Cultural Rebellion in Southeast Asia: Solidarities Between Radical Student and Collective Experimental Art Movements in the 1970s

Fig. 3: Pratuang Emjaroen, Red Morning Glory Rotten Gun, 1976, Oil on canvas, 135 cm x 165 cm, Collection of The National Gallery Singapore.

By Yu Jin SENG

from ACT 77, April, 2019


Decolonisation as a historical process and project intensified in the 1970s in Southeast Asia. Processes of decolonisation in the region occurred as countries gradually became independent after the end of the Second World War in 1945. [1] Southeast Asian postcolonial nationalism included a period of left nationalism driven by a combination of a left intellectual movement and various communist organisations across the region from 1948 until the late 1970s. [2] Historians Geoff Wade and Karl Hack have recently argued that the ‘Southeast Asian Cold War’ was driven mainly by local forces drawing on outside actors for their own ideological and political purposes. [3] The process of decolonisation in the region intersected with international, regional and domestic fronts of the Cold War. From the international perspective, the western bloc comprising the US and west European countries such as France and West Germany represented a world order based on capitalism, democracy and freedom, while the eastern bloc led by the USSR and China were based on communism and an economy centrally controlled by the state. The Cold War was not merely a clash of ideologies, but also encompassed a broader struggle for a balance of power between the two superpower blocs, fuelled by economic demands and the need for political stability. [4]This binary framework of the Cold War has been challenged by recent historians. Heonik Kwon has argued against a simplistic and universalising understanding of the Cold War as a period of uneasy peace between two superpower blocs. [5] The Cold war was hardly ‘cold’ in other centres in Southeast Asia for instance with millions of civilians and soldiers killed in conflicts of the Cold war such as the Vietnam War. The Cold War needs to be understood not as a monolithic and universalising global event with centres in America and Europe but to decentre to the other regions of conflict, authoritarian regimes, and student movements like Southeast Asia. A changing understanding of the Cold War and its cultural histories need to take into account the varied and different local social conditions and cultural contexts across distinct locales and countries. [6]

Curator Ahmad Mashadi argued that these ‘contexts of social and political transformation in the region within which developments in prevailing artistic practices and conventions took place’ framed the changing Southeast Asian art practices in the 1970s:

The tenor or intensity of such [Cold War] conditions varied across locations, yet they broadly informed the emergence of artistic discourses marked by newer attitudes towards the role of artists and art, as well as the constitution, the materiality of art, and the considered references made to society and notions of publicness.[7]

The enmeshment of social and political transformations, both within and outside Southeast Asia, with ways of thinking about, making and discoursing on art is an important premise on which Mashadi’s reframing of the region is based. This paper examines intersections between experimental artistic practices propelled by forms of artist collectivism, and student radicalisation that emerged across Southeast Asia in the 1970 challenging authoritarian regimes, social injustices and the spectre of American neo-imperialism manifested in the Vietnam War as part of the broader Cold War. It focuses on art manifestos produced by these artist collectives as a discursive bridge between their advancement of experimental ways of thinking about and making art that bore affinities with the ideas of the New Left propagated by student movements. The art manifesto in Southeast Asia emerged from a different, postcolonial context, and artists deployed manifestos in the 1970s as a counter-hegemonic discourse, a form of cultural resistance to imperialism in the Cold War context, particularly America’s military intervention in the Vietnam War. The exhibition became the stage on which the art manifesto corralled its ideological force as social and political critique. Flores has focused on art manifestos as an important characteristic of the exhibition in the 1970s by tracing the proliferation of these manifestos across the region as a ‘proxy for the work of art itself’, a ‘document of alterity’ and a ‘dissemination of text as collective undertaking and the polemical fire it sparks’. Flores defines the manifestos as ‘a vehicle of agency’, driven by the ‘desire to re-think the world’ in its rebellion against forms of authoritarianism.[8]

Flores is not alone in identifying manifestos as potent instruments wielded by artists in the 1970s. In his Intersecting Histories: Contemporary Turns in Southeast Asian Art, Sabapathy locates ‘contemporary turns’ in Southeast Asian art within the ambit of exhibitions and the manifestos produced from these exhibitions. Both Flores and Sabapathy cite manifestos, some of which were directly produced for exhibitions such asthe GSRB and the Kaisahan. It is also the central premise of this paper that the ideological struggle of the Cold War, as manifested in a variety of cultural and intellectual movements, including the New Left in Southeast Asia driven by a concomitant youth movement that was anti-war, advocated democracy and freedom of expression to resist aesthetic and political conventions controlled by dominant institutions of power. It influenced thoughts about national cultural identities, the autonomy or social purpose of art, and the role of artists.

Intersections Between Radical Student and Experimental Collective Art Movements in Southeast Asia

The period from the late 1950s to the late 1970s was critical for the history of radical artistic practices in Southeast Asia. Here, radicalism in art refers to experimental artistic practices and exhibitions that is critical of dominant aesthetic conventions defined by the primacy of painting, marked a shift towards participatory ways of making art and interacting with audiences, and were socially-engaged. These tumultuous decades coincided with radical student activism, a push for economic development by governments across the region that resulted in an unprecedented expansion in higher learning, the spread of authoritarian and military regimes taking control in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, and the looming spectre of the Cold War, manifested in the intensification of the Vietnam War (1955–1975) in the early 1970s. This was a period when ideas and ideologies mattered, as marked by a resurgent youth movement of students from higher education institutions, including fine art academies that were either part of universities or existed as autonomous institutions of higher learning. These student movements were one of the key drivers of political activism across the region. They were part of the New Left intellectual movement against forms of American neo-imperialism as manifested in the Vietnam War and supported by the authoritarian regimes of Thailand and the Philippines. These radical student movements formed the heartbeat and engine of social and political change in the region. Artists, many of whom were either students or part of youth movements themselves in the 1970s, formed artist collectives or conducted collaborative action closely intertwined with these movements.

The first phase of student movements in Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma and Singapore spanned the late 1950s to the early 1970s. It was intertwined with the left intellectual movement in which students fought for a more egalitarian society and against pro-US policies, which they viewed as neo-imperialist and pro-capitalist. The New Left in the Philippines and Thailand, which departed from the Marxist focus on the labour movement and class struggle, as well as from communism’s tendency towards authoritarianism, aimed at a broad range of reforms, including the promotion of democracy, human rights, gay rights, and freedom of speech. Maoism was influential in the New Left in both countries, particularly Mao’s 1942 Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, which called for the arts to serve the people. In Indonesia, the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) was defeated by the military of Suharto’s New Order by 1968 for being implicated in the abduction and subsequent murder of seven army officers in a failed coup in October 1965. The arrest and suppression of leftist elements in Indonesia meant that the New Left intellectual movement was similarly undermined and limited in their activities.

The second phase from the late 1960s to the late 1970s was characterised by student protestors who were initially sympathetic to the developmentalist goals of their governments. However, they turned against the very same regimes when they perceived them as becoming authoritarian and corrupt. The students sought political reform by critiquing institutions and the systems, structures and aesthetic conventions that they embodied by producing counter-hegemonic exhibitionary discourses in the form of manifestos and socially aware art practices aimed at restoring the meaning and relevance of art to people’s lives. Their aim, to redirect the governments to their ideological origins of ‘returning to the people’, was most evident in countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. The emergence of experimental forms of exhibition and artistic practices began in the context of the second phase of the student movement, although some of its roots could be traced further back to the first phase in Southeast Asia.

Students in this period of social and political upheaval used their privileged status to present themselves as the intellectual vanguard of their country. The academics teaching at these tertiary institutions shared similar positions, but to a lesser extent. Unlike the academic professionals, students occupied a status in between privilege and marginalisation. They embodied a moral force for social justice and were a bastion against corruption due to their distance from the political system and personal gain.[9]This paper examines three artist collectives: The United Artist Front of Thailand (TUAFT), the Kaisahan (Solidarity) and the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (GSRB) (The New Art Movement Indonesia). The TUAFT and Kaisahan were artist collectives with more defined membership and organisational structures while the GSRB more porous involvement of a group of artists who came together primarily for the collective activity of organising exhibitions with a shared vision without clearly defined membership. These diverse forms of collectivism in Southeast Asia allowed for more flexible and responsive ways to engage with their publics.

Many of the students involved in artist collectives or collaborative art movements studied at art academies such as the Indonesian Arts Academy, Yogyakarta (ASRI), the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture, and Graphic Arts at Silpakorn University, and the Poh Chang Academy of the Arts, Bangkok. For example, some of the leading proponents of the GSRB, such as F.X. Harsono, Siti Adiyati and Hardi studied at, and were subsequently suspended from, ASRI. TUAFT comprised Kamol Tassananchalee, a graduate of Poh Chang who had just returned to Thailand from his studies in America, Boonsong Wattakeehuttakum from Thammasat University, who designed posters and bill board cut-outs, Sinsawat Yodbangteuy, a fine art student from Poh Chang, and Takol Priyakanitpong, a professor at Silpakorn University who was involved in organising the 1975 Bill Board Cut-Out exhibition. These artist-students came to form the heartbeat of experimental artistic practices propelling artists to the intellectual forefront of broader movements concerned about democracy, the social and economic conditions of the people, forms of authoritarianism, institutional structures, and the construction of national cultural identities.

The Black December Incident in Indonesia, 1974

Suharto’s New Order was established in the wake of an abortive coup on 1 October 1965, which resulted in the death of some of Indonesia’s highest-ranking generals. The PKI (the Communist Party of Indonesia), blamed for the killings, was banned in 1966. Mass killings in Indonesia followed in the period 1965–66. Hundreds-of-thousands of communists and alleged communists were killed or imprisoned. The military led by Suharto pursued a developmental regime focusing on economic growth and denying the working class, farmers and the economically disenfranchised the ability to represent themselves politically. The Malari Incident of 15 January 1974 was a student-led demonstration triggered by the Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s state visit to Indonesia, which was perceived as a form of Japanese neo-imperialism. The students sought to reform the New Order regime, which was seen as corrupt and incapable of addressing increasing commodity prices. They protested against senior military officers colluding with foreign investors, including Japanese businesses, to the detriment of local businesses. They criticised the government for promoting a developmental strategy that appeared to benefit foreign investors and selected elites from the New Order excessively.[10]

Connections between the student movement and artist-students in Indonesia were clearly made in F.X. Harsono’s solo exhibition, titled FX Harsono: The Life and the Chaos of Objects, Images and Words, organised by the Erasmus Huis Dutch Cultural Centre in Jakarta in 2015. This solo exhibition followed Harsono receiving the Prince Claus Award of the Netherlands (2014) and the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art in Singapore (2015). Both awards recognised his role as a socially engaged artist whose works addressed the issue of democracy, provided counter-hegemonic national histories to oppose state-controlled histories, and gave a voice to the marginalised and disenfranchised. The exhibition featured a timeline that started with the Malari Incident as the catalyst and context for Harsono’s artistic practice. It connected the student movement both with the Black December Incident in December 1974 and with the emergence of the GSRB. Harsono was one of the leading proponents of the Black December Incident, which has been cited by art historians as a precursor to the emergence of the GSRB, an exhibition of experimental works in 1975.[11] Prior to the Black December Incident, groups of young art students in Yogyakarta and Bandung had begun to experiment with new art forms that challenged the aesthetic and theoretical conventions of modern art as taught at their art academies. The art students criticised their curriculum for being too conservative and restricted to fine art defined as painting, sculpture, printmaking and graphic arts only. They experimented with found objects and organic materials, as they believed the rakyat (ordinary people) could easily relate to these everyday, non-art media. One of these groups, Kelompok 5 (Group of Five), was based in Yogyakarta and comprised Hardi, Harsono, B. Munny Ardhi, Nanik Mirna and Siti Adiyati, who were all students at ASRI. In exhibitions organised in cities like Surabaya and Solo, The Group of Five questioned the institutional structures of ASRI and succeeded in drawing considerable attention from the mass media.

Fig. 1: Remade wreath of the 31 December 1974 protest against The First Great Exhibition of Indonesian Painting with the text that reads: Ikut berduka cita atas kermatian seni lukis kita (Condolences on the death of Indonesian painting). This wreath was remade for the Menafsir Seni Rupa Baru: Membaca Ulang Perjalanan Sejarah Seni Rupa Baru 1975-1987, 1-15 December 2016 at the Institut Seni Indonesia Yogyakarta. Image copyright of author.

On 31 December 1974, a group of art students protested against the Major Indonesian Painting Exhibition awarding prizes to ‘decorative and consumerist’ paintings and excluding experimental works. This protest came to be known as the Black December movement comprising of young student rebels including F.X. Harsono, Ris Purnawa Hardi, and B. Munni Ardhi. They delivered floral wreaths to the judges, which included the following statement on a ribbon (figure 1):

Ikut berduka cita atas kermatian seni lukis kita
(Condolences on the death of Indonesian painting)[12]

They proceeded to issue the Black December Manifesto in reaction to the jury’s decision at the 1974 Grand Exhibition of Indonesian Painting.[13] Like the larger student movement, the fourteen artists who issued the Black December Manifestowere seeking to reform ASRI and its perceived conservatism. The Manifesto was welcomed by artists and art students in Jakarta and Bandung, but it was rejected by ASRI, which suspended the signatories.

Just eight months after the Black December Incident, the Group of Five and other artists from Bandung, together with noted art critic and lecturer Sanento Yuliman, established the GSRB and organised an exhibition in August 1975 at Ismail Marzuki Art Centre (TIM) in Jakarta. In their manifesto, they declared the Lima Jurus Gebrakan Gebrakan Seni Rupa Baru Indonesia (The Five Lines of Attack):

  1. Elimination of sharp distinctions between painting, graphics and sculpture such that artists can develop new forms.
  2. Abandoning the concept of ‘fine art’, which limits the definition of art to mean only the art of the elite, and expanding the definition of art based on diverse aesthetic values such as traditional and ethnic art forms.
  3. Liberating art from elitist attitudes. Art as an expression of an individual’s feelings is rejected and regarded as a manifestation of elitist attitudes. The problems of society are more important than individual feelings. Concepts and ideas are also privileged over technique.
  4. Art students should not be restricted by the limits imposed by their teachers.
  5. Research into Indonesian art history should be carried out by Indonesian art historians and critics. Universality of art was rejected, implying that Indonesian art cannot be studied from imported foreign books.[14]

The GSRB’s attack on ‘elitist attitudes’ targeted the prevailing narrow conception of art as ‘fine art’, which excluded other definitions of art and aesthetic values and philosophies embedded in traditional art forms. The GSRB turned towards alternative contexts to expand the scope of art beyond the narrow confines of art academies, such as Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia (ASRI) in Yogyakarta, which were based on Western modernist categories of painting and sculpture.[15] GSRB also rejected the decontextualisation and de-politicisation of art under Suharto’s New Order regime. However, it is unclear if the GSRB’s re-politisation of art had connections to the New Left considering the suppression of the PKI under the New Order. Unlike TUAFT and the Kaisahan whose ideological positions can be traced to the New Left, GSRB’s interest to reject art for the elite spring from their desire to make art that could communicate with the common person. Art as a form of communication to provoke critical ways of thinking about politics and society may have emerged from their resistance to the conservative aesthetic conventions of the fine art academies like ASRI that suffered from a disconnect with making art with the transformative potential to change mindsets, provoke criticality and ultimately galvanise collective action for social change. 

Fig. 2: Siti Adiyati, Eceng Gondok, Plastic, water hyacinth, 1979, Collection of Artist, Image by Author.

Eceng Gondok (Figure 2) by Siti Adiyati was shown in the 1975 GSRB exhibition. It was the only work that used a living organism, eceng gondok, a type of water hyacinth. The hyacinth is an invasive species, originally from the Amazon basin, which was brought to Southeast Asia and naturalised in the region. Amid the water hyacinth are plastic golden roses that contrast life and artifice, and which prompt audiences to think about the delicate balance in the relationship between humans and nature. Bringing a living organism into the GSRB exhibition also bridged the gap between art and non-art and presented the water hyacinth as both a floating aquatic plant and a weed. Its high reproduction rate caused by agricultural waste from polluting rivers and lakes can destroy aquatic life. Adiyati combined the water hyacinth as a potentially environmentally harmful weed with the plastic golden roses in the art gallery to reveal that Suharto’s New Order developmentalism was:

just an illusion symbolised by the golden rose in the sea of absolute poverty that the eceng gondok represents. This is why the eceng gondok is included in the art movement (GSRB). That is my point to understand everyday life.[16]

Adiyati approached real problems and issues of everyday life through the water hyacinth, which also symbolised the capacity and resilience of the Indonesian rakyat. The weed that embodied the developmentalism of the New Order can be read as having the potential to be transformed into useful organic fertiliser and animal feed. Works like Eceng Gondok presented in this exhibition covered injustices beyond the field of art, including socio-economic and political issues that intersected with concerns over the corruption of the military regime that sparked the Malari Incident. However, the GSRB and the Black December Manifesto sought to reform not only the politics of the state but also the politics of aesthetics, specifically the Indonesian art world that privileged painting, and more precisely certain established painters and sculptors, many of whom were art teachers at ASRI or ITB. GSRB aligned with the Black December Manifesto in its call for artists to develop socially engaged artistic practices. Works shown by the GSRB artists encompassed a wide range of art forms, from performance to installation art, which questioned the definition of art circumscribed by the aesthetic conventions and practices of painting. The use of everyday materials to make artworks expanded beyond conventional art materials such as oil and watercolour paints, to include found objects that embodied local symbolic cultural and political meanings.

The United Artists’ Front of Thailand

TUAFT was also formed in 1974, one year after the toppling of the Thanom Kittikachorn, Praphat Charu-satien and Narong Kittikach military dictatorship in October 1973. They published an art manifesto in 1975 outlining their opposition to art produced for capitalist and imperialist consumption. They adopted a critical discourse against the institutional structures of the state:

As long as all the misleading structures of the government in politics, economics, education, and culture art continue taking great part in Thailand and/or Thai society, the real democracy of the Nation and its assets, i.e., independence, freedom, equality, and justice in society would be impossible to establish. The so-called democracy used in the country these days is what we may call ‘a democracy of the “big people.”’
We, who are not satisfied with what the ‘big people’ have done and we, who are conscious of the priceless Thai culture art’s conservation, innovation, and development for the ‘little people’, then organize ourselves into The United Artist Front of Thailand. Our mission is to conserve, innovate, and develop Thai culture art and make it serve all Thai people in the correct ways it should.[17]

TUAFT opposed art that was produced for the capitalist interests of those in power and big businesses, and it called for art to be relevant to the Thai worker and farmer. In short, it attempted to bring modern art to the ordinary Thai.[18] Like the artist-students who initiated the Black December Incident that led to the formation of GSRB, TUAFT grew out of the larger student movement that successfully demonstrated against and brought about a change in the Thai government. Thammasat University, a product of the 1932 revolution led by the People’s Party, had adopted an open admission policy at its foundation. It opened up the opportunity for a university education to all Thais, regardless of their economic background, unlike Chulalongkorn University that catered largely for the elite.[19]Post-war Thammasat University became a hotbed for student activism, with students from different economic classes, including the working class, spearheading anti-imperialist protests against Japan. The protests were led by Pridi Banomyong from the Free Thai Movement. Unlike other universities in Thailand that shifted emphasis to hard sciences as dictated by the military regime, Thammasat University focused on expanding its humanities and social sciences programmes, from which many of the student protestors originated.[20] Students in Thailand and Indonesia shared a belief in their privileged status as a moral force above the corruption of their governments. They sailed on the powerful potential of youth, shaped by ideas perpetuated by the New Left. They sought to transform society by challenging the institutions of the authoritarian capitalist and developmental regimes.

TUAFT was not alone in resisting the Thai military regime. The Dharma Group, founded by Pratuang Emjaroen in 1971, organised its third exhibition in 1976, just after the violent suppression that resulted in a student massacre. After the failed democratic transition under the Interim Prime Minister Sanya Thammasak, a civilian dictatorship led by Thanin Kraivichien was installed. The Dharma Group’s third exhibition catalogue was titled Sinlapa khong prachachon (Art for the People), which aligned with Pratuang’s own beliefs that ‘true art must be ‘for life’s sake’ and not ‘for art’s sake’ as it was formerly believed’.[21] Dissenting artists who were horrified by the violent clashes between student demonstrators and civilians on one side, and the military and police on the other, gathered around Pratuang and joined the Dharma Group. Pratuang’s painting titled Red Morning Glory Rotten Gun (figure 3) was in direct response to the massacres drew from the symbolic potency of ‘Thai-ness’ steeped in Buddhism. Buddhist iconography was challenged by Pratuang, who depicted a back-facing decapitated head of Buddha in tears to express his feelings over the mass killings.  The rotting gun associated with the military critiqued the violence over the unarmed student protestors.  The painting employed powerful symbols to make a political statement on the bloodshed that followed the 14 October 1973 protests in which half a million people were involved.

In October 1975, on the second anniversary of the October 1973 student protests, TUAFT organised a large display of paintings on Rajadamnern Avenue (figure 4). It consisted of more than a thousand paintings and posters to commemorate the victory of the students over the military regime. This exhibition challenged the exhibition format in gallery spaces by expanding the display of artworks into public spaces, and involving artists and the public, especially students, as a form of social engagement. It was innovative in presenting art as a form of performative action, or a gesture of anti-imperialist and anti-authoritarian protest against the military regime’s support of American military intervention in the Vietnam War. They used national symbols and popular images painted onto large billboards. Works by artists and students were shown in this outdoor exhibition, which demonstrated the close relationship between TUAFT and student activists (figure 4).[22] TUAFT’s connection to the broader student activism was further evident from the strong support that it drew from students in vocational institutes and the Po Chang School of Arts and Crafts.[23] Kamchorn Soonpongsri was the chairman of TUAFT, and his thinking on art was shaped by earlier Thai socialist discourse, which was recycled and became popular with TUAFT artists and student activists. The most influential writing was Chit Phumisak’s Art for Life and Art for the People, first published in 1957 and widely circulated through the cheap printing technology of ‘one baht books’.[24] TUAFT was part of a larger ground-up initiative calling for ‘art for the people’, ‘art for life’, ‘literature for the people’, ‘songs for the people’ (replacing foreign language songs with Thai lyrics), and ‘theatre for the people’.[25] Their inter-disciplinary ways of working was experimental as it forged collaborative ways of thinking about art and making it beyond the silos of disciplines. Other forms of cultural resistance to the military regime by student activists ‘responded with conceptualism, surrealism, and other forms of experimentation – including the transformation of traditional forms that were rejuvenated as well’.[26]

Fig. 4: TUAFT Bill-Board Cut-out exhibition at the Rajadamnern Avenue, Bangkok in 1975. Image from: Building and Weaving the 20 Year Art Legacy: The Artists Front of Thailand, 1974–1994, ed. Sinsawat Yodbangtoey (Bangkok: Con-tempus, 1994).
The Rise of the Left in the Philippines

In the Philippines, 1974 was a turning point with the decentralisation of the Nagkakaisang Progresibong Artists at Arkitekto (NPAA) and other mass organisations from the urban areas to the countryside, where the peasants who formed the main lifeblood as new recruits for the New People’s Army resided. In 1971, the NPAA was formed as a collective of artists and a cultural organisation that produced revolutionary propaganda in the form of portable murals, banners, illustrations, posters, comics, photographs and paintings. They sought to produce anti-bourgeois art that depicted the social conditions of the proletariat. It became part of a global struggle against American imperialism in tandem with student movements in France, the US and Japan. In the Philippines, activists came from education institutions such as the University of the Philippines, University of Santo Tomas and St. Mary’s College.[27] The dislocation of the NPAA artists from the city to the countryside created a vacuum for another artist collective, the Kaisahan group, to establish itself in 1976 in metropolitan Manila and produce artworks on political and social themes. The Kaisahan members came from different socio-economic classes and comprised artists like Renato Habulan, Edgar Fernandez, Al Manrique, Jose Tence Ruiz and Pablo Baen Santos. Besides exhibitions, they organised workshops, lectures and exhibitions on socio-political issues in the Philippines.[28] Like TUAFT, the Kaisahan produced a manifesto about the purpose of art as people-oriented, and the importance of art in shaping a national identity:

We recognise that national identity, if it is to be more than lip service or an excuse for personal status seeking, should be firmly based on the present social realities and on acritical assessment [emphasis added] of our historical past so that we may trace the roots of theserealities […] We shall therefore develop an art that reflects the true conditions in our society.[29]

Kaisahan’s manifesto differed from TUAFT in its desire to open up the aesthetics of political art and to allow more room for creativity. In this respect, the Kaisahan was similar to GSRB in its desire to expand the thinking and making of art by being socially engaged without necessarily reducing art to mere propaganda. Mao Tse-tung’s 1942 Yenan Forum was an influential text for both the Kaisahan and TUAFT to deploy art for the masses rather than for a small urban elite that tended to be co-opted into the ruling regime. They provided a powerful postcolonial attack on imperialism and authoritarian regimes in Thailand and the Philippines. The Notes on the Hayuma exhibition in 1977 was an exhibition that brought together paintings from the Kaisahan artists and poetry from the Galian sa Arte at Tula poets. Its critique of existing ways of thinking about art through interdisciplinary art collaborations distinguished Notes on the Hayuma as an experimental exhibition different from previous types of exhibition that focused primary on fine art dominated by painting. This interdisciplinary collaboration was meant to display art that was ‘relevant to the people and their lives’.[30] The 1977 exhibition by the Kaisahan provided an alternative to the art academies and salon exhibitions. It challenged the notion of singular authorship in art-making by presenting collective and collaborative ways of producing art. Like TUAFT, it intimated an expanded notion of art beyond the gallery space to public spaces, such as schools, streets and plazas.[31] The GSRB, TUAFT and the Kaisahan shared a similar emphasis on the ‘the real’, an aesthetics based on the real conditions of the urban poor and the struggles and aspirations of the common people and a desire for art to communicate with everyone. Jim Supangkat made this clear in his essay, Keinginan Berkomunikasi(Desire to Communicate) as he explained how GSRB’s experimental works sought to find new ways of communicating with the Indonesian people using everyday materials, symbols and objects familiar to them.[32] Their shared aspirations towards the concrete and the real were drawn from a confluence of ideas around socialism by way of Mao Tse-tung’s Yenan Forum, local socialist intellectuals, the energy of student movements, anti-imperialism focused on the Vietnam War, and the struggle against the corruption and authoritarianism of developmental regimes.


The turn to the everyday produced new modes of representation, which discursively stemmed from notions of ‘art and life’ and were materially realised in the use of non-art and ‘readymade objects’. It incorporated popular images that destabilised the boundaries between the sacred and the profane. The impulsion of these experimental exhibitions and artistic practices lay in its politicisation of the everyday, and, in this politicisation they provoked and generated alternative aesthetic regimes that were located in reality, materiality and the reinterpretation of popular images to subvert dominant ideologies and power relations. The re-politicisation of art was the hinge that turned these experimental trajectories in Southeast Asia towards the everyday foregrounded by the proliferation of art manifestos that bore affinities with the student movements across Southeast Asia in the 1970s.

Ideological intersections between student movements and artists, many of whom were also students themselves or recently graduated came in the form of ideas like ‘Art for Life’ advanced by Marxist thinker Chit Phumisak in the 1950s in Thailand that shaped other fields of cultural production including music through Phleng Phuea Chiwit (Songs for Life) popularised by Caravan, a music group that made Thai folk music led by Surachai Janthimathorn. The idea of ‘Art for the People’ that gained political and cultural currency in the 1970s gained traction in the TUAFT and the Kaisahan riding on the wave of the New Left. The activities of the TUAFT, Kaisahan and GSRB were closely intertwined with youth movements that all shared a desire for the transformative potential of art for social justice, to communicate to the people pressing social issues and political concerns that matter, and to provoke their publics not as passive viewers but active participants to question the dominant institutional structures of power. The possibility of politicising everyday life by reclaiming the street from authorities was demonstrated by the Billboard cut-outexhibition by TUAFT. The collaboration between artists, students and the public in making and installing the billboard cut-outs democratised both the street as a public space and art-making itself as a collective gesture. Their way of working collaboratively, as in the case of TUAFT that had painters, students and practically anyone helping to paint and install the billboards, and the Kaisahan that worked with poets and writers to make artworks were experimental. These experiments in both exhibition-making and art-making challenged the aesthetic conventions of modern art circumscribed by the flat painting canvas, the artist as the singular genius who worked alone in the studio, the display of art in a white cube space, the passivity of the viewer in interpreting and making artworks, and the use of non-art materials (e.g. oil and watercolour paints) by incorporating the detritus of the everyday as materials for art making. Their experimental approach therefore redefined the production of art, the reception of art and how art is displayed to publics. Under the spectre of the New order’s suppression of communism, the GSRB desired art as a form of communication not to the elite but to the common person as their artistic strategy of making ‘art for the people’. These nuanced differences in how experimental artistic practices and exhibition-making emerged in the 1970s across the region reveal a pressing need to understand specific local contexts to build a global art history, that is, as art historian Reiko Tomii describes, from ‘bottom up’.[33]

  1. The Philippines became independent in 1898 and, after recolonisation, in 1946, Indonesia in 1945, Vietnam in 1945, Myanmar in 1948, Cambodia in 1953, Laos in 1954, Malaya in 1957, Malaysia in 1963, Singapore in 1965, Brunei in 1984, and East Timor in 2002. Thailand was never formally colonised.
  2. Tony Day and Maya H. T. Liem (eds), ‘Introduction’ in Cultures at War: The Cold War and Cultural Expression in Southeast Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), p. 2.
  3. See Karl Hack and Geoff Wade, ‘The origins of the Southeast Asian Cold War’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Volume 40, Issue 3, October 2009, pp. 441-448.
  4. For a cultural perspective on Southeast Asian postcolonial nationalisms in the context of the Cold War, see Day and Liem (eds), Cultures at War. For the cultural dimensions of processes of decolonisation in Southeast Asia, see Christopher E. Goscha and Christian F. Ostermann (eds), Connecting Histories: Decolonization and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, 1945-1962 (Palo Alto, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press with Stanford University Press, 2009). For information about the Malayan Emergency and its cultural impact on the Singapore art scene, see Seng Yu Jin, From Words to Pictures: Art During the Emergency (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2007).
  5. See Heonik Kwon, The Other Cold War (New York: Colombia University Press, 2010).
  6. John J. Curley, Global Art and the Cold War (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., 2018), pp. 7-16.
  7. Ahmad Mashadi, ‘Framing the 1970s’, Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture, 25.4 (2011), p. 409.
  8. Patrick Flores, ‘First Person Plural: Manifestos of the 1970s in Southeast Asia’ in Hans Belting, Jacob Birken, Peter Weibel, Andrea Buddensieg, ed., Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2012), p. 264.
  9. Meredith L. Weiss and Edward Aspinal (eds), ‘Introduction’, in Student Activism in Asia: Between Protest and Powerlessness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), p. 5.
  10. Edward Aspinall, ‘Moral Force Politics and the Struggle Against Authoritarianism’, in Student Activism in Asia, p. 160.
  11. Sumartono, ‘The Role of Power in Contemporary Yogyakartan Art’, in Outlet: Yogyakartan within the Contemporary Indonesian Art Scene (Yogjakarta: Cemeti Art Foundation, 2001), pp. 21–22.
  12. Brita L. Miklouho-Mikai, Exposing the Society’s Wounds: Some Aspects of Indonesian Contemporary Art Since 1966 (Adelaide: Discipline of Asian Studies, 1991), p. 23.
  13. The Black December Manifesto stated that:
    (1) Diversity is undeniable in Indonesian art, even if diversity does not by itself signify a desirable development.
    (2) For the sake of a development that ensures the sustainability of our culture, it is the artist’s calling to offer a spiritual direction based on humanitarian values and oriented towards social, cultural and economic realities.
    (3) Artists should pursue various creative ways in which to arrive at new perspectives in Indonesian painting.
    (4) Thereby, Indonesian art may achieve a positive identity.
    (5) Obstacles in the development of Indonesian art come from outdated concepts retained by the Establishment by art business agents as well as established artists. To save our art, it is now time for us to pay tribute to the established by giving them the title of ‘cultural veterans’.
  14. Ibid., pp. 25–26.
  15. Edwin Jurriens, ‘Social Participation in Indonesian Media and Art: Echoes from the Past, Visions for the Future’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 169 (2013), p. 15.
  16. Email from Siti Adiyati on 1 January 2017.
  17. Manifesto of The Artists’ Front of Thailand (Bangkok, 1975), unpaginated.
  18. Manifesto of The Artists’ Front of Thailand, unpaginated.
  19. Prajak Kongkirati, ‘The Cultural Politics of Student Resistance’, in Student Activism in Asia, p. 231.
  20. Ibid., p. 237.
  21. Author unknown, Pratuang Emjaroen: His Life and Artistic Works (Bangkok: Saha International Printing, 1990), p. 26.
  22. Apinan Poshyananda, Modern Art in Thailand, p. 165.
  23. Ibid, p. 164.
  24. Ibid.
  25. George N. Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2: People Power in the Philippines, Burma, Tibet, China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia, 1947–2009 (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013), p. 305.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Alice G. Guillermo, Protest/Revolutionary Art in the Philippines 1970–1990(Manila: University of the Philippines, 2001), p. 51.
  28. Ibid, p. 62.
  29. Manifesto of Kaisahan, issued in 1976. For a discussion of the manifestos of The Artists’ Front of Thailand, the Kaisahan and TMR, see Patrick D. Flores, ‘First Person Plural: The Manifestos of the 1970s in Southeast Asia’, in Hans Belting et al. (eds), Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012), pp. 224–71.
  30. Ibid., p. 65.
  31. ‘Notes on the “Hayuma” Painting-and-Poetry Exhibit of the Kaisahan and the Galian sa Arte at Tula Poets’, in Guillermo, Protest/Revolutionary Art in the Philippines, p. 244.
  32. Jim Supangkat, ‘Keinginan Berkomunikasi’, Kompas Daily, 9 September 1975.
  33. Reiko Tomii, Radicalism in the Wilderness: International Contemporaneity and 1960s Art in Japan (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016) pp. 11-44.

SENG Yu Jin is a Senior Curator at The National Gallery Singapore. He had previously a Lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts in the MA Asian Art Histories and BA Fine Arts programmes. Seng’s research interests cover regional art histories focusing on Southeast Asian art in relation to the history of exhibitions and artist collectives in Southeast Asia. His curated exhibitions include From Words to Pictures: Art During the Emergency (2007), Cheong Soo Pieng: Bridging Worlds (2010), and co-curated the Singapore Biennale, If the World Changed (2013), and FX Harsono: Testimonies (2010). He recently co-edited Histories, Practices, Interventions: A Reader in Singapore Contemporary Art. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, Asia Institute.