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

Title : Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, 1945-1990
Edited : Stephen H Whiteman, Sarena Abdullah, Yvonne Low, Phoebe Scott
Book Description : 248 x 172 mm, 335 pages
Publisher: Power Publications and National Gallery Singapore
Originally published July 2018
Call Number: 701 Whit A

Reviewed by : Esha Jain

Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, 1945-1990 seeks to separate the art of the Southeast Asian countries from the stereotypes, expectations, and assumptions traditionally “Western” societies hold about it that are byproducts of the Cold War. It consists of ten essays created in partnership between “eastern” and “western” institutions such as the National Gallery Singapore and the University of Sydney’s Power Institute. The pretense of the book in itself is unique. It created “a regional network of emerging and senior scholars” in one year, with an emphasis on archiving. The archival lens provides a unique historical and cultural perspective throughout the book.

As a result of returning to the art of the era long after the influential events have occurred, the authors are able to explore the lasting impact the era had on the country, artist, and culture. Not only does the basis of archiving allow the reader to have an enhanced reading experience with visual aids, but it also enables both the audience and author to explore a facet of culture from the perspective of an often overlooked historical context in conjunction with the examination of artwork. The archiving and documenting aspect allows the audience to understand the cultural implication both during the time period, as well as the impacts on preservation and expression today.

For example, the process of collecting research and archiving was heavily reflective of the impact of the Cold War on countries in the region. For instance, Cambodia’s art experienced mass and systematic destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. In the essay “‘The Work the Nation Depends On’: Landscapes and Women in the Paintings of Nhek Dim,” Roger Nelson describes the difficulties he faced in trying to obtain documents pertaining to the work of Dim. However, because Nelson has a background in archiving, he was able to provide an underrepresented perspective into the impact foreign involvement in Cambodia had on cultural preservation.

The book’s strength lies not only in its archival lens, but in that it does not attempt to broadly generalize “Southeast Asian art” during 1945-1990. Rather, each author investigates in depth one person, topic, or event. This allows for specific issues to be explored from a fresh, focused lens. Specifically, in terms of Indonesia, the book explores both the impact of Indonesia remaining neutral during the Cold War as well as art movements after the 1965 killings. Especially regarding the incidents of 1965, the author was able to explore a taboo topic. Even today, communism and the acts of 1965 are still widely left out of conversation. The essay investigates how, “…this traumatic period impacted Indonesian modern art history from the perspective of those who witnessed it firsthand.” As an archivist and art historian, Wulan Dirgantoro was able to review a largely untouched subject through art, providing a perspective on the emotional toll of a national tragedy.

Ultimately the book attempts to remove the western lens from Southeast Asian art. Each author attempts to separate themselves from what they have been taught through traditional Eurocentric education. Too often, parts of history are written over by hegemonic powers. Stories are left unread and undiscovered, creating a single narrative, often unrepresentative of large swaths of the world. This collection of essays seeks to share these overlooked stories.

Artikel ini merupakan rubrik Sorotan Pustaka dalam Buletin IVAA Dwi Bulanan edisi November-Desember 2018.