Southeast Asia, a huge cultural crossroads and diverse melting pot of cultures, is often overshadowed in the international art world by its East Asian neighbours, Japan and China. The region, however, fosters its own vibrant burgeoning art scene.

In a talk hosted by Leeza Ahmady at Tyler Rollins Fine Art in New York City, Patrick Flores, a contemporary art curator and scholar from the Philippines, sheds light on the artistic development of Southeast Asia in the post-war era.  Art Radar highlights key issues in this conversation, so read on to find out more.

Click here to listen to the full radio interview with Philippine curator and scholar Patrick Flores show on Art International Radio.

A lesson in art history – the rise of Southeast Asian art

Life in the 1970s

This was a time when post-war republics in the region were trying to develop a nation state and … develop it’s cultural infrastructure.

And these post-war republics evolved into authoritarian regimes with people like Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia [leading these countries].

Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Image from

Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Image from


The cultural programme in Manila was very strong, heavily promoted by … Imelda Marcos.

Imelda reclaimed a significant part of historic Manila Bay to construct a cultural convention centre, … which promoted both Philippine art and international art.

The architecture of the building itself exemplifies that aspiration to internationalism … but at the same time deriving its motif from local architecture, or the ‘bahay kubo‘, the native hut, streamlined to look modern and international.

The Cultural Centre of the Philippines was also home to experimental art, or what you might describe as conceptualist in orientation…. This was the programme of Mrs. [Imelda] Marcos to show that the Philippines was ready for this kind of modernism and at the same time was very conscious of its national identity.

Jim Supangkat, 'Ken Dedes', 1975, mixed media, 180 x 40 x 30cm. Image from

Jim Supangkat, 'Ken Dedes', 1975, mixed media, 180 x 40 x 30cm. Image from


The new Indonesian art movement also questioned the orthodoxies of the art world as well as the developmental policies of Suharto, who came to power more or less at the same time that Marcos did, in ’65, after taking over from Sucarno, the anti-Dutch figure.

[‘Ken Dedes’ by Jim Supangkat] is a two part sculpture; the ancient statuary refers to a queen of the [Indonesian] empire from the twelfth to [the] sixteenth century, and the body of a modern woman … unzipped to expose wisps of pubic hair.

So you can just imagine the outrage expended in the context of an Islamic society at the time…. It was also a commentary on the conventions of the art world that didn’t allow these kinds of forms to flourish, as well as a commentary on the government itself. Suharto … was alluding to [that] period as his lineage of governance, so this was a very complex image.


In the Seventies, the conflict between the military government and civil society produced a different kind of expression of protest and this had something to do with the Buddhist tradition [overall],… and also the Buddhist tradition of making images in temples. So this kind of expression, that was responsive to the tension between a military government and the polity in general, … was a mingling of surrealism with traditional techniques of mural painting.

While Supangkat in Indonesia would try to critique tradition, in [the] context of Thai modern art it was tradition that allowed artists to critique social structure.

Realism – the Southeast Asian response

Vicente Manansala, 'Philippines Mother and Child', 1965.  Image from

Vicente Manansala, 'Philippines Mother and Child', 1965. Image from


[Post-war] artists thought of a style they called neo-realism…. It was a way in which they were able to appropriate modern art styles like Cubism and interpret their own reality.

They even have a term called transparent cubism, of which Vincente Manasala was an exponent. … This is a very interesting practical way a way of dealing with a very significant art movement in the west, at the same time trying to include … certain details of the culture like food … and local architecture.


Many art movements in Seventies in Southeast Asia also had manifestos … which [tried] to explain that the reality in Malaysia was different from the kind of reality that Western rational philosophy was trying to offer.

These terms were invented by the artists themselves. They were responding to movements in the West, but they tried to re-interpret [these movements] in a very idiosyncratic way, in a response to social circumstance.

Heri Dono, 'Flying Angels', multi media/installation (fiberglass, bamboo, gauge, fan, cables.  Image from

Heri Dono, 'Flying Angels', multi media/installation (fiberglass, bamboo, gauge, fan, cables. Image from

The art of the installation

In the 1990s, efforts of exhibitions and projects in Australia and in Japan … to include Southeast Asia in [a] global art context was facilitated by the use of installation as a mode of expression.

Installation as a medium was able to reference the local, and also the urgent political context of the art of the region. At the same time it was understandable … as a global art discourse, installation was a common language that artists all over the world spoke.

In the Eighties there was an important seminal essay by Raymundo Albano entitled ‘Installations a Case for Hangings’. … He made an interesting argument: installation is not Western but it is actually indignenous. [It was a kind of] reverse discourse; he argued that in fact it is painting that is foreign and installation is the [medium] that is Filipino.

It’s a self reflexive essay on practice, and also the relationship between art and culture in the context of modernity.

The emergence of the artist-curator

The artist-curator was an important element in the shift from modern to contemporary [art practice] in the late Seventies and [the] Eighties.

The idea that the artist eventually becomes …. [an] institutional figure, creating certain conditions for contemporary art to flourish is … interesting.


Related Topics: Southeast Asian artists, political art, artist-curators

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more discourse on Southeast Asian contemporary art

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *