COVID-19 and the Arts in Southeast Asia – 2 years on

In March 2020, we spoke to 10 arts and culture workers from across Southeast Asia, in a bid to capture the sentiments on the ground as it shifted during the early days of the pandemic. Now two years later, we revisit the same artists to see what has changed, and what has stayed the same.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a global reckoning in all facets of life. In February this year, UNESCO reported that over 10 million jobs in the culture and leisure sector were lost due to the pandemic internationally. There have been seismic changes to the arts and cultural industry, which have impacted the region in various ways. In countries where tourists make up the majority of consumers of cultural production, like Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia, artists continue to struggle as tourism took a hard hit with the closure of borders. 

Pivoting online has led to varying degrees of success. Some artforms have found the switch easier than others, but many still lament the lack of in-person connection and the smaller and unreliable income streams from digital sources. Unequal access to the requisite technology is also a major setback, especially in areas outside the metropolis where a stable internet connection is not a given. But the shift to digital has helped bridge gaps which seemed insurmountable prior to the pandemic. For example, it allows arts scenes to extend beyond main cultural districts and capitals making art practice more inclusive; international and regional collaboration have become more accessible, and some have found new sources of income and possibilities in new and deregulated platforms like NFTs. 

Funding remains an issue in the arts – one that has seen artists turning to new funding sources like international cultural organisations, independent and commercial funders. Institutionally, artists in Singapore and Malaysia have seen state funds earmarked for industry and income support – with Singapore recently announcing a top-up of SGD12 million to support the arts and culture scene, to add to an existing SGD75 million package committed in 2021. In Malaysia, RM50 million in state funds have been approved in the 2022 budget for matching grants for the arts and the creative sectors, on top of almost RM20 million which were previously announced and funnelled through the Cultural Economic Development Agency (CENDANA). In many cases, independent artists and producers and smaller cultural groups are jumping through hoops to look for any sources of income to fund their work and continue serving their communities. 

Regionally, the state of creative expression has been both dire and inspiring in equal parts. The 2021 military coup in Myanmar has made being an artist not only dangerous but treasonous, with arrests, threat of death and actual harm. In these environments, when survival becomes most pressing, art becomes a means of sharing messages of hope and solidarity, and calling for a shared humanity – aided by the use of social media as channels of expression, organisation and collectivisation. In fact, the clampdown on criticism in many countries, combined with the ravages of the pandemic, the gaps in state support and the worsening of inequality in societies, have led many artists in the region to turn to or intensify their activist, aid and pro-democracy work. 

Though there has been a pervasive sense of loss, there is also an indomitable spirit to continue to create, to continue to care for those around us, and to continue to make space for the artist’s practice. Some are using this time to deepen their craft, explore new ways of working and reflect on their raisons d’etre. While more countries are slowly reopening their borders and relaxing some pandemic measures, the true cost of the pandemic on the arts and culture landscape remains to be seen.

In March 2020, we spoke to 10 arts and culture workers from across Southeast Asia, in a bid to capture the sentiments on the ground as it shifted during the early days of the pandemic. Now two years later, we revisit the same artists to see what has changed, and what has stayed the same. Below are some of their reflections, giving us an idea of what the arts in Southeast Asia presently looks like, and how things might progress in the days and years to come.

Phoo Myat Thwe

Curator / Art writer from Yangon, Myanmar

 

Phoo Myat ThweIn the past two years, how has COVID-19 affected you? As with everyone, my practice also shifted from physical to digital in 2020 which sparked my interest in working with emerging technologies in art production, thinking processes and exhibition making. This interest was amplified when the 1 February Coup happened in 2021. When there are no physical spaces at all in the real world, the virtual spaces become a comfort, solace and utopia. Burmese have coined the word “Coup-vid” to describe the situation we are in. The outside circumstances have taken my work to places I have never imagined going, but I can’t say I am entirely happy since it happened because of continuous tragedies.

 Three words to describe the arts in the past 2 years: What’s-the-point, resilience, comfort.

 If you could give a report card to your government’s support for the arts in response to COVID, what would it be and why? In 2020 with Aung San Su Kyi’s government, I would say a C, since they initiated a fund to support the writers and poets suffering because of COVID. This is something the Myanmar government has never attempted before and I would have given a higher rating if they had studied the scene more and expanded the fund to more areas where it was needed.

In 2022… I guess this question is not relevant at all. As I write this, I am thinking of Ko Kay Za Win, a poet who was killed during protests, and several other pioneering artists, who passed of COVID in 2021, due to the coup limiting the public’s access to medical help.

What’s an unexpected positive/upside about what’s happened in the past 2 years? AMCA, or the Association for Myanmar Contemporary Arts, was conceived in 2021 by Myanmar contemporary artists, with the aim of providing resources and help to the community. They have provided funds for struggling artists, and continue to provide educational programmes and platforms for discussions. It’s not a perfect organisation and there is much to be done but I am happy that such an initiative began. 

Some art spaces in the country have stubbornly opened and are braving the waters despite unfavourable circumstances. There is a lot happening outside the country art-wise with fundraisers, but my heart is with the ones still inside the country who are providing spaces for artists in the face of the risks. 

What interesting trends or artist initiatives have come up in the last 2 years? The Digital Artivism movement on social media, which led the protests in a huge way during the early days of the coup, is still going strong. Burmese artists have produced numerous digital artworks, the three finger salute digital artworks have ventured into the world of NFTs and incredible music is being made by groups such as Rap Against Junta. 

Currently, what’s most important to me is (art and/or non-art): I am still working with art but I don’t care much for it. What’s most important is my family and my cats and that they live.

Currently, I’m most worried about (art and/or non-art): Myself and financial security. 

Any other thoughts: I think a lot about ‘care’ and ‘space’ these days. What does it really mean to care about your community and yourself with considerate actions? As a curator, when you do work about the situations in Myanmar, how do you make sure that you are not taking up too much space or narratives and that you have given careful considerations on how your work would affect the community you claim to be speaking for? I think there’s a fine line between exploiting and caring, and I am trying to be careful not to become the former.

Ruby Jayaseelan

Movement artist from Singapore

Ruby Jayaseelan

In the past two years, how has COVID-19 affected you? It has affected my overall health greatly; especially mental health. Often having jobs and residencies outside of Singapore, I had the privilege of abstract time and space. Being and working in Singapore exclusively since COVID-19 has been personally revealing in many ways. For example, social and political issues feel much more personal and closer to home without the luxury of my previous freedom. It has been challenging to constantly be in a fast-paced, goal-oriented, extremely productive, capitalist city and trying to make art, which is not very useful right now. I’ve realised that I am not alone in feeling this way though, and that everyone’s mental and emotional health has been cast aside by the systems in place. Thus I’ve been working a lot on my own and in small, safe spaces and sharing little moments with people to walk side by side through our artistic and philosophical practices with intensity and depth instead.

Three words to describe the arts in the past 2 years: Incessant. Broken. Bound. 

If you could give a report card to your government’s support for the arts in response to COVID, what would it be and why? I would not. I would not want to grade them as they do us. I feel like we have enough boxes and categories.

What’s an unexpected positive/upside about what’s happened in the past 2 years? Artmaking and collaboration has taken the form of medicine for a lot of us; this growing empathy and vulnerability has been nourishing. Also, it is no secret that Singapore is an expensive city and I am not as broke as I thought I’d be, monetarily at least.

What interesting trends or artist initiatives have come up in the last 2 years? Life imitating art. For example, a spontaneous local video of a Chinese woman imitating an Indian man’s prayer ritual outside his home went viral and caused racial tremors and discourse. That video was the best performance art I had seen all year. It is interesting the many forms art takes when humans are in crises.

Currently, what’s most important to me is (art and/or non-art): Being truthful amidst oppression.

Currently, I’m most worried about (art and/or non-art): Everyone surviving each day.

Any other thoughts: The oppression is real. We are not making it up. 

Adrian Jo Milang

Kayan Oral Traditions Practitioner, Community Manager @ The Tuyang Initiative from Bintulu, Sarawak, Malaysia

Adrian Jo Milang

In the past two years, how has COVID-19 affected you? Most of my planned shows or performances locally and internationally were cancelled or postponed. But on the other hand I was lucky enough to have had invitations to develop digital performances in the meantime. In terms of development, I feel I have learnt how to think beyond the conventional means.

Three words to describe the arts in the past 2 years: Tenacious, Unrelenting, Hopeful.

If you could give a report card to your government’s support for the arts in response to COVID, what would it be and why? C. The art scene was considered non-essential although it was mostly us artists that tried to keep everyone’s spirits up. Salt to injury with a sense of irony. We were perhaps one of the lucky ones, but many local artisans were struggling to stay afloat. 

What’s an unexpected positive/upside about what’s happened in the past 2 years? The spirit of collaboration in the arts scene was stronger than ever.

What interesting trends or artist initiatives have come up in the last 2 years? Almost everything went digital. It shows creativity knows no boundary. It’s a new way of looking at how different practices can be delivered outside of their traditional means.  

Currently, what’s most important to me is (art and/or non-art): Keeping the community’s tradition alive, and family.

 Currently, I’m most worried about (art and/or non-art): My practice. I have been repeating this time after time – I am still at the moment the youngest practitioner and the rest are elders. I have been trying to garner interest amongst my relatives and friends which is kind of hopeful and I’m working to get it going further.

Robi Rusdiana

Musician, Lecturer from Bandung, West Java, Indonesia 

Robi RusdianaIn the past two years, how has COVID-19 affected you? My performances in Europe and a lot of my other shows have been postponed or cancelled indefinitely. But my group Ensemble Tikoro and I still practise once a week. We have had some shows in the past two years, so everything is getting better. Nowadays, I’m developing new works, combining metal vocal techniques with my new shadow boxing movement-practice. I will record my old works (Babalungan) and make a 2nd album for my solo project, Hunus, while teaching online in a university. 

Three words to describe the arts in the past 2 years: Breathe, patience, and move!

If you could give a report card to your government’s support for the arts in response to COVID, what would it be and why? My government is confused about COVID. They still support the arts but in different ways and with different conditions. Online shows are very common now, and artists very often make their own online shows. But for in-person performance, audience size is still limited, with a lot of health restrictions. This has had a big impact for wedding musicians, in-house bands at cafes or clubs, and of course for huge metal music shows. For more than 2 years, we haven’t had a huge music concert or arts festival.

What’s an unexpected positive/upside about what’s happened in the past 2 years? I have had free time to think, reflect, and try to be a better man – which has been good for my personal character and for my health.

I’ve also learnt so many things. I’ve become a woodworker, and get some money from that. Playing with power tools, I can fix my broken music equipment myself, or make things that I want. Now, me and my guys at Ensemble Tikoro are boxers! We love to do some boxing practice before a music rehearsal. 

What interesting trends or artist initiatives have come up in the last 2 years?

For musicians or artists who live in the city with the new-normal rules, online shows have become a common way to create a performance or concert. A lot of musicians use multimedia or visual arts technology for their shows, and find ways to get some money from that. But it’s very sad for the traditional musician or artist – like wayang or kuda lumping, etc – as some of them live in villages where they can’t do shows as they used to before COVID. To be honest, it’s an interesting time, yet confusing also.

Currently, what’s most important to me is (art and/or non-art): Art is still the most important to me, it gives me spirit for continuing life. But we must keep healthy and happy. We can’t control the virus, but we can manage our fitness.

Currently, I’m most worried about (art and/or non-art): I am not worried, as this is the destiny of the universe. So stay alive and keep doing arts.

 Any other thoughts: Keep the fire going! Share the love, with art and heart.

Anouza Phothisane (AJ) 

Managing Director of Paisai Magazine and creative arts group Laobangfai Prime Association from Vientiane, Lao PDR

Anouza Phothisane

In the past two years, how has COVID-19 affected you? I’ve changed a lot in terms of how I manage my work across the art, business and government sectors. We have to learn new things – like how to use communication technology for the Lao government to track us for COVID.I’ve also had to learn new skills to keep earning a living during COVID, for example I took on a new role in Paisai Magazine, which promotes cultural and entertainment events in Vientiane.

Three words to describe the arts in the past 2 years: Alteration, elevation, inventiveness.

If you could give a report card to your government’s support for the arts in response to COVID, what would it be and why? B-. The government is working with NGOs to set up donation drives for in-demand items like handbags, hand sanitisers, and t-shirts, and selling these to the private sector – the income generated through this programme is directed towards artists. 

What’s an unexpected positive/upside about what’s happened in the past 2 years? There are more opportunities for Lao artists to connect and work more on an ASEAN and International level. In Laos, more cultural centres have been created, where I can network and work with more Lao artists.

What interesting trends or artist initiatives have come up in the last 2 years? How artists have created dance festivals online, and are meeting each other online. Though we’ve lost in-person audiences, there’s a large online audience to see our work. 

Currently, what’s most important to me is (art and/or non-art): Bringing modern trends into art – bringing audiences both online and offline, using social media to give more soft power to the people.

Currently, I’m most worried about (art and/or non-art): Income for artists and their art, as people are spending less on an artist’s work.The situation for live theatre especially is worrisome. 

Any other thoughts: We’re looking to create an art centre where we can raise funds for artists, and connect international artists to Laos. 

Phina So

Writer/Publisher/Literary Festival organiser from Cambodia

Phina So

In the past two years, how has COVID-19 affected you? In the publishing sector, COVID-19 has affected us but I believe we adapted to it. We need to acknowledge that many readings, literary festivals, book fairs and panels are cancelled or moved online, but many in the community still continue their activities like normal, mostly online using Facebook. Maybe we got used to the new normal? Or maybe it is because selling books online was well organised before the pandemic. Sales are okay too, not much different from before the pandemic. 

I must acknowledge though that there are some people including myself that have the privilege of having a job and can do some other things we love while staying at home comfortably, while many others are struggling with the loss of jobs and pay cuts. 

Three words to describe the arts in the past 2 years: Pause, Adapt, Continue.

If you could give a report card to your government’s support for the arts in response to COVID, what would it be and why? If financially, it is an F. If spiritually, probably an E. 

What’s an unexpected positive/upside about what’s happened in the past 2 years? I find hosting events (panel talks, readings, etc) quite convenient now. It includes people from the provinces more easily. It does not mean that it is more inclusive, but people do not need to travel days to attend events. My writer friends can attend our Khmer Literature Festival from many other places such as Laos, Japan, Nepal and the United States. I have found my passion in translating literature too! What is an upside down moment is the loss of two artist friends due to COVID-19. Too soon. So much loss to the arts community.

What interesting trends or artist initiatives have come up in the last 2 years? Not quite sure! Maybe how artists mix traditions and new creations to make new productions. 

Currently, what’s most important to me is (art and/or non-art): Health.

Currently, I’m most worried about (art and/or non-art): Self-censorship among artists and writers.

Aacharee Ungsriwong aka Ohm

Film Editor currently in New York, USA (originally from Bangkok, Thailand)

Aacharee Ungsriwong aka Ohm

In the past two years, how has COVID-19 affected you? I decided to move to NYC in November 2020. If there was no COVID, I’d have moved several months before. Moving to the US was a risk I was planning to take, but because of COVID I feared my career was crashing and burning as the industry had been put on hold when I arrived. At the same time, I was unable to go home for my grandma’s funeral. The reason I came to the US was gone, yet I couldn’t go home either. But I found networking groups online, where friendships were forged. We all endured this hardship together, and we pressed on together. Now, the industry has been revived, and many of the jobs I’ve gotten are a direct result of the networking and connections made during this time. I am happy and grateful to be a part of this community.

Three words to describe the arts in the past 2 years: Patience, resilience, reinvention.

If you could give a report card to your government’s support for the arts in response to COVID, what would it be and why? It’d be an F since they never listen. They took power in 2014 and promised to ‘bring the happiness back to Thai people’ but they never did.

What’s an unexpected positive/upside about what’s happened in the past 2 years? I think it forced us to think about what really matters, what can wait, and what needs to be done right now. 

What interesting trends or artist initiatives have come up in the last 2 years? I’m not aware of any trends at the moment. I do admire the resilience of filmmakers and artists, though. It was already difficult to make art in pre-COVID world. Now, the world is not the same. There are more challenges in life but we still make art.

Currently, what’s most important to me is (art and/or non-art): I have to trust that I’m on the right path and be patient.

Currently, I’m most worried about (art and/or non-art): The war in Ukraine. I really hope that it comes to an end soon. 

Any other thoughts: I am looking forward to continuing to work on interesting projects here and in Southeast Asia. 

Andrei Nikolai Pamintuan

Student currently in London, United Kingdom (originally from Dagupan City, Pangasinan, Philippines)

Andrei Nikolai Pamintuan

In the past two years, how has COVID-19 affected you? During the pandemic I decided to go to the US while working from home for Pineapple Lab. Because all of our activities and collaborations were done virtually, I was able to be based in the US and spend time with family after deciding to be based in the Philippines since 2015. It was a time for reflection and recalibration after having to give up our physical space and putting the Fringe Manila Festival on pause. The pandemic really challenged me with a few questions, especially on the role of creativity and the arts in society. During my time in the US I worked part-time as a barista at Starbucks and I decided to apply to schools in the UK. I went home to the Philippines to spearhead an arts residency programme in my hometown of Dagupan City, Pangasinan from October to December. I have since moved to London in January 2022 taking up an MA in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries at University of the Arts London: Central Saint Martins.

Three words to describe the arts in the past 2 years: Uncertain, Challenging, Confronting.

If you could give a report card to your government’s support for the arts in response to COVID, what would it be and why? F.

What’s an unexpected positive/upside about what’s happened in the past 2 years? Being a barista and moving and eventually moving to London to further pursue studies and find answers.

What interesting trends or artist initiatives have come up in the last 2 years? Everyone seems to either be going back to school or pursuing passions they were not able to focus on pre-COVID.

Currently, what’s most important to me is (art and/or non-art): Exploring underrepresented narratives and experiences within contemporary arts and the creative industries – especially voices of the Southeast Asian Intersectional Identities.

Currently, I’m most worried about (art and/or non-art): Time and the need to find answers to my uncertainties and how I can be an agent to tell other people’s stories.

Dương Mạnh Hùng

Translator/Writer/Curator from Saigon - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Dương Mạnh Hùng

In the past two years, how has COVID-19 affected you? In all honesty, COVID has allowed (or rather forced) everyone in the arts sector in Vietnam to take a momentary break. While in confinement, though multiple personal and collective issues have risen to the surface, I took this as an opportunity for a holistic reassessment of my career trajectory. I looked at how I am perceived by my communities, the roles that I play, and the alignments that can be forged – both nationally and regionally. For the first time, I saw clearly my purpose of being the connecting bridge – between arts workers, art communities, and art institutions. I am now embarking on that journey as nations are slowly opening up their borders.

Three words to describe the arts in the past 2 years: Turbulent, confrontational, hopeful.

If you could give a report card to your government’s support for the arts in response to COVID, what would it be and why? It has always been a C in my book. The government tries their best to support the arts in their own way, with their own chosen communities. Arts, governance, and politics have always gone hand in hand, and nowhere is this symbiosis shown more clearly than in countries in the Global South. We have to recognise the government’s capacity, work with them when it is a win-win situation, and do the rest ourselves.

What’s an unexpected positive/upside about what’s happened in the past 2 years? Everything can be positive, depending on how you look at it and how you allow it to exist in your sphere.

What interesting trends or artist initiatives have come up in the last 2 years? The trend for de-institutionalisation, particularly with the emergence of NFTs. Young Gen Z artists are now claiming virtual spaces much more than they do physical spaces. The art scene is seeing an (albeit reluctant) shift towards these new platforms, and it will be interesting to see where the future generations take these initiatives.

Currently, what’s most important to me is (art and/or non-art): My own peace of mind. No more and no less.

Currently, I’m most worried about (art and/or non-art): Nothing much. Art will always find a way to manifest. You just have to believe in what you are doing.


This article is a follow-up to a piece written in 2020. It is compiled by Theo Chen and Nabilah Said with thanks to the creatives featured. All information accurate as of 15 March 2022. If you have suggestions for changes or additions to this article, please send an email to nabilah(at)artsequator.com.

Header image by artist Le Duc Hiep.

Tags: covid  Covid19

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

Theo Chen is a theatremaker and writer based in Singapore and studying in the United Kingdom.

He has performed with T:>works, W!LD RICE, and The Substation - and was commissioned by The Theatre Practice under their Tuckshop Incubation. In 2020, he founded Playwrights Commune, and has since run their independent platform to incubate the work of more than 90 playwrights. His debut play, ’Cyril & Michael’, premiered in 2021. He co-produced 7 productions at the pop-up theatre 'A Mirage' in 2022.

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