Post-colonialism – Impact on Southeast Asian Art

Post-colonialism is primarily a set of theories focused on literature, film and philosophy. It basically deals with issues for societies that have undergone colonialism: the task of developing a national identity of years of foreign rule, of finding the right voice to express issues and concerns of their own culture.

There isn’t a single definition of post-colonial theory but it is a method of dealing with colonialism. All the theorists agree that colonialism still lends an incredible amount of influence on the culture of the colonized long after achieving independence. While post-colonial theory deals mainly with literature and film, it has also been reflected in art.

Southeast Asia has been the most affected with colonialism in the twentieth century. Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were colonized by the French. Malaysia and Myanmar by the British; Indonesia by the Dutch; and the Philippines by the Spanish and the Americans. By the 1960s all of Southeast Asia has regained their independence. The daunting problem of self-rule and finding their own identity now face the young countries, and this can be seen in the art and culture of the countries.

Like all colonized countries, culture during colonialism is a slavish reproduction of the colonizers own culture. A prime example would be British India where the upper classes strove to be more British than the British. Southeast Asian art in the early decades of the twentieth century was highly influenced by European art. With the advent of independence and the birth of nationalism, artists eschewed those Western influences and turned to traditional and folk arts.

The traditional styles adopted by artists during the middle of the century spawned a debate over the relationship of the East and West. Anything modern was equated with Westernization and colonialism, while traditional styles symbolized the search for a national identity. But by the mid 80s and 90s Southeast Asian artists overcame their reluctance of using modern art. The post modern era has succeeded in the creation of many art works that are a blend of many sources but is still deeply personal and rooted in local concerns.

The rise of communism in some parts of Southeast Asia have stunted the growth of art especially in Burma, Vietnam and Laos. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge put a decisive end to the arts, along with all forms of intellectual life. Following their reign, however, the country begins to develop a vibrant cultural life. In Burma, there is still a very limited art scene.

National identity is still a major concern for many Southeast Asian nations in this millennium. The effects of colonialism has left an undeniable mark on the cultures of these nations and it is reflected in their culture most especially art and literature.

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