise to see art continuing to evoke a response among the masses, thereby prompting thought-provoking arts and culture articles, which in turn contribute to a more vibrant and robust arts ecosystem.