Identity and politics. Two powerful themes.
I’ve always been fascinated by how contemporary Southeast Asian artists contemplate these and other issues in their art.
A dichotomy of East and West; how ideas and institutions from these two influences interact form much of the basis behind the art. This melding itself is reflected in the form of the art. These contemporary artists use local or Asian aesthetics to comment, reflect or dissect on salient issues. And for me, therein lies the fascination.
Recently, I had the chance to get a look at this artistic tradition again through the exhibition “Negotiating Home, History and Nation” held at the Singapore Art Museum. The exhibition continues till June 26.
It features the works of 54 practitioners of contemporary art from six Southeast Asian countries (Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines), covering a broad range of media including installations and photography.
I find that, as is often the case, the works of the Indonesian artists are among the most powerful and forceful in their presentation. An example is Mella Jaarsma’s costume installations.
In “I am Ethnic”, she challenges the issue of gender bias in a lean, provoking manner. Jaarsma utilizes an entire goatskin to focus on the ritual of sacrificing two goats for the birth of a male baby and one goat for a female baby.
Nindityo Adipurnomo uses the konde, a traditional Javanese hairpiece, to comment on Javanese culture and tradition. He recreates an oversized rattan konde mixed with various media.
Apart from being a decorative hairpiece, the curator’s notes explain that the konde is also “worn on special occasions …and is associated with woman’s ideal place in society”. In the konde, Adipurnomo sees both reflections of sensuality and limitations associated with a woman.
The konde is also his commentary on the future of traditional crafts in the increasing onslaught of commercialism.
I’m always drawn to topics of memories and personal history, and thus I find the works of two Malaysian artists Zulkifli Yusoff and Yee I-Lan quite compelling.
Yusoff’s “Koleksi Ibu” (Mother’s Collection) is an emotive collage. He combines images of entertainment magazines, childhood recollections and covers of spiritual books to record personal memories that belonged to his mother, and which were also a part of his childhood. There is a sense of joie de vivre and of simpler times underlying the collage.
Yee is from Sabah and her photo images center on the sea, and its role as an artery that has influenced history, trade, immigration and politics in the region of her birthplace.
For the time that I was in the exhibition hall, it was like taking a unique trip, glimpsing into the psyche of Southeast Asia, a region which I truly love. I would have liked to see more paintings, but on the whole, the exhibition is certainly worth a visit.