For a fictional volume called Keywords for Southeast Asian Studies        


This article focuses on the historiography of Primitivism in Southeast Asian Studies, understood as the interest shown in non-Western cultures by the European avant-garde. Emerging with the development of anthropology, this movement instigated a protracted debate between ethnology and aesthetic studies. I present examples in Philippine art (as the first in specific examples from Southeast Asia) and its particular strain of refracted and polyvalent primitivism to nuance the issues in the disciplinary negotiation around Primitivism. In the brief overview of scholarship on Primitivism, I observe the issues at stake for the European avant-garde in the interest of identifying patterns that will be modified in the hands of their counterparts in Southeast Asia.

Keywords: primitivism, anthropology, art history, orientalism, indigenism, southeast asian modernism, victorio edades, rodel tapaya, global south, decolonization 

With a long history of contact with imperial powers, Southeast Asia should loom larger in issues surrounding primitivism whether in anthropology and art history or more obliquely, in literary studies. But intelligent conversation about the place of Southeast Asia, how it triggered and was affected by primitive motifs in art, has been meager as the region is often overlooked,[1] constituting a major point of discontent that continues to baffle scholars of the area until today. Not to mention that Primitivism itself has been the bone of contention for concerned disciplines, so much so that in 2023, Tate Galleries have taken down “Primitivism” in their art terms because “[t]he former definition of primitivism was outdated and misrepresented important and factual perspectives.”[2] The term per se does not result from a theoretical transfer, but designates, at the beginning of the 20th century, a movement of re-semanticization of extra-Western objects, moved from the category of artifacts to that of Fine Arts, and thus rendered available to modernist appropriation.[3] These objects then pass from the appreciation of ethnologists to that of artists.

Primitivism emerged as a concept in the early 20th century from the ethnological notion of the “primitive” to which avant-garde artists and writers ascribed an aesthetic function. In the years 1910-1920 in France and Germany,[4] groups of artists broke from the institutional culture and found in works of African and Oceanian origin a source of inspiration to renew their own practice. The appearance of this interest in extra-Western cultures is concomitant with the development of ethnological concerns related to imperial exploits.[5]

Perhaps a mere accident of the region not yet being named “Southeast Asia”[6] led to the misconception that there were less arts and objects collected from the area.[7] But historical records now show that the near-total occupation of its territories by Western powers in the early twentieth century hastened not just the extraction of art and artifacts which are still in major collections in Europe and the United States but also the spread and evolution of European post-impressionists styles.[8]

In Southeast Asia, Primitivism was not so much a movement but a trend that drew inspiration from indigenous cultures, traditions, and artistic practices. It emerged as a response to colonialism, modernization, and the desire to reconnect with the roots of national, geographic, or tribal identity. Primitivist art thus did not appear as strange or exotic but rather embraced as a partisan lingua franca that is deeply enmeshed in the ambitions of modernism and the desire of Southeast Asian art, albeit propelled by Western-style trained artists, to participate in the global art movement. As we shall see in the following discussion, a strange parallel happened when the primitivism of the Southeast Asian artist, at first, mirrored the very sensibilities of the avant-gardes in the colonial metropole.

Painters Affandi and Raden Saleh incorporated elements of traditional Indonesian art forms and local subject matter into their works. In Malaysia, Syed Ahmad Jamal and Latiff Mohidin drew from primitivism in their exploration of traditional Malay customs and mythology. In Thailand, the works of artists such as Chakrabhand Posayakrit and Panya Vijinthanasarn also drew inspiration from Thai folklore, Buddhist art, and traditional crafts, using expressive forms and bold colors to depict the cultural richness and diversity of the country. In Vietnam, artists like Le Pho and Nguyen Gia Tri incorporated elements of folk art, traditional painting techniques, and cultural motifs into their works.

The entanglement of revolutionary fervor with enlightenment ideas and primitivist aesthetics in a bid to preserve and revitalize the indigenous artistic heritage of the country is a running theme in Southeast Asian Art. But rather than a backflow in the dispersal of styles emanating from Western appropriation, primitivism became polyvalent as it swept across the monsoon kingdoms, which shattered positivist views and questioned deterministic interpretations of the development of art.

The historical relations between anthropological and aesthetic discourse, is nuanced by the case of the Philippines. With modern professional artistic practice starting as early as 1821, modernist Filipino painters provide an interesting example of how primitivism became polyvalent under the hands of what art historian Caroline Baicy calls “nationalist-colonialist” artists.[9] Over time, Filipino artists began to explore their own unique artistic expressions, incorporating elements from Philippine indigenous cultures and traditions under refractive and polyvalent gazes. This marked a shift towards a more hybrid and inclusive approach to artistic practice, which sought to blend indigenous aesthetics and themes with Western artistic techniques.[10]

In the early twentieth century, Victorio Edades, an American and French educated painter and architect emerged in the early twentieth century to challenge academic traditions and embraced a more modernist aesthetic. By examining his work within the framework of primitivism, we can examine the complex interplay between European artistic influences and local cultural contexts in the Philippines during that period. Edades engaged with primitivist elements in his art while negotiating his own cultural identity and artistic expression.

Serious research into Philippine art cannot disregard ideology of nationalist-colonialism, a world view espoused by the political elite, whose desire to be recognized as having the capacity for self-governance was achieved through the performance of a banal nationalism[11] that belied the persistence of internal colonization. Although this is very clearly present in the political discourses, there is more to be explored in how this ideology figured into the new visual language of Philippine modernism that Edades advanced.

Baicy writes that artists and intellectuals Filipinized primitivism by following the logic of the White Man’s Burden. In a 1935 article, Edades criticized the idealistic nature of the Amorsolo School of Painting.[12] His polemical writing equated academic painting with obsoletism while pointing to modernist trends in “many progressive countries of the world today,”[13] where artists desire to be similar in terms of progressive trends from their neighbors”[14] This statement alone reflects the mimicry found in the colonized-collaborator gaze, as it looks to other sovereign nations as examples for nation-building and ideologies surrounding the image of a nation.[15] The colonized-collaborator gaze works in relation with the nationalist-colonialist discourse of Filipino politicians collaborating with the American colonial systems.

The nationalist-colonial notion of non-Christian Filipinos is evident in the language deployed to promote Philippine modernism: “Professor Edades believes that fidelity to life does not mean the relinquishment of man’s idea of the beautiful. There are still the exotic charm, the virginality, the unravished naivety of ordinary life that, handled by a great artist, may signify a whole world of emotions and hidden springs of meaning.”[16] The language utilized in this article, “exotic,” “virginality,” and “unravished naivety” reflects a similar language promoted in colonialist and nationalist-colonialist discourse to describe non-Christians, such as Mindanaoan Muslims and Northern Luzon Igorot.

Though the article emphasizes the fidelity to reality that can be found in modernist visual languages, it also reflects how Philippine modernism interacted with existing discourse on race and civility. Edades’s interest and emphasis on modernizing the fine arts in the Philippines to emulate their “enlightened neighbor[s]” culminated in the Filipinization of primitivist visual languages that emphasized the primordial and “exotic” aspects of “primitive” societies. Through the process of Filipinization, Philippine primitivism displayed the dichotomies of the “self” and “other” as seen in Gauguin’s imaginings of the Tahitian “other” within one bounded geographical area.

Another Filipino artist worth mentioning in regard to primitivism in contemporary art is Rodel Tapaya, a painter who has gained significant recognition within the Southeast Asian art scene and presents an instance in which primitivist themes and aesthetics continue to be relevant and employed by artists today. Critique of Tapaya’s engagement with indigenous cultures, folklore, and mythologies in his artwork, and how he navigates the contemporary art world while drawing from both local and global artistic influences can be said to be an offshoot of the debates surrounding the renewed trend of primitivism in Southeast Asia.[17]

The inclusion of artists from the Philippines expands the discourse on primitivism beyond its Eurocentric framework and highlights the richness and diversity of artistic practices in Southeast Asia. One can only hope to expand this in the context of each major Southeast Asian art scene. As a preface, the following examination of the historiography behind the term is a first step in providing a more nuanced understanding of the relationships between anthropology, aesthetics, and artistic production in the region.
            The critique of primitivism in art history necessitates navigating the tension between ethnology and aesthetics. The term “primitivism” was not used by the avant-garde artists themselves but has been extensively employed by art historians attempting to capture a modernist tendency.[18] In 1938, art historian Robert Goldwater, one of the earliest researchers to explore this subject, distinguished between the avant-gardes’ formal interest in non-Western objects and a functional and documentary approach associated with ethnology. This formalist definition of primitivism serves as the foundation for a long-standing critical tradition. I will explore this tradition in three parts, which demonstrate different ways in which literary studies and art history engage with or distance themselves from anthropology.

The first moment in the critique of primitivism, represented by Robert Goldwater’s book Primitivism in Modern Art (1938) and Jean Laude’s La Peinture française et l’art nègre (1958), focuses on the formal aspects of African or Oceanian influences in avant-garde artworks (note how Southeast Asia is not yet used as a term but was definitely part of the Goldwater and Laude’s scholarship). During this period, primitivism was generally viewed in a positive light, in contrast to the anthropological approach which was associated with the ideological context of the turn of the century.

These early studies primarily examine the visual and stylistic elements of primitivism in modern art. They analyze how avant-garde artists incorporated and reinterpreted artistic elements from non-Western cultures, often highlighting the formal qualities and aesthetic innovations derived from these influences. The emphasis is on the artistic exchange and the formal impact of primitivism on modern art movements.

Literature is notably absent from these early histories of primitivism. The focus of analysis in these works is primarily on painting and sculpture, rather than novels or other forms of artistic expression. This emphasis on the visual arts initiated a critical oversight and neglect of the role and influence of literature in the discourse on primitivism.[19]

The second phase of the critique of primitivism centers around the exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern organized by William Rubin at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1985. This exhibition and its subsequent criticism by James Clifford reflect the growing influence of postcolonial studies and a reevaluation of primitivism within a colonial context.

James Clifford’s critique highlights the ethical ambiguities of a purely formal approach to primitivism, which overlooks the colonial context and fails to consider the political implications of the museum as an institution. He argues that a narrow focus on artistic affinities and visual aesthetics obscures the historical and power dynamics inherent in primitivist representations. Clifford emphasizes the need to critically examine primitivism within its broader cultural, social, and political contexts, rather than reducing it to a formalist analysis.

The third part of the discussion on primitivism focuses on two recently published volumes: Literary Primitivism by Ben Etherington (2018) and Primitivismes I by Philippe Dagen (2019). These works offer insights into the current state of criticism and how they contribute to the study of primitivism, particularly in response to the criticisms formulated in the 1980s.

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[1] Andaya, Barbara Watson. Review of The Unity of Southeast Asia: Historical Approaches and Questions, by Anthony Reid. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 28, no. 1 (1997): 161–71.; Morton, Patricia A. “National and Colonial: The Musée Des Colonies at the Colonial Exposition, Paris, 1931.” The Art Bulletin 80, no. 2 (1998): 357–77.

[2] “Art Terms: Primitivism,” Tate Galleries, Accessed: May 10, 2023

[3] Knapp, James F. “Primitivism and the Modern.” Boundary 2 15, no. 1/2 (1986): 365–79. 1 The titles L’Homme primitif (1865) by Frédéric de Rougemont, Les Primitives (1883) by Elie Reclus or La Mentalité primitive by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1922) illustrate the use of the term in ethnological discourse at the turn of the 20th century.

[4] Cohen, Joshua I. “Fauve Masks: Rethinking Modern ‘Primitivist’ Uses of African and Oceanic Art, 1905—8.” The Art Bulletin 99, no. 2 (2017): 136–65. 1907 corresponds to the year in which the painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso is dated. Painting is often considered as the founder of primitivism.

[5] On German primitivism, see Nicola Gess, Primitives Denken: Wilde, Kinder und Wahnsinnige in der literarischen Moderne (Müller, Musil, Benn, Benjamin) , München, Wilhelm Fink, 2013 and Joachim Schultz, Wild, Irre und Rein. Wörterbuch zum Primitivismus der literarischen Avantgarden in Deutschland und Frankreich zwischen 1900 und 1940 , Giessen, Anabas Verlag, 1995; 4 By using the term used at the beginning of the 20th century , “ethnology”, I wish to consider the question from the point of view of the avant-gardes and scientific discourses of the time. The term “anthropology” was mainly used from the 1950s, under the impetus, in particular, of the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

[6] Eliot, Joshua; Bickersteth, Jane; Ballard, Sebastian (1996). Indonesia, Malaysia & Singapore Handbook. New York City: Trade & Trade & Travel Publications; Park; King, Seung-Woo; Victor T. (2013). The Historical Construction of Southeast Asian Studies: Korea and Beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 978-981-4414-58-6. The region, together with part of South Asia, was well known by Europeans as the East Indies or simply the Indies until the 20th century. The term “Southeast Asia” was first used in 1839 by American pastor Howard Malcolm in his book Travels in South-Eastern Asia. Malcolm only included the Mainland section and excluded the Maritime section in his definition of Southeast Asia. The term was officially used in the midst of World War II by the Allies, through the formation of South East Asia Command (SEAC) in 1943.

[7] Jolly, Margaret. “Becoming a ‘New’ Museum? Contesting Oceanic Visions at Musée Du Quai Branly.” The Contemporary Pacific 23, no. 1 (2011): 108–39.

[8] Masahiro, Ushiroshoji. “The Birth of ‘Fine Art’ in Southeast Asia, 1900–1945.” In Charting Thoughts: Essays on Art in Southeast Asia, edited by Low Sze Wee and Patrick D. Flores, 130–39. National Gallery Singapore, 2017.;

[9] Baicy, Caroline. “Gazing Upon the Other: The Politics of Representing the Igorot in Philippine Modernism.” Master’s Thesis, University of Hawaii-Manoa, 2017. The establishment of the Academy of Fine Arts by Damian Domingo, a Chinese mestizo artist, and the Sociedad Economica de los Amigos del Pais in 1821 marked significant milestones in the history of Philippine art. The Academy of Fine Arts played a crucial role in formalizing artistic education and training in the Philippines. It provided a platform for local artists to learn and practice various artistic techniques and styles. The academy’s curriculum was heavily influenced by Western art traditions and techniques, reflecting the colonial influence of Spain. European academic styles, such as Realism and Academic Classicism, were emphasized in the training of Filipino artists.

The Sociedad Economica de los Amigos del Pais, on the other hand, was a civic organization that aimed to promote economic and cultural development in the Philippines. It supported various initiatives, including the establishment of schools, libraries, and museums, which contributed to the growth of artistic and intellectual pursuits in the country.

[10] Lisa Horikawa “Imagining Country and Self.” In Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia Since the 19th Century, edited by Low Sze Wee, 32–43. National Gallery Singapore, 2015.

[11] Michael Billig, Banal nationalism (London, 2005).

[12]  “A Modernist Talks on Local Art: Prof. Edades Says Idealism is Obsolete, Absurd,” reprinted in Rodolfo Paras-Perez, Edades and the 13 Moderns (Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 1995), 29. 81

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.;Geronimo Cristobal, “Bauhaus in the Boondocks,” MFA Thesis, School of Visual Arts, 2021.


[17] Ito, Lisa., Babington, Jaklyn. Rodel Tapaya. Italy: Rizzoli International Publications, Incorporated, 2022.; Collected Encounters. Philippines: BenCab Museum, 2012.

[18]Isabelle Krzywkowski, “’Bards of the future’ and ‘primitives of a new sensibility’. Primitivism and the era of historical avant-gardes.”, in Jehanne Denogent, Christine Le Quellec Cottier, Nadejda Magnenat, and Antonio Rodriguez (eds.), Literary primitivism and modernity in the 20th century, 2022.


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