South East Asia Art And Culture

Prajnaparamita from Singhasari, East Java


When thinking of the art of Indochina , one tends to think mainly of the Buddhist art displayed in temples across the area or of the Khmer architecture of Cambodia. But that is to miss a lot of what Indochina has to offer to the art lover. And the region’s art is not all ancient! There is a flourishing contemporary art scene throughout the area, attracting serious buyers and collectors from across the globe.

To take Vietnam as an example, we can see a long history of artistic works, from the stone age to the present day. As with many aspects of Vietnam’s culture, influences have been absorbed from far and wide. Some of the oldest art is displayed through decorated bronze drums depicting scenes of everyday life such as farming, fighting, shipbuilding, music making, etc. Later the influence of China was dominant and the Vietnamese learned many new skills and techniques. Ceramics and porcelain became important.

After independence from China, art continued to flourish, with artists combining elements from whichever cultures they came into contact with. During the Nguyen dynasty, Vietnam’s last imperial dynasty, the emperors encouraged artists and Vietnamese ceramics were exported across Indochina and beyond. Today, calligraphy, originally based on Chinese, now continues using the Roman alphabet, making a unique art form while silk painting and woodblock prints are also very popular.

During the French colonisation, artists across Indochina began to absorb European influences and the French established several art schools. Today that tradition of absorption continues and there are rich, vibrant art scenes in Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Bangkok etc. In Hanoi, for example, the old district is a maze of streets where you can find several galleries specialising in contemporary Vietnamese art. You can even find a French style caf with art displays and sales.

Laos has a more religion based art. The decorative arts and architecture of the temples and the Buddhist sculptures comprise the high art while in the folk arts the many minorities have their own distinctive styles. Lao ceramics were unknown until the 1970s when they were discovered during excavations in the Vientiane area. Again, western art using oils and water colours were introduced by the French and there is a small but active art community in Vientiane, centred on the National Faculty of Fine Arts, producing original works. Vientiane’s T’Shop La Gallery displays and sells contemporary art.

As with much of its population, Cambodia’s artists suffered unimaginably during the Pol Pot era, but today, thanks to the Cambodian government. NGOs and the growing number of visitors, a dynamic art scene has emerged here combining the ancient and the modern. But Cambodia’s arts highlight must remain Ankor Wat, the peak of the Khmer civilisation’s artistic achievement. The architecture and decoration will leave a permanent impression.

Thailand , being the most outward looking nation in Indochina, with its more established tourism has a thriving contemporary art scene and has taken part in many European art events. Again, contemporary Thai art combines modern techniques and ideas with the more traditional, which in Thailand’s case also means the Buddhist tradition. Traditional art is to be found in the sumptuously decorated temples and in the Buddhist statues. Most art is to be seen in the innumerable temples, but there is also a fine collection in the National Gallery of the National Museum in Bangkok, as well as in many smaller galleries.

Yunnan in southwest China has a strong tradition of ethnic art from its minority peoples. Woodblock prints are especially popular, with each artist taking weeks to create each work. Batiks are also produced featuring both traditional and modern topics and themes. Towns and cities such as Dali, Lijiang and Xishuangbanna’s Jinghong have gallery shops where you can see and purchase this special art.

Please note that most countries in Indochina have restrictions on the export of antiques. Thailand does not allow even new Buddha images to leave the country without a licence. You can visit to get more information about this.

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