A small yet influential strain of independent contemporary curatorial practice has emerged in Southeast Asia, which is performing (expanded) art historical functions. This mode of independent curating now constitutes an important base for exciting new research—making use of diverse archives as well as other methodologies—to study the often little-known histories of the region's modern arts, including its architecture, cinema, and photography. That such research is taking place in the context of independent contemporary curatorial practice is significant because it locates modern art history largely outside of large and state-funded institutions, including museums and universities, thus enabling the development and proliferation of art historical research in areas of Southeast Asia, including its mainland sub-regions, which have comparatively little funding and official infrastructure for the arts. This article explores the emerging practice of independent curating as (expanded) art history in Southeast Asia, through comparative discussion of three case studies: the Roung Kon Project in Phnom Penh, which researches histories of cinema in Cambodia; the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang, which researches histories of photography in Laos; and Spirit of Friendship in Ho Chi Minh City, which researches histories of artist groups in Vietnam.
I am grateful to Nanyang Technological University's School of Art, Design and Media and to the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore for a postdoctoral fellowship, held from September 2017 until January 2019, during which much of this research and writing was completed. I thank Patrick D. Flores for generously reading and offering illuminating comments on an earlier draft of this essay, as well as the ARTMargins editors and two anonymous peer reviewers for their helpful and improving suggestions. Thanks also to all the curators and artists cited herein, who kindly shared their thoughts and experiences with me, most over several years. This essay also draws on conversations I have enjoyed with T. K. Sabapathy, Gridthiya Gaweewong, Simon Soon, and others over several years; I thank them for their valuable insights. Some parts of my argument here were rehearsed in earlier form in presentations at Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt, in May 2017, and Guangzhou's Guangdong Times Museum, in December 2019.