Southeast Asia: Art History, Art Today

Consider the complexity of the category “Southeast Asia” as a kind of theater. On one level, it is a stage on which a great tradition is idealized, the spectacle of a storied past juxtaposed with the speed and density of current urban life. The rubric also once embodied a theater of operations for various 19th- and 20th-century imperialisms, in which the empires of Europe and America extended their dominions across the world. One might think of it too as a present-day platform for both the marketing of goods and the migration of people and things.

Southeast Asia is also a specific locale or region within Asia, the latter part of its name being the main coordinate. This “southeast” is a distinct category, not merely an allusion to traces of the great traditions of India and China, or the spiritual legacies of Hinduism and Buddhism. Southeast Asia is neither India nor China—and certainly not the West—but manifests significant inheritances from them, as may be seen in the monuments of Angkor in Cambodia, Borobudur in Indonesia, Ayutthaya in Siam (now Thailand), and the colonial churches of the Philippines.

Southeast Asia may further be regarded as a geopolitical field, the scene of colonial expansion by the Portuguese in Eastern Timor; the British in Malaya, Burma, and Northern Borneo; the Dutch in Indonesia; the Spanish and Americans in the Philippines; and the French in Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos), with Siam as a buffer state. In an earlier time, the region was vaster, encompassing parts of China, India, and the Pacific. Southeast Asia may also be seen as a place where religions such as Christianity and Islam have undergone localization, exemplified by the only Catholic nation in Asia, the Philippines, and the world’s most populous Islamic country, Indonesia. Links may be drawn from this colonial phenomenon to events ranging from the Cold War era that began in the late forties to the post-independence period, which spanned the rise of authoritarian states and the struggle for representation and justice, through the 1990s; the Vietnam War; the Asian financial crisis of 1997; and increasing terror and counter-terror operations after 9/11. The establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967 clarified the status of Southeast Asia as a geopolitical, not merely geographical, category—a distinction that remains in place. Finally, Southeast Asia may be traced to a deeper Austronesian history.

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