The Top 10 Contemporary Artists Who Shaped Southeast Asian Art

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Artists are the great instrument through which the human condition expresses itself – from its most radiant light, to its blackest depths. Some of the purest illustrations of what it means to exist, that most fundamental of human purposes, have been transmuted from feeling to form by the blessed few seemingly ordained to speak on behalf of all man. Whether it be through the deftness of their brushstrokes, the perfected proportions of their sculptures, or their pantomime performances exhorting us to open our eyes and take notice of a profoundly ill society, these translators of the divine capture that which mere words are so incapable of approaching. In this issue, Top 10 of Malaysia lists, in no particular order, its curation of Southeast Asia’s finest artists that enchant and inspire in measures immeasurable. 

Yayoi Kusama (Japan)

Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese contemporary artist whose primary mediums are sculptures and installations but has also been active in painting, performance, and poetry among others. Based on conceptual art, her work carries themes of feminism, minimalism, and surrealism that are infused with autobiographical, psychological, and sexual content. Widely hailed as one of the most important living artists to come out of Japan, her art enjoys global renown for its distinctive use of polka dots as a motif and its cutting commentary on topics such as anti-war, patriarchy, and anti-capitalism.

Han Sai Por (Singapore)

Han Sai Por is one of Asia’s leading sculptors. Her works have seen the halls of many an international exhibition, between the confines of which they have garnered the adoration of seas of eyes. Her work centres around shifting landscapes, both in a physical and metaphorical sense. Perhaps best known for her stone sculptures that mimic organic forms, these works bring to the forefront the increasingly uneasy relationship between man and nature in the modern day. She continues to influence the Southeast Asian sculpture scene not only through her art but also in her capacity as the founding president of Singapore’s Sculpture Society.

Ai Weiwei (China)

Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most famous contemporary artists, known as much for his art as he is for his resolutely held political opinions. Openly criticising the Chinese government on a number of occasions, he was even briefly placed under house arrest in 2010 for speaking out against the government corruption which led to the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. His political conviction is the driving force behind a lot of his art – be it in the form of sculptures, photographs, or poetry. He skillfully makes use of Chinese art forms to display the social and political issues plaguing his country. 

Dadang Christanto (Indonesia)

Dadang Christanto was born in 1957 into an Indonesian family of Chinese descent. He started out studying painting in Yogyakarta and went on to incorporate installations into his practice, becoming the first Indonesian artist to do so. This led to Christanto becoming one of the first Indonesian artists to make a name for himself on the international art stage. His work explores themes of human suffering and communal grief. They derive from his strong motivations to honour and tell the stories of victims of political violence and crimes against humanity. This need stems from a traumatic early childhood experience where his father was abducted by army-sanctioned hitmen – proving to be the last time Christanto would ever see him. 

Rirkrit Tiravanija (Thailand)

Rirkrit Tiravanija is a Thai contemporary artist born in Buenos Aires in 1961 to a diplomat father and an oral surgeon mother. Raised in Thailand, Ethiopia, and Canada, it is perhaps the kind of multicultural perspective that comes from such an upbringing that allows him to create works so unencumbered by convention. His work revolves around the theme of social engagement, having been described by art historian Rochelle Steiner as “fundamentally about bringing people together.” His installations often take the form of stages or rooms designed for sharing meals, playing music, or even living inside for a period of time.  Inviting viewers to inhabit and occupy the space of his artwork, audience participation is central to the realisation of his vision.

Pacita Abad (Philippines)

Hailing from a remote island in the Philippines, Pacita Abad went on to forge an artistic career that spanned over 30 years, becoming one of the most celebrated artists of her generation in the process. It would be no great exaggeration to say she defined contemporary Southeast Asian art in her time, paving the way for all those that came after. She was prolific, not just in her body of work which counts over 4,500 pieces, but in the breadth of where she created those works – travelling and working in over 50 different countries across the six inhabited continents. Abad memorably developed upon trapunto, a quilting technique that she innovatively incorporated into her paintings to give them a three-dimensional effect. 

Umibaizurah Mahir Ismail (Malaysia)

Umibaizurah Mahir Ismail, or Umi for short, is a Malaysian artist who expresses her sentiments on the political and economic trials and tribulations of her home country through the medium of ceramics. Pushing the traditional boundaries of her art form, Umi moulds her clay into objects and abstract representations that open up conversations on topics such as community living, immigration, and environmental disintegration. The gravity of her chosen subject matter is often offset by the playful visual quality of her work – an aesthetic that derives from the toys her children play with and channel their imagination through. 

Pen Robit (Cambodia)

Pen Robit is one of Asia’s rising stars and the jewel of the Cambodian art scene. Born in Battambang in 1991, he now resides in the capital city of Phnom Penh where his work enjoys an extended audience. It is, of course, not just within the borders of Cambodia where Robit’s work is admired and appreciated – his vibrant and creative mind being put to the task of functioning as the artist-in-residence for the South East Asian Workshop, Tep Seri Sok Sopha Studio, Chiang Mai, Thailand (2008), Peninsula Austronesia International Art and Culture Exchanges in Taiwan (2015), and OzAsia Festival (ADELAIDE) Australia (2016) among others. His brightly coloured paintings attempt to represent Cambodia as it is now, as it once had been, and as he sees it one day will be. 

Lee Wen (Singapore)

Lee Wen was a Singaporean performance artist whose work would go on to shape the development of performance art in Asia. Studying in Singapore for most of his life, it was only after setting off for the City of London Polytechnic that he discovered the vocation that would inform the rest of his days and catapult him to esteemed standing in Singaporean art circles. Best known for his “Yellow Man” performances in which he covered himself in bright yellow poster paint to express the exaggerated imagery of his ethnic identity, his work rapidly gained an international following upon performing on stages such as the Gwangju Biennale and the Asia Pacific Triennial in Australia.

Tiffany Chung (Vietnam)

Tiffany Chung is one of Vietnam’s most renowned contemporary artists. Depicting the struggles of human migration, conflict, and displacement, Chung’s work draws inspiration from her own experiences as a Vietnamese refugee in the US in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. A graduate and master of Fine Arts, Chung’s meticulously crafted paintings bear the hallmarks of her extensive archaeological and cartographic knowledge. Her work is noted for its research-based quality and interdisciplinary nature. In fact, it is these qualities that have led to her work being contextualised and presented in other disciplines outside art – becoming an invaluable resource in fields such as urban studies, refugee studies, and history. 

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