Modern Art and Visual Culture in Southeast Asia: De-Canonical Impulses

Dr Roger Nelson1, Mr  Daniel Tham2, Ms  Charmaine  Toh1, Dr Kyla McFarlane3

1National Gallery Singapore, Singapore, Singapore, 2National Museum of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore, 3The Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

Chair: Dr Roger Nelson


“Do we not want to have variations, differences, alternatives, or do we want everything under one centralized authority and thereby mute them? I fear for this,” said art historian T.K. Sabapathy in a 2019 interview. His statement articulates a widely-held anxiety. Do museums in Southeast Asia play a homogenising, canonising role in the ongoing formation of historical narratives about the region’s art and visual culture? Despite the longstanding existence of national art and history museums in cities throughout Southeast Asia, presently only museums in Singapore exhibit modern art and visual culture of the entire region on a large scale. The research, exhibitions, acquisitions, collaborations, and publications undertaken by museums in Singapore are thus subject to rigorous scrutiny.

Many curators, in Singapore and elsewhere, share Sabapathy’s desire for “variations, differences, alternatives.” Presenters in this panel highlight that their research often extends to under-studied aspects of Southeast Asia’s art and history, which are little-known among both specialists and general publics. This heterogeneity of research topics and methodologies attempts to surface and negotiate new questions, resisting a singular, stable history. This panel invites critical responses to the presenters’ exhibitionary and other research, and by extension, this de-canonical approach to museological practice.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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