The art of Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar
A discussion of the contemporary art scene from this part of the world is simply broken up into the established markets, such as Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia and the emerging markets of Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
It is probably best to start here with the established markets and Singapore is probably the best place to begin this journey. Singapore, like Malaysia and Mynamar for that matter, was a British colony. The British expatriate community, be it civil servants or merchants, lived a very comfortable existence in the colony and like colonists elsewhere, they tended to surround themselves with possessions that reminded them both of their homeland as well as of their land of residence. Art was part of the process of gentrification of the colony and many artists, predominantly Chinese, where encouraged to follow painting as a profession.
The huge influence of the southern Chinese on Singaporean and Malaysian art cannot be stressed enough and this influence, originally providing comfortable paintings for expat homes slowly developed into a more nationalistic movement with social realism as well as social commentary taking a lead role and becoming very highly sought after by the local Singaporean collectors.It was the years after 1950 when art started to blossom and take on its own life in these two colonies.
Like much of SE Asia, Nationalistic themes took hold and artwork reflected this growing feeling in the countries. Certainly, from Malaysian Independence in 1957 and Singapore’s Independence in 1965, the amount of local art increased substantially. However, it is interesting to note that the influence of Singapore, like its northern neighbour, Malaysia, on the art of the whole of SE Asia has been less than spectacular with very few artists gaining any international reputation.
Laos and Cambodia were also colonies, but this time, of the French.
Unlike Vietnam, another French colony, the art of painting didn’t really gain in popularity amongst the local communities in Laos or Cambodia. The reason is unclear. Certainly there were artists within the communities, but these were not immigrants from China but rather locals who has picked up painting, mostly in watercolour, due to seeing expatriates painting as a pastime rather than as a formal career. Works from the last 19th century and most of the 20th century are landscapes featuring the spectacular historic sites of both countries but are painted on a small scale. Understandably, with the years of Pol Pot in Cambodia, the concept of being able to paint, let alone buy a brush or paint, is without a doubt a reason why in the mid-late 20th century there was no art coming from Cambodia. It will be interesting to see if a new generation of artists will tend to look back on this period as a source of subject matter for their work, although I think that this is unlikely as the open wounds inflicted on the Khmer people during this period have yet to heal sufficiently for any artist to be able to reflect on these years.
In Laos too, the Vietnam War and the US bombings of the Laos state put a hold on any artistic movement. Most of what was available in Laos was coming from the revolutionary artists in China rather than from any home grown movement. Today, there is little other than tourist work being produced by these 2 countries.
Myanmar, like Singapore and Malaysia, was a colony of the British, but unlike these other colonies, there was a strong and quite vibrant art movement within the country in the early to mid 20th century.
What caused this is hard to define, but there were many local artists who were working full time as fine artists and who produced quite high quality work. One reason may be that there were quite a large number of English artists who landed upon Burmese soil in search of adventure
and the mystery of the East, in a similar way to the many Dutch artists who landed in Bali. Artists such as Gerald Kelly who produced amazing works of Burmese girls that were so familiar to people in England in the 1950′s where they were released as prints and were to be found in many homes.
Today, art from Myanmar is some of the most interesting and competent in the region, although much of it depicts young monks going about their daily chores. That said, there is a competency and vision in Mynamar that leads me to think that it is on the verge of a renaissance. Only time will tell.
The last country in the region is Thailand.
Thailand, unlike many of her neighbours was never colonised but had extensive trade contacts throughout the region as well as with the west.
The art of Thailand had been specifically based on Buddhism and the decoration of temples and the royal palaces had been the main occupation of artists in the kingdom. However, due to the enlightened reign of King Rama V who was determined to pull Thailand (Siam) into the 20th century and the modern world of the West, art began to develop along different lines,
not least of which was the depicting of the king himself.
There was too a desire to see what was occurring outside of Thailand in the wider world with particular emphasis on France and Italy. Artists were encouraged to travel to Thailand, not only to paint, but to teach. By the mid 1950′s, many contemporary Thai artists were already experimenting with Abstract Expressionism, a movement basically unheard of in surrounding countries. However, whilst all this new inspiration was resulting in new work, still, the vast majority of artists were painting the Buddha or portraits of royalty. Such art is still considered as the backbone of Thai art today.
It was in the 1980′s that the younger generation began to experiment with new ideas and move in new directions, often following the lead from the west but developing their styles to suit a local audience. Today, Thai art is moving into the mainstream of international art with artworks by many of her artists appearing in sales in Hong Kong, New York and London and selling for ever increasing amounts.
Asia is a wonderful and important part of the 21st century artworld. It is diverse and exciting and for one privileged to be involved in it, I am blessed.