A Review of 'Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, 1945-1990'

A compelling addition to the reading list
By Ian Tee

'Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, 1945-1990' (Australia: Power Publications and National Gallery Singapore, 2018). Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

'Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, 1945-1990' (Australia: Power Publications and National Gallery Singapore, 2018). Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Published by National Gallery Singapore and Power Publications, 'Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asia, 1945-1990' is a collection of ten essays by emerging scholars unfolding the complex trajectories of artists, artworks and ideas across the region. It aims to "pressurise the concepts underlying 'modern', 'art' and 'Southeast Asia'… at the expense of time-worn assumptions and ideological binaries that are legacies of the Cold War." Edited by Stephen H. Whiteman, Sarena Abdullah, Yvonne Low and Phoebe Scott, the volume is borne out of a research collaboration among University of Sydney’s Power Institute, National Gallery Singapore and The Institute of Technology, Bandung.

'Ambitious Alignments' is organised into five chapters that examine broad themes dealing with national identities, circulation, local histories and diaspora in a variety of media in art and architecture. However, this structure is by no means prescriptive, and the essays can easily be reorganised according to different sets of interests, such as a focus on abstraction or the roles and representation of women in society. What connects them is a spirit of autonomy in the subject, aptly captured in 'The Politics of Friendship: Modern Art in Indonesia's Cultural Diplomacy, 1950-65'. In the essay, Brigitta Isabella has teased out the opportunities for artistic agency and plurality amidst the competing ideological powers' scramble for influence, challenging the convenient narratives and relationships clouded by Cold War politics.

Inside 'Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, 1945-1990' (Australia: Power Publications and National Gallery Singapore, 2018). Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Inside 'Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, 1945-1990' (Australia: Power Publications and National Gallery Singapore, 2018). Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

The book’s value lies in groundbreaking fieldwork and translation of materials from various Southeast Asian languages to English. It evidences the preliminary stage on which more excavation needs to be done, especially in territories that experienced great losses. Roger Nelson's analysis of Nhek Dim's paintings through the different phases in Cambodia modern history does a two-fold job of tracking the changes in his oeuvre alongside meanings attached to the landscape genre. In so doing, Nelson's research begins to address questions about Cambodian modernity and its deviation from intra-regional accounts.

Moving from the exceptional to the pervasive, what also rings true in isolationist Myanmar is the slogan: "the personal is political." Melissa Carlson's essay has accounted for the social barriers regulating female artistic voices in Myanmar, taking an extensive look into the generational shifts in opportunities and restrictions for women artists from the experimental 1960s into the present. Its feminist tone not only offers a much needed deconstruction of the modes of censorship and exclusion, but also redresses this historical silence with oral history interviews.

One major challenge in the writing of Southeast Asian modern art history is that of artistic influence and the weighing of relationships between external and internal discourses. Unpacking the adoption of enigmatic techniques associated to surrealism in Sur photography, Clare Veal's essay proposes a nuanced entry point to this problem by locating their intersections and divergences. She zooms in on the relationships between representation and truth, and their ideological orientations within the European avant-garde and Buddhist doctrine. The result is a nuanced understanding that does not pander to Eurocentrism nor nationalist exceptionalism, but is empathetic to the artists' sensibilities and their cultural backgrounds.

Similarly, Wulan Dirgantoro's contribution takes the perspective of the Bandung school grappling with violence and collective trauma after 1965 in reading works by A.D Pirious and Srihadi Sudarsono, among others. Her argument runs against the grain of depoliticised art made during the Suharto New Order regime, instead appealing to an "aesthetics of silence" centred on the affective power of abstraction. What this interpretation does is to open up a space within the discourse of modernist abstraction relevant not only for the Indonesian narrative, but also aligns itself with global scholarship reassessing formalist artworks made in a time of strife.    

Ambitious Alignments' holds up to its title, presenting a diversity of methodologies and specialised topics that attempt to decolonise the field. It is by no means a “complete” capture of the region, with the exclusion of Laos, Vietnam and Brunei noted in Reaksmey Yean’s review of the volume. The development of this research initiative into a printed volume is a positive sign that this knowledge will become more accessible, inspiring future writing. One can share in the optimism of Carlson's conclusion of a younger generation that is better equipped and willing to challenge traditional norms and practices, or perhaps simply to continue building on such efforts.