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Posts Tagged ‘Southeast Asia’

Yee I-Lan, "Sulu Stories".

Nguyen Van Cuong, "Porcelain Diary 2".

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.

Zulkifli Yusoff, "Koleksi Ibu". (All NHHN Art Exhibition photos courtesy of Singapore Art Museum)

Agus Suwage, "Give Me More Questions 1".

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local coffeeI’m ordering local coffee in a Singapore coffee shop.

The black coffee, known as kopi, is thick and dark, almost as dark as the night.

The woman who makes the coffee pours in sweetened condensed milk. It turns the coffee a unique brown color. The color reminds me of small rivers in Southeast Asia.

It’s been two years since I last had this drink. This time, I’m not so brave. I ask the woman to add extra milk, so that the color will be closer to the kind of coffee that I imbibe in the United States, where I now spend more of my time.

I guess this episode sums up the analogy of my feelings and expectations when I’m back in Singapore and Malaysia for a visit. Some things are still familiar, some are not. Some things may appear the same, but the old spirit or texture is missing, or vice versa.

All this revolves around the adage that “you can’t go home”. Sometimes, I can be stubborn. I keep believing that you can, often preferring to overlook the permutations and adjustments that I know have to be made.

I think anyone who has two homes, or two countries, in his or her identity can relate to this. We want things to remain the same. At the same time, we have changed and evolved. And it’s pretty unrealistic to expect other people and things not to be touched by changes as well.

And which brings us to the role of nostalgia. Nostalgia is not mere fluff as some people may think; it actually acts as an anchor in our lives. I notice that this time around more people that I encounter in Singapore like to talk about it.  Even the younger folks want to talk and learn more about the past. Nostalgia blogs in Singapore have a sizable following.

Perhaps when changes come fast, we need something familiar; that unseen anchor.

Sometimes, we lament the loss of the past. Sometimes, we seek the solace of familiarity in an old building, an old song.

And sometimes, when we are lucky, we see reflections of the past and the present in a cup of strong, dark local coffee.

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