Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop

Art has long reflected the environment in which it is being created. For Southeast Asia, the 1970s were troubled times, with military or authoritarian rule in many countries squashing social unrest, and it is within this context that some of the earliest political art in the region began to emerge.


Before the 1970s, the development of painting in Southeast Asia had been characterized by the seductive appeal of Euro-American artistic models, with artists flirting with internationalism and using abstraction and formalism as dominant modes of expression. While shaking off colonialism, many still embraced an Orientalist view of art seen across the region through the continuing use of the lyrical landscape genre.

In the Philippines, this genre can been seen in the painters from the Amorsolo School, a movement named after its most celebrated artist, Fernando Amorsolo (1892-1972), who often idealized the country's rural beauty. In Indonesia, the Mooie Indies (also called Beautiful Indies), a style first developed by Dutch painters, also represented Indonesian landscapes in a Western fantasy.

The 1970s marked a turning point for many young artists in the region as they started to reflect on the real condition of their societies, rebelling against previous style conventions.

"If one was to provide a brief snap-shot of art practices in the region during the 1970s, these were characterized by conceptualism and statement-making, and realism, social critique and forms of activism," said Ahmad Mashadi, the curator of Telah Terbit (Out Now), an exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum (through Nov. 12) that presents Southeast Asian contemporary art practices during the '70s and '80s.

In the Philippines, artists reacted strongly to the imposition of martial law in 1972 by President Ferdinand Marcos.

Pablo Baen Santos, one of the founders of the Kaisahan Group of socio-realist painters, recalls how the Marcos regime encouraged a "New Society" culture, whose slogan was "The True, the Good and the Beautiful" to give the impression that all was well.

"The dictatorship found this an effective cosmetic for atrocities and all other forms of suppression," Santos said in an e-mail interview. "It was an encouragement to visual artists, who preferred to close their eyes to what was truly happening in the country. Pretty paintings detached from reality found good company with patrons who regarded paintings as décor."

Founded in 1976, the Kaisahan Group took a political approach to its work, holding workshops, lectures and group discussions on political art. Among their original members were Santos, Edgar Talusan Fernandez and Renato Habulan, whose works are all on display at the Singapore exhibition.

"I saw the development of the '70s as realities that stare at the artist's conscience, urging to be painted on canvas: the hand of the oppressor striking the masses and the masses fighting back," Santos said. "But painting, on the other hand, also perfumed my dream of a just society."

The group's original manifesto espoused the quest for a national identity, breaking the Philippines' traditional dependent relationship with the United States, as well as the need to make art for the masses.

"Kaisahan's search for national identity was not a romantic adventure," Santos said. "It sought to resist Western art Born of Western experience and replace it with art that depicts the struggle of the Filipino people for self-reliance. It aimed at developing an art that would contribute to a culture that instills unity and love for our country."

He added: "The Kaisahan art group recognized that the exercise of artistic expression must not stop at serving the pleasure of the few, but of the greater number of people. This is a reason why the group was also in the thick of the protest art movement against the 'U.S.-Marcos dictatorship' using popular forms of expression and providing art workshops for the masses."

Mashadi said that Santo's "Bagong Kristo - New Christ" (1980) is a powerful depiction of the struggle of the working class. "The painting effectively communicates the ongoing economic and political struggles in the Philippines. It is decidedly leftist in leaning, informed by anti-capitalist, anti-American sentiments," Mashadi said.

During the same period in Thailand, a massive student revolt overthrew a military dictatorship in 1973, inaugurating an unstable period of democracy until military rule was re-imposed in 1976 after a bloody coup. The return of the military had a major impact on artistic development, which turned toward social commentary. One of the artists leading that movement was Pratuang Emjaroen, who with other artists had established the Dharma Group in 1971. The group experimented with synthesizing Buddhism and formalistic techniques drawn from Cubism, Surrealism, abstract art and traditional references.

After the events of 1973, Emjaroen started to paint a series of works that were powerful social criticisms of the exploitation of peasants, including "Grains, Sickle, and a Lump of Clay."

In "Red Morning Glory and Rotten Gun," the artist presents a disturbing image of limbs, skulls chained to the bayonets of rifles, a flimsy Thai flag, a lacerated, bleeding moon and a crying, decapitated head of a Buddha.

"This painting is one of the defining socially oriented works of the 1970s," Mashadi said, "not only because it was produced and displayed in 1976 during one of the most tumultuous periods in modern Thai history - the military coup and the loss of democratic ideals - but also for the references made to its time and condition."

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, Suharto's New Order fell under increasing scrutiny form social activists, including student movements. Increasing social tensions over a developing authoritarianism prompted artists like Dede Eri Supria and FX Harsono to address critical issues like economic exploitation, global capitalism and social suppression.

Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement) emerged in the mid-1970s as an expression of many misgivings toward the process of modernization, Mashadi said. These young "rebel" artists criticized the tendencies found in mainstream practices, which veered toward the decorative, and found inspiration from the ideas of Dada and Pop Art artists.

In "Paling Top" (1975), Harsono placed a toy M-16 rifle in a wire-mesh-covered box. Stencilled next to the rifle are the words "paling top" (the absolute top), to suggest the military's continuing dominance and influence in Indonesian politics during the period.

"At the time, the government was trying to control the student's political activism on campus. They called it 'Normalization of the Campus,'" recalled Harsono. "There were clashes and some students were injured, some died. This work is inspired by those events."

Artists who lived through the turbulent period of the 1970s and 1980s agree that political art is no longer as dominant as it was when Marxism was popular among intellectuals.

"The collapse of communist models in Eastern Europe, the transformation of China's economy into a hybrid of socialism and capitalism and the killing fields in communist areas demand careful use of art in taking political sides," Santos said. "As a renewed Christian I have been enlightened t the belief that evil is not the monopoly of the oppressor class. It is present in anyone."

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