The Third Avant-garde: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia Recalling Tradition


Leonor Veiga

PhD defended at: 

Leiden University


The Third Avant-garde investigates radical art manifestations in Southeast Asia, which took place around the mid-1980s, when postmodernism started to gain force in the region. It proposes that the advent of postmodernism in Southeast Asia is anchored in the materiality of traditional arts, an aspect that renders it different from its Western equivalent. The dissertation distinguishes two sets of postmodern manifestations: first, practices that use traditions in a celebratory way, and second, a set of works which use traditional arts radically. This study proposes that the second possibility manifests a double dismantle—first, against local patronizing forces that were enforcing artists to practice academic art and Western media (such as painting and sculpture), and second, a distancing attitude from Western art intelligentsia, who acted as ‘owners of the discourse’, and regarded ‘non-Western’ practitioners as followers rather than as trendsetters. For this investigation, the discipline of anthropology was called in, as was the art historical category of the avant-garde. The two approaches combined reveal how contemporary art from Southeast Asia that reprocesses traditional arts can be regarded as avant-garde. These gestures are novel, and result from practicing art in a certain location, and which is bound to a specific socio-political context.

Keywords: Avant-garde, Tradition, Southeast Asia, Art History, Anthropology, Postmodernism, Agency, Multi-temporality