South East Asian Art in Singapore


Singapore is underestimated as a travel city. Lonely planet puts it at a dismal rank of 14 among its top 20 cities in South-East Asia. I tend to disagree.  For me, the art scene in Singapore makes a compelling argument as to why Singapore should be among your first destinations in South East Asia.

True, that the first thing you see in Singapore are just buildings. But its when you explore past these buildings that you notice how Singapore is rather the first gate to South-East Asia. Its museums and thriving art scene gives a great overview of South East Asia’s art and architecture. A free guided tour in Singapore’s Asian Civilization Museum helps you understand, how a Buddha sculpture from Cambodia, differs from its counterpart from Thailand. It helps you walk past Chinese pottery and furniture, Gandhara Art, Indonesian Batik, Japanese artifacts and Khmer Art all under one roof. It gives you a narrative of South East Asia in a mesmerizing way.

But the crown of the art scene in Singapore is the National Gallery. I needed about 3 free tours and one whole day to appreciate the various paintings that told the story of the region. In fact, the National Gallery is intuitive in that sense. It doesn’t leave its visitor helpless, but lays down the story in a sequential manner – from the colonial times  until today. The paintings walk you through different eras letting you converse with yourself on what the painter is trying to say, or who is he talking to. I culled out the various ‘time stopovers’ (as I call them) that I had in the National Gallery. These are:

19th  to early 20th century:

When I stood before the 19th and 20th century paintings, I noticed how the painter in some ways subject his perspective to the curiosity of the first international ‘visitor’ to the region – the foreigner.  The painter knew his audience and catered to it. ‘He’ painted those subjects which stood out to the foreigner.


Saya Aye’s paintings of Myanmar people are know to depict their ethnic garbs. Saya is know as one of the earliest Burmese painters to modernize/westernize his art. Portraits of local arts and royal kings were a popular subject of art at that time


The Forest Fire, painted by Raden Saleh, showcases tigers being swept by the Forest Fire.  The painting was gifted to King William III of Netherlands, before Raden returned to Java.

Raden’s art using wildlife as a subject is typical to his times. South East Asian wildlife with all distinctiveness made for an extremely popular subject matter. Needless to say Raden enjoyed significant European patronage for his art.


Popular in the Museum:  Juan Luna’s 1884 painting, Spain and Portugal, is an interesting statement on Colonialism. The lady donning red, depicts Spain and shown to be leading Philippines to the path of development. The painting to me was a classical example of the kind of colonial messages, that were patronized, and well funded. 

1900s to 1940s: 

Walking past the 19th century paintings to art from the 1900s, I noticed how paintings of the early 1900s changed perspective and language. Moving away from the perspective of the outsider to the insider it changed subject. It didn’t merely document incidents but seemed to celebrate local art and form, and cemented the rising spirit of nationalism and nationalistic identity.


Nguyen Phan Chan’s the Singers in the Countryside, depicts the two women playing a traditional game of improvised singing in Vietnam.


Anak Agung Gede Meregeg Rama, Sita and Laksamana in the Forest, shows characters from the Hindu epic Ramayana sharing the same space as common people who are sleeping in a forest. The painting is a good depiction of the classical Balinese painting.

1950s to 1970s:

This was my favourite section of the gallery. I noticed how art of the 1950s to 1970s literally depicted the manifestations of a nation –  a time when nations were being born. The war and upheavals in Vietnam, Indonesia,Malaysia or Thailand made a popular subject. What struck out to me was the increasing involvement of people in the government and how art was quick to capture its various forms. I loved how paintings captured voices of those who supported and those who challenged the new version of nationhood.


Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya, reflects the desire to seed Malayan nationalism in the younger generation of Singapore when it achieved its independence from the British. What I find interesting is how the darker clouds are encircled by the lighter clouds which reflect the arrival of better days.


Tran Trung Tin’s You, Gun and Flower depicts the sorrow of the Vietnamese people during the wars. Tin herself joined the resistance against the French and fought on the Cambodian border.


Hernando Ocampo’s Dancing Mutant depicts the flora and fauna of Philippines, but in a way that depicts the horrors of the atom bomb. Ocampo was one of the few artists who was a Neo-Realist, and broke away from the idealized depiction of Philippines after the 2nd world war


Hendra Gunawan’s War and Peace, shows two soldiers taking a break from the battle during Indonesia’s war of independence from the Dutch. Several interpretations to this painting prevail. One is that the soldier in white is actually the devil, coaxing the man holding the gun and looking to the mountains for peace, to continue to wage the war.

Post 1970s: 

When I walked past the paintings of the 1970s, the themes of globalisation and integration called out to me. I found the paintings to be a brilliant exemplification of heightened integration and assimilation between the east and the west. Equally interesting to me was how the definition of art grew from one on canvas to include varying forms.  I call it the age of liberalism in which art grows from the tradition to one of imagination.


Jim Supangat’s Ken Dedes was named after a queen from the Majapahit Kingdom. It merged a classical Hindu sculpture with a modern woman’s body expressing nudity and freedom. Several art critics called this work vulgar.

I loved the way the Dedes asks you: Where is tradition, and if there was once something that was traditional, where is it now?

Recent times:

When I first entered the section, I thought it housed art from the 20th century. Far from the truth, what I found interesting was how the section museum housed the most recent paintings from the region.

My take was that the several notable artists are now making a run for the past. There is this overall sense of lamentation for the traditional arts that current  South East Asian art  reflects. I loved the way traditional textiles like the Batik and artifacts like traditional puppets formed a popular subject matter, to draw a connection to the past and glory that was once there.


Heri Dono’s Wayang Legenda is art piece that involves old Javanese puppet shows to revive interest in ancient folklore.

All in all, for me, South East Asian art is still vibrant and still growing . The National Gallery is an absolute recommend for those who like spending a day getting lost in the world of art.

Perhaps the next chapter in its collection  could be:  Will the definition of art evolve to include digital forms and the growing South-East Asian footprint in it?

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