Dr Roger Nelson1
1National Gallery Singapore, Singapore, Singapore
Recent studies of lesser-known art and visual culture from Cold War-era Southeast Asia typically assume that researching images enables deeper understandings of the historical events and contexts that they depict or relate to. But is this always the case? The imbrication of visual accounts of Cold War-era Southeast Asia in multiple networks and narratives within and beyond this region may complicate analysis more than is usually thought. This paper considers two rare corpuses of images depicting America’s “Secret War” in Laos, which involved covert aerial bombing, and a proxy war fought by Hmong and other highlanders. One comprises photographs collected by Buddhist abbot, Pha Khamfan Silasangvara (1901-1987), a celebrated maker and collector of photographs. The second is a series of paintings depicting Air America planes deployed for clandestine military and other purposes, painted by British-born “aviation artist” Terry Wofford (née Gilbert, 1943–), who worked in Vientiane from 1968 to 1972. As with most art and visual culture from modern Laos, these works have not been substantially studied. While examining the “Secret War” facilitates research on these images, they also intersect with tangential issues; these photographs and paintings thus offer limited utility for deepening insight into their under-researched historical context.
Roger Nelson is an art historian, and a curator at National Gallery Singapore. He was previously Postdoctoral Fellow at Nanyang Technological University, and holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is author of “Modern Art of Southeast Asia: Introductions from A to Z” (2019).