Art Radar re-examines the region through selected works by six influential artists.

Historical events like migration, imperialism and globalisation have had a huge influence on Southeast Asian culture, impacting traditions and the core identity of its people. Today, artists are using their work to explore and redefine what it means to be Southeast Asian.

Pham Huy Thong, 'Where is Ben No. 5', 2012, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Craig Thomas Gallery.

Pham Huy Thong, ‘Where is Ben No. 5’, 2012, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Craig Thomas Gallery.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Southeast Asia has a rich culture and heritage and is made up of 11 countries with a total population of over 650 million individuals speaking many different languages each day. It is an ancient region and its countries have developed their own unique cultures over the centuries. Despite the varying pasts of each country within the region, the issue of a fragmented identity is shared and evident. Constantly pushing boundaries and challenging the norm, contemporary artists pose important questions about the state of their nations, their history and traditions.

Art Radar takes a closer look at six works by six artists that address different facets of Southeast Asian history and identity, and examine the effects of war, religion and globalisation in the region.

Click here to watch ‘Writing in the Rain’ (2011) by FX Harsono on YouTube

1. Writing in the Rain (2011) — FX Harsono | Indonesia

As one of the most populous countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia was first imperialised by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and eventually the Japanese. Fueled by the Socialist ideology that emerged from colonialism, the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66 targeted mostly communist sympathisers, ethnic Chinese and alleged Leftists.

FX Harsono (b. 1949, East Java) is an Indonesian installation artist who uses his art as a tool of political protest and to discover himself. Much of Harsono’s work deals with the above-mentioned violent suppression of the ethnic Chinese people that lasted beyond these mass murders. In his video installation Writing in the Rain (2011), Harsono writes his name repeatedly onto a clear wall, only for it to be washed off. The piece examines his identity as an ethnic Chinese Indonesian who was forced to abandon his language, customs and names due to the discrimination against his community.

Click here to watch part of ‘Return to the Oriental Life and Spirit (2004) by Watchara Prayoonkum on Vimeo

2. Return to the Oriental Life and Spirit (2004) — Watchara Prayoonkum | Thailand

While Thailand was never colonised, it is still not exempted from the effects of westernisation. Ideas and behaviours of Europe and North America have seeped into Thai culture through the spread of globalisation. A series of sculptural installations by Thai artist Watchara Prayoonkum, titled “Return to the Oriental Life and Spirit” (2004), reflect the idea of Western influence in modern Thai art.

This work is a super-realistic sculpture of four European art masters – Rodin, Van Gogh, Picasso and Dali – with a slight twist. According to Art and Social Change (edited by Caroline Turner), Picasso paints the image of a Thai Buddha face on a glass panel, Van Gogh adds Thai pagodas into his Starry Night, Rodin sculpts a Thai classical Buddha image, and Dali sits in front of an easel ready to paint a portrait of a Thai audience. The latter is interactive and audiences had to sit in front of a mirror that reflected to become the portrait that Dali painted. Through this work, Watchara Prayoonkum asks his audience to re-examine their cultural roots and to maintain the Thai spirit.

Lee Wen 'Splash! #7,' 2003. Image courtesy the artist and iPreciation, Singapore.

Lee Wen ‘Splash! #7,’ 2003. Image courtesy the artist and iPreciation, Singapore.

3. Journey of a Yellow Man (1990s) — Lee Wen | Singapore

As an artist attempting to define identity, Lee Wen (b. 1957) undertook walks in various cities of the world covered in yellow paint – literally a yellow man – for his performance series in the 1990s. Titled Journey of a Yellow Man, these performances were vibrant, accessible and almost cartoon-like, and raised interesting issues in each city, bringing about a new dimension and layer to the work.

For example, as Lee Weng Choy wrote in Beyond the Future, audiences in Brisbane, Australia, drew references from and assumed a connection with the White Australia Policy. Meanwhile in Thailand the work was interpreted differently, ranging from religion to sexually transmitted diseases. Often out of place and jarring against the background, the Yellow Man emphasised thoughtfulness and questions of Asian identity in this post-colonial era.

Ronald Ventura, "Invitation to the Feast",

Ronald Ventura, “Invitation to the Feast”, 2011, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 243.8 cm. Image courtesy Tyler Rollins Fine Art.

4. Invitation to the Feast (2011) — Ronald Ventura | Philippines

In the 16th century, the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines replaced the indigenous culture through the introduction of classical Western art, marked by a paradigm in figuration with the schema of linear perspective on a two-dimensional surface. Over the centuries, Filipino art has been “influenced by various occupying powers such as Japan and the United States, producing a complex and uneasy sense of identity.”  

Ronald Ventura (b. 1973, Manila) explores this dynamic through images that evoke both Eastern and Western elements. In Invitation to the Feast (2011), the female figure is reminiscent of classical Renaissance marble sculptures, a sleeping goddess surrounded by fruits of worship. However, upon closer examination, the goddess seems lifeless, just like the extension of her head – a pig, also lifeless. The abundance of fruits and offerings now appear blood-stained, like a satirical “celebration” of gluttony.

Pham Huy Thong, "THE POWER OF US", 2011, oil on canvas, 130 x 97 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Pham Huy Thong, “THE POWER OF US”, 2011, oil on canvas, 130 x 97 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Craig Thomas Gallery.

5. The Power of Us (2011) — Pham Huy Thong | Vietnam

Vietnamese art evolved from traditionalism to modernism in a continuous development. Modern Vietnamese fine art is connected closely with the Indochinese School of Fine Arts established by the French in Hanoi during the colonisation period in the 1990s. Since then, Vietnam has been through wars with the Japanese, the Americans and the French again. Today, Vietnam is one of the growing economies in Southeast Asia that is still under communist rule.

Growing up in a family of journalists, Vietnamese artist Pham Huy Thong (b. 1981, HaTay) is critical towards the international and social affairs of Vietnam. His works are surrealistic and employ satire and metaphors to make a point. In his 2011 series “Hands”, all the subjects had hands forming various gestures instead of heads. Pham said that he chose hands because they are “very human and capable of expressing emotion”.

In THE POWER OF US (2011) from the “Hands” series, the artist is clearly referencing the United States of America through the symbolism of Lady Liberty. He openly questions the repercussions of accepting developmental aid from the United States. Jet fighters soaring out of the Statue of Liberty’s torch are yet another historical reference to the Vietnam War, which lasted for almost 20 years.

A recent commission of ‘Minaret’ created by the artist at the Folkestone Triennial 2017.
Click here to watch it on YouTube
6. Minaret (2005) — Wong Hoy Cheong | Malaysia

Malaysia has been a melting pot of cultures and identities since it became an important shipping port in the 14th century. Despite boasting to be a multi-religious, multi-ethnic country, Malaysia enforces a pre-ethnic-majority Bumiputera policy that gives certain privileges to ethnic Malays. As an ethnic Chinese within a Malay-Muslim majority, artist Wong Hoy Cheong (b. 1960, Penang) explores politics, culture and ethnicity through his interdisciplinary works.

In a 2005 installation at Guangdong Museum of Art titled Minaret, Cheong erected a minaret, a typical architectural feature of a mosque, onto the museum. As Iola Lenzi explains, through this piece, Wong commented on the moving cultural framework of the region, juxtaposing his identity as a minority Chinese coming from the Muslim majority country of Malaysia, while the Muslims in Guangdong region are the minorities of the People’s Republic of China.

Chia Yen Gan


This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.


Related Topics: Southeast Asian, identity art, installation, sculpture, performance, art journalism and writing, Certificate in Art Journalism and Writing 101

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more 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 *