In recent weeks, Hong Kongers marched in protest against their government. Singaporeans braved the rain for the annual LGBT demonstration, Pink Dot. Just across the border, Malaysia is moving to decriminalise street protests.

There couldn’t be a more appropriate time for the National Gallery Singapore’s latest exhibition, Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s. The travelling exhibition is on its last leg and it is set to leave a lasting impression with a massive curation of artworks documenting a tumultuous period marked by social movements and activism.

More than 140 artworks were gathered from all over Asia, some reproductions of lost works or sourced from rare archives. The ambitious project that took a total of four years and three other museums — Museum of Modern Art Tokyo, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea and the Japan Foundation Asia Center — to put together. 

Reproduced billboards by the United Artists Front of Thailand (Image credit: National Gallery Singapore)

One shouldn’t expect less from an exhibition aiming to cover one of the most complicated moments in modern Asian history. Awakenings covers a poignant three decades which saw Asia facing rapid modernisation, rising nationalism and political differences. Countries sought independence and identity as they moved on from the harrowing moments of World War II.

It also proved to be a fruitful period for Asian artists. Creative minds and rebellious spirits work hand-in-hand to play devil’s advocate in criticising politics and highlighting on-going struggles of those marginalised from society. As a result, it has given birth to a rich scope of inventive art forms and movements. Artists and art groups worked with new technologies of the time or go beyond the lines of ‘common decency’ to create ground-breaking work.

Documentation of Frog King Kwok’s Plastic Bag performance in Beijing. This is often cited as the first example of performance art in China. (Image credit: Frog King Kowk Mangho and Asia Art Archive)

Most of these works aren’t entirely relatable for those with a lack of context of each country’s politics and culture. Instead, the bravado of artists who continue the fight against ideologies and propaganda despite all obstacles is one that’s worth appreciating.

Now, when censorship is rampant and alternative voices are met with derision, the exhibition serves as a stark reminder of an outspoken past. Awakenings probably won’t inspire a sudden revolution amongst its audiences, but it does offer an assurance that offering a voice isn’t all that detrimental to society as it is made out to be.

Here’s a quick peek at Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s-1990s: