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Exhibiting Transnationalism after Vietnam: The Alpha Gallery’s Vision of an Artistic Renaissance in Southeast Asia

In: Journal of American-East Asian Relations
Author:
Wen-Qing NgoeiAssistant Professor of History, College of Integrative Studies, Singapore Management University, Singapore, Republic of Singapore, wqngoei@smu.edu.sg

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Abstract

This essay examines the Alpha Gallery, an independent artists’ cooperative that Malaysians and Singaporeans established, which staged art shows during the 1970s to spark an artistic renaissance in Southeast Asia. The cooperative’s transnational vision involved showcasing Balinese folk art as a primitive and, therefore, intrinsically Southeast Asian aesthetic, while asserting that it shared cultural connections with the Bengali Renaissance of the early 20th Century. Alpha’s leaders believed these actions might awaken indigenous artistic traditions across Southeast Asia. Their project underscores the lasting cultural impact of colonialism on Southeast Asia and the contested character of the region. Alpha’s condescending view of Balinese folk art echoed the paternalism of Euro-American colonial discourses about civilizing indigenous peoples that persisted because its key members received much of their education or training in Britain and the United States, a by-product of their countries’ pro-U.S. trajectory during the Vietnam War. Equally, Alpha’s transnationalism ran counter to Southeast Asian political elites’ fixation with pressing art toward nation-building. Indeed, the coalescing of nation-states does not define the region’s history during and after the Vietnam War. Rather, non-state actors like Alpha’s members, in imagining and pursuing their versions of Southeast Asia, contributed to the persistent contingency of the region.

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