| Arts & Culture
Art Unlearning the Colonial Gaze in Southeast Asian Art
Southeast Asia is a colonial construct, a modern concoction brewed from the dregs of centuries-long imperial conquest.
Before writing fiction, I thought “good” literature was distinguished by what appeared on school syllabi, best seller lists, and glowing reviews—especially if the publication had New York, London, or Paris in the name.
Growing up in Singapore in the 1990s under the instruction of British schoolteachers, I came to associate literary excellence with the psychological realism of Victorian novels and the minimalist prose of postmodern classics that defined my literary education. “Good” literature seemed to be the exclusive preserve of Anglo-American authors, works woven with rich biblical imagery and themes. Someone like me, born into an ancestor-worshiping, proverb-spouting Chinese family, would always be an outsider to the literary establishment.
When Tan Hwee Hwee became one of the first Singaporean writers to sign with a major publishing house in the UK, the Christian themes and Oxford jokes in her novel merely reinforced the impression that the only way for a Singaporean novelist to get published internationally was to mimic the colonizer’s ways.
In the course of sending my stories out into the world, I began to encounter and learn more about the publishing industry, the process by which books get acquired and marketed, and the literary institutions that anoint the books worthy of our time. The more I learned, the more I realized that what I had till then regarded as “good” literature was really just white literature. A New York Times survey in 2020 reported that over 95 percent of fiction published by major publishing houses between 1950 and 2018, and 90 percent of books on the New York Times best seller list over the past decade were by white authors.
While there are no similar surveys for “international” literature—a catchall phrase that has come to encompass both translated literature and works by writers like myself, writing non-American stories in English—as a proxy, translated works are estimated to make up anywhere from 0.3 to 3 percent of books published in the US. America simply isn’t interested in reading about the world beyond its borders—or at least, this is what publishers seem to think.
What’s the problem, you might ask? After all, audiences gravitate to what feels familiar. Putting aside the fact that translations comprise an estimated 30 to 60 percent of books published in most countries, in English-speaking countries like Singapore, and especially in regions with undeveloped or underdeveloped publishing industries, the vast majority of stories we encounter are about people and places that resemble nothing of our lived experience. We end up client states in the world of literature, believing our stories are not worth telling, that no one will listen even if we do tell them.
As a young literature student, I was drawn to Chinese, and later Japanese and Korean, literature, whose stories felt closer to me, their characters’ dilemmas more resonant, especially in how they confronted western modernity and the perceived backwardness of their own culture. But as I began rethinking what I had previously thought of as “good” storytelling or “good” art, I began to see whiteness everywhere—not merely in terms of skin color or race, but as a kind of cultural imperialism, the dominance of one form of storytelling or art over all others.
Most of all, I saw it in myself. I had thought of the competing crosswinds of my childhood as a binary—Chinese conservatism versus my Anglo-American education. But I now came to see that while I had become culturally and linguistically fluent in East Asia, where it felt like I had spent my whole life, I knew almost nothing about the artistic traditions of Southeast Asia, my geographical home.
In an attempt to address my ignorance, I visited Singapore’s National Gallery, which has amassed an impressive collection of Southeast Asian art in its brief six years of existence. The centerpiece of its collection is Javanese painter Raden Saleh’s Boschbrand , painted in 1849. Its size and raw physicality dominates the gallery space. In the painting, wild animals chased by a forest fire cling to the edge of a cliff, on their last breath. Boschbrand , as the museum catalog explains, was one of Saleh’s masterpieces, “manifesting his technical mastery of the oil medium, realism, and the language of European Romanticism.”
Photograph courtesy of the author
Saleh—who was awarded the Dutch empire’s highest artistic honor a year after gifting Boschbrand to King Willem III of the Netherlands—is often cited as Indonesia’s most famous painter, and the museum’s collection of his work is its biggest draw. But I came to the gallery for a pair of gentler paintings hung to Boschbrand ’s left: España y Filipinas by the Ilocano painter Juan Luna.
Photograph courtesy of the author
The paintings are near-identical depictions of two women ascending a flight of stairs. According to the museum catalog, they represent Luna’s wish for a fairer colonial relationship between Las Islas Filipinas and Mother Spain. This earned Luna the reproach of his peers—most notably from the Filipino nationalist and writer José Rizal, who called Luna a Hispanophile. The painting on the left dates back to 1884, the second circa 1888–1893. The latter’s colors are more urgent, vibrant, as though Luna’s wish for peace grew ever more ardent as the relationship between colony and colonizer deteriorated.
My eyes are instantly drawn to the ravishing red of España’s gown in the right painting, her exposed shoulder shimmering in the light of the sun. In contrast, the flatness of Filipinas’s skin tone pulls her into the background, even as she occupies the center of the canvas. In both paintings, España’s right arm rests around Filipinas in a gesture of benevolence, her left hand pointing at the horizon. The longer my eyes linger, the more España y Filipinas feels like a visual metaphor for power dynamics still at play in contemporary art and literature.
Southeast Asia is a colonial construct, a tapestry of ethnicities separated and segregated by artificial borders, a modern concoction brewed from the dregs of centuries-long imperial conquest. Most people would be hard-pressed to find the region on a map, let alone locate Southeast Asian art or literature. “Indonesian literature is still at the stage where people are like, ‘I’ll read this because I want to learn about Indonesia,’” Tiffany Tsao, a novelist and Indonesian literary translator, tells me in an interview. “But we’re not a travel agency. Nor are we writing guidebooks.”
In Tsao’s translations, I discover an Indonesia I never knew growing up, even though our countries are only twenty nautical miles apart. Happy Stories, Mostly , her most recent collaboration with the poet Norman Erikson Pasaribu (who, in turn, also translates Tsao’s work from English into Indonesian), is an enchanting, imaginative, and unexpectedly funny collection of short stories. My favorite, “ A Bedtime Story for Your Long Sleep ,” reveals Pasaribu’s virtuosity in a few short pages, telling a moving tale of love, grief, and loss that also shines a light on truth in fiction, writing workshops, and the flimsiness of empathy.
Through Tsao, I learn about Budi Darma, one of Indonesia’s most influential writers, whose short story collection, People of Bloomington , will be published in English for the first time this April. The stories, based on Budi Darma’s years in Indiana—where he earned his PhD in English literature—reverse long-held western narratives of white men traveling to Southeast Asia; instead, Budi Darma puts Middle America under the magnifying glass, examining it through a young Indonesian writer’s eyes.
I think of Budi Darma and Southeast Asia’s invisibility while on a trip to Seoul in November, my first flight out of Singapore since the pandemic. At a tony Gangnam bar, a well-traveled chaebol executive chats me up over wine and tapas. Midconversation, his brow furrows. He takes out his phone.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, enlarging the map on his screen. “I had no idea Singapore was here.”
“Where did you think it was?”
“Somewhere near Hong Kong?” He flashes an embarrassed smile. “Maybe in between Hong Kong and Taiwan?”
“But we’re not a travel agency. Nor are we writing guidebooks.”
Southeast Asia’s invisibility, it seems, is a global phenomenon, but the dissonance feels most jarring when it comes from those we perceive as closest to us. Best seller lists in Korean bookstores are populated with translations from European and American writers, especially by diasporic Korean writers perceived to have “made it” in the West such as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko , which brought renewed attention to Zainichi Ch ō senjin—ethnic Koreans who migrated to Japan during its occupation of the Korean peninsula—even though Zainichi films and literature as a genre have existed in South Korea for decades. Literature from Southeast Asia is not even an afterthought.
Instead, Koreans are far more interested in how they are perceived in the West, in particular the US. Interest from the West, or better still award nominations, often give overlooked books, shows, and movies a new lease of life. Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny , previously unknown outside of horror and speculative fiction reading circles, shot straight to the top of best seller lists in Korea the moment it was longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. “It got Korean editors and readers asking: Can horror be considered literature?” says Anton Hur, the book’s translator.
Similarly in Indonesian literature, accolades from the West wield immense potential to transform Indonesians’ perceptions of their own authors. “It’s a very big deal for any Indonesian writer to get translated into English,” Tsao tells me, rueing that Budi Darma, who passed away last August, will not be able to see his book published in the US. Prizes like the International Booker, for which Hur’s and Tsao’s translations were both recently nominated, bestow a halo of delayed recognition on authors that, for whatever reason, their own home audiences seem incapable of granting on their own.
Before leaving Korea, I line up at the hospital for my mandatory PCR test. The tester barks at the older woman in front of me. Tanned, lips cracked, rubber boots worn, skin torn. Her documents are not in order; she needs to leave the queue.
The tester turns to me, and I greet her. She assesses my leather boots, white coat, color-corrected makeup, almost-there accent. Her demeanor changes as she asks, in polite Korean, if I am Japanese: Ilbonin iseyo?
I catch a glimpse of the older woman’s Malaysian passport, the two tigers on hers mirroring the one tiger on my Singaporean one, and I wonder, what happened to the second cat? Did he slip into the Malayan jungle after swimming across the Straits of Johor?
The older woman, too, looks up, as she hears me speak. She seems to understand some Korean, even though hers comes out in a stutter, a broken chain of words memorized to avoid trouble. She smiles at me, and I smile back. Maybe, in a foreign, faraway land, neighbors recognize each other, even without language.
Tigers are a frequent motif in Southeast Asian art. They once roamed wild in precolonial Singapore but disappeared by the early 1900s, as large swaths of forests were cleared for gambier and pepper plantations. Saleh’s tiger in Boschbrand , poised to leap out of the painting, has been interpreted as the wild heart of Java, yearning to escape the Dutch empire’s clutches after the Java War.
It is impossible not to think of Boschbrand in connection with another famous work also housed at the National Gallery, Heinrich Leutemann’s Interrupted Road Surveying , where a wild tiger leaps out of the jungle, interrupting the finely dressed European man’s civilizing efforts.
Heinrich Leutemann’s Unterbrochene Straßenmessung auf Singapore (1865) / National Museum of Singapore
And yet, as I departed the National Gallery, I could not help but question the centering of these colonial works at a museum aiming to become Southeast Asia’s regional artistic hub. Europe’s art museums, like America’s literary institutions, are meccas of art, arbiters of taste with a global audience of millions. But they are also repositories of imperial violence and conquest.
To abstain from critical interrogation of the power structures from which Saleh and Luna emerged—much of which remain intact today—and presenting the artworks unquestioned, as an exemplar of “good” art, is to legitimize and whitewash histories of colonial exploitation and violence, acquiring the veneer and artifice of cultural prestige without reckoning with its true cost. In a similar vein, as long as audiences across Asia continue leaning on the guiding hand of the West to recognize their own artistic talent, we remain, more than a century later, suspended in Luna’s colonial embrace.