Rethinking Primitivisms in Southeast Asian Modern Art

8 December 2021, 3:00:00 am

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Session Convenors

Dr Yvonne Low, University of Sydney
Dr Phoebe Scott, National Gallery Singapore

Session Moderators

Dr Yvonne Low, University of Sydney

Session Speakers

Vera Mey, SOAS, University of London
Dr Phoebe Scott, National Gallery Singapore
Brigitta Isabella, Kunci Study Forum & Collective

This panel seeks to rethink the impact of Euramerican modernism on art in Southeast Asia, through a critical analysis of the reception of the discourse of primitivism. In Southeast Asia, much has been made of the influence of Paul Gauguin and other modernists on the portrayal of (oftentimes semi-nude) Indigenous women, depicted in lush tropical and idyllic scenes of Southeast Asian environs. Similarly, the impact of primitivist modernism is arguably discernible in formal innovations in works of Southeast Asian modern art, which adapt stylistic elements of local aesthetic traditions (like batik, weaving or wood-carving). But what specific relation do these developments bear to the broader history of primitivist modernism, and what was their meaning and critical function when engaged in Southeast Asia? Within Western art history, modernist primitivism has been subject to a stringent critique, noting its underlying presumptions of a racist cultural hierarchy, and its embeddedness within various colonial projects. To what extent is this critique also applicable to Southeast Asian modernisms? This panel proposes a re-thinking of reductive perspectives regarding the “influence” of Western primitivism, in favour of a more nuanced consideration of reception and context – including the impact of factors like regionalism, diaspora and post-coloniality.

PAPER #1
Looking sideways: the depiction of others in Buddhist mural paintings from Cambodia's modern era

PRESENTER
Vera Mey, SOAS, University of London

There are two commonly depicted scenes in Buddhist pagoda mural paintings found all over Cambodia. The "Buddha's funeral" and the "distribution of the Buddha's ashes" are two exceptionally stately and worldly scenes. Of the many stories relating to the Buddhist dharma, these two scenes represent many foreigners who gathered to respect the passing of the extraordinary life of the Buddha. During Cambodia's modern period, as the country's geographic horizon expanded and the world's purview grew, the depiction of these foreigners altered and became increasingly diverse within Cambodia. The medium of Buddhist mural painting itself has been excluded from modern art history in the region; however, arguably, they communicate depths of modernity in a more complex manner than what is currently canonised. This paper considers these scenes from Buddhist mural paintings in the 1960s and the representation of foreigners to think about other non-Western cultures within the modern Cambodian picture plane. Upon first glance, these pictorial depictions could be dismissed as naïve and primitivist for their stereotypical and essentialist portrayals of racialised people. However, a more empowered reading can connect these representations directly to "the Bandung Spirit", demonstrating an inclusive Buddhist cosmopolitanism as explicitly located in a changing and modernising Cambodia.

PAPER #2
Primitivism and Archaism: Reconsidering Yeh Chi Wei’s Images of Sarawak and Sabah

PRESENTER
Dr Phoebe Scott, National Gallery Singapore

The painter Yeh Chi Wei (1913-1981), based for most of his life in Singapore and Malaysia, travelled throughout Southeast Asia as part of the regionalist “Ten Men” artist group. Images of Sarawak and Sabah form a significant part of his oeuvre. In these works, Yeh Chi Wei created images of Indigenous communities of the region which were clearly influenced by primitivist tropes: suggesting, for example, their freedom and closeness to nature, in contrast to the burdens of modern, industrialised life. While this position can be traced to his admiration for certain Western primitivist artists, it co-exists with other elements in the works that complicate the narrative. The works also feature colophons in archaistic “oracle bone” script, or textured treatments of the surface that make the paintings themselves appear archaic. An artist of the Chinese diaspora, Yeh Chi Wei had a scholarly interest in the Chinese cultural past, and would have been aware of the history of cultural interactions between China and Southeast Asia. In his works, exoticism and primitivism co-exist with familiarity and historical connection. This paper will discuss the implications of these works for considering meanings of primitivism, beyond the model provided by Western modernism.

PAPER #3
Can Citra Irian (Image of Irian) Speak?

PRESENTER
Brigitta Isabella, Kunci Study Forum & Collective

My paper explores the biography, materiality, spectatorship, and agency of Citra Irian (“Image of Irian”)—a series of print works, watercolors, acrylic paintings and sculptures made by Indonesian artist Sunaryo (b. 1943) between 1975 and 1985. Sunaryo, who came into prominence during the first decade of the New Order regime, claims his Citra Irian oeuvre resembles “primitive lines” of West Papuan material cultures and conveys the spiritual forces of Indonesian nationalism. In 1981 Sunaryo’s main narrative was publicly denounced by Semsar Siahaan (1952-2005), who burnt a wooden sculpture from Citra Irian series and declared his iconoclastic performance as a ritual to celebrate “the death of Westernized image of Indonesian modern visual art.” My paper listens to the various conflicting historical voices that resound from Citra Irian to identify by whom, how, and what Citra Irian was made to say. Furthermore, I take a Spivakian political approach to images to interrogate the epistemic power structures underlying Citra Irian’s “speech acts”, which enable privileged voices to be heard at the cost of silencing the voices of those who have historically been subalternized, both by past as well as present aesthetic-political regimes.

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Biographies

Dr Yvonne Low, University of Sydney

Yvonne Low specialises in the modern and contemporary arts of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Her research interests include colonial histories, cultural politics of art development, women artists and feminist art history, and digital art history. Yvonne has published over 40 books, peer-reviewed journals and exhibition catalogues, and is on the editorial committee of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia. She holds degrees majoring in Art History from the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne. She is currently a Lecturer in Asian Art at the University of Sydney.


Vera Mey, SOAS, University of London

Vera Mey is a PhD candidate in History of Art & Archaeology at SOAS, University of London, where she researches ideas of critical regionalism in Southeast Asian art during the Cold War era. Before this, she spent several years working as a contemporary art curator in institutions including ST PAUL St Gallery, AUT University, New Zealand and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, a contemporary art research centre in Singapore. She is one of the co-founders and on the editorial collective of the peer-reviewed journal SOUTHEAST OF NOW: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, published by NUS Press.


Dr Phoebe Scott, National Gallery Singapore

Phoebe Scott is a curator at National Gallery Singapore, where she co-curated the exhibitions Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond (2016), in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou ; as well as Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia since the 19th Century (2015), one the inaugural exhibitions of the Gallery. Prior to joining the Gallery, Phoebe completed her PhD on the subject of modern Vietnamese art, at the University of Sydney. She is an adjunct lecturer in art history at the National University of Singapore.


Brigitta Isabella, Kunci Study Forum & Collective

Brigitta Isabella navigates her encounters with people, objects, and discourses through various knowledge production platforms that operate at the intersection of art history, critical theories, and pro-democracy cultural activism. She studied philosophy in Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta (BA) and critical methodology in King’s College, London (MA). She is affiliated with a self-organized research group based in Yogyakarta, Kunci Study Forum & Collective and serves as a member of the translocal editorial collective of peer-reviewed journal Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art.