Art History: A Quick Brief of Southeast Asian Art

2200 BC – Present

The art of Indochina and the East Indies, called Southeast Asian Art includes the lands of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Indonesia, and Singapore. The Philippines are sometimes included as being on the far reaches of Eastern Southeast Asia.

The cultures of Southeast Asia are marked and influenced by several outside factors. On the one hand they are historically overshadowed by the great empires of nearby India and China, and on the other, they have been colonized and suppressed by a variety of different nations, all of different cultures and languages, as in the Vietnam and the French, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Americans, English, Portuguese and Spanish in other regions and nations. This gives Southeast Asia, on one hand, a background of shared influences, and on another, entirely differing influences.

Southeast Asian Art Origins and Historical Importance:


Sukhothai period – Buddhist sculpture

Thai art is heavily influenced by stories of the Buddha and Indian epics, with sculpture being almost exclusively of the Buddha. Featured heavily are stories of the previous births of the Buddha, his life, and Thai versions of Buddhist narratives based on Thai folklore.

Buddhist sculpture is beautifully expressed in the Sukhothai period in which sculptures of the Buddha have smooth oval faces expressing the spiritual nature of the Buddha. They based the look of the Buddha on Pali texts that directed that he have “skin so smooth that dust cannot stick to it”, “legs like a deer”, “hands like lotuses about to bloom”, “head like an egg”, and many other dictates.


Artisans in Laos are skilled metalsmiths, sculpting in bronze, gold, and silver. Most castings are of small sculptures and items, but as in the case of the Phra Say, a large golden statue of the Buddha, large images are sometimes created.


Dong Son drums cast in bronze

Dong Son drums – Southeast Asian art

Vietnamese art dates to decorated pottery in the Neolithic age, advancing to elaborately decorated Dong Son drums cast in bronze with details of geometric patterns and narratives of the lives and conquests of the culture.

Over the centuries Vietnam has had many religious and philosophical influences, including Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The French occupation had an influence on painting and established schools there.

One of the most popular Vietnamese arts is silk painting because mystical effects can be made using the combination of silk and paint. Because of their love of vivid color and more liberal use of paint, Vietnamese silks are unique in the genre.


Stone carving in Cambodia is intricate, detailed, and narrative. The detail is so fine that individual leaves are carved from trees, yet even tinier details are made possible by the carver.

Stone carving in Cambodia

Cambodian art has also included silversmithing, lacquerware, a variety of textiles, and kite making. A school for Cambodian arts was established in the 1940s, and modern art was encouraged, commissioned, and purchased for the government and its officials.

Art in Cambodia is reemerging through the strength and will of a formidable people. Following the genocide practiced by their government on their people, artistic revival is being reinvigorated and renewed.


Art in Burma/Myanmar primarily centers on the Buddha and is expressed in sculpture, architecture, relief, murals, and carving.

Before the advent of paper, Burmese “books” were created by stacking palm leaves one on top of the other and then binding them.
When the paper was developed, the new books were still made in the shape of the palm leaves in a uniquely Burmese tradition. Rather than binding, the book pages were glued end to end and then folded accordion style so that the entire length of the book could be unfolded and viewed at once, with book lengths sometimes reaching 20 feet. These books contained images from the scenes of the life of the Buddha on both front and back, interspliced with natural scenes for pauses.


Balinese paintings in Indonesia

Balinese paintings in Indonesia

Africa lays claim to the oldest evidence of art, but Indonesia has the oldest example of art applied with two stencils of hands and paintings of animal figures dating back 40,000 years.

More recently, the lands of Indonesia are famous for Balinese paintings, which are natural in subject and expression, and in the relief sculptures (measuring 100 meters) at the temple Borobudur in Java. Contemporary Indonesians are highly regarded for their colorful and detailed designs in batik, a dye painted fabric.


Singapore has a thriving modern art scene abounding with sculpture, painting, and other types of visual arts including rich textiles. Sculpture is a particularly impressive movement and many very large scale examples have been created.

Southeast Asian Art Key Highlights

  • The Phra Bang statue of Laos is said to hold the relics of the Buddha.
  • Thai ceramics were decorated with natural botanical scenes and animals during the middle ages and were quite popular. It is the only Thai period in which ceramics had much success.
  • In Vietnam, special occasions were marked by visits to a village teacher to receive a calligraphy painting of poetry or folk sayings.
  • Cambodian artists have long made kites, but kites there are flown at night during monsoon season and have an attached bow that somehow makes the musical sound when it blows in the wind.
  • The temple at Angkor Wat features an image of a creature that people believe resembles the stegosaurus. Skeptics relate it to the Mountain Horned Dragon or chameleons that are found in that area.

Southeast Asian Art Top Works

  • Garudas – Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok
  • Phra Achana – Wat Si Chum
  • Phra Say
  • Temples of Angkor
  • Please Let There Be Peace – Chhim Sothy
  • Planet – Singapore

Art Movements (Order by period of origin)

Dawn of Man – BC 10

1st Century to 10th Century

10thCentury to 15th Century

15th century onwards

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