Women artists: Becoming professional in Singapore, Malaya and Indonesia


Yvonne Low

PhD defended at: 

University of Sydney



This is a woman-centred study that examines women’s art: art which had enabled women artists to become professionals in a male-dominated art world, at specific historical moments of present day Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. This thesis argues for the need to re-evaluate women’s contributions in nationalist and modernist art discourses, so as to include perspectives of women’s creative and intellectual developments in what were undeniably male-dominated professional spheres.

Although the issues of gender disparity and women’s absence in history are not in itself new, they remain prevalent. For this dissertation, I have employed the recover and revise strategy in the examination of historical records and visual materials. I argue that any meaningful discussion on the issue of gender disparity in the professional art activity must take into consideration historical factors. In my study, I have juxtaposed the ideological positioning of women artists in nationalist narratives with the recovered histories of women artists undertaking creative work. I do this to show how precisely women artists were written into and out of history to serve nationalist agendas. I have further used the concept of public sphere as a theoretical frame to exemplify and illuminate the criticality of women’s historical roles and place in the nascent art worlds of Singapore and Malaysia (then Malaya) and Indonesia.

By tracing the historical development of the widening public sphere, it is possible to observe that women were always within rather than outside of the process. Second, it is possible to observe the different terms on which women acted in the male-dominated public sphere. Under the purview of established ideologies on art professionalism, women artists asserted their creative authority in the following ways: by transforming institutionalized visual language and institutionalized processes, and by creating new public sites for women.

This study shows that women, often deemed “missing”, have always been a part of this enlarging process of the socio-cultural sphere even though their art did not attain the recognition or accolades that their male colleagues had. In their pursuit for an artist-existence, women faced cultural and ideological challenges. Their absence in colonial and anti-colonial histories is in part implicated by the nature of their struggles for women’s emancipation and their politicized positions, and in part by the restrictions they faced when participating in anti-colonial, liberation movements and national politics within the public sphere. The manifestations of cultural nationalism further restricted women’s participation in the public spheres and contravened the aspirations of women artists.

By re-examining the roles women played in these countries, this thesis has identified the structures that restricted the participation of women artists, and the ways in which subsequent historiography reproduced their absence in historical narratives. As a preliminary exploration of women’s art based on comparable historical circumstances in then Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia, this thesis hopes to posit a model to uncover forgotten histories of women artists and to recover their subjectivity without necessarily separating them from their male counterparts, or inserting them into a separate discourse.