Culture / Art Republik

Exhibition at MAIIAM Museum: ‘DIASPORA’

MAIIAM’s new show traces the diaspora in Southeast Asia

Mar 01, 2018 | By Mary Ann Lim

In line with the current social interest on the refugee and migratory movements that have characterised the humanitarian crises of the 21st century, MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum presents ‘DIASPORA: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia’, running from 3 March to 1 October. Curated by Loredana Paracciani, the group exhibition draws its material from a literal diaspora of art practices and methodologies to shine a spotlight on the circumstances of mass human movement in Southeast Asia post-Vietnam War.  

Pao Houa Her, ‘Attention’, 2015, c-print photograph, 127 x 100 cm.

Exploring the complexities of identity and belonging in this composite and turbulent region, the exhibition’s methodological framework begins by focusing specifically on three defining and distinct passages of the diaspora phenomenon. Here, to “exit” is to leave the home country for personal reasons or economic improvement; to be “exiled” is to leave the homeland as an individual or a community for oftentimes political reasons; and to move in “exodus” is to be a group of stateless and dispossessed people fleeing crises. Together, these three specific flights to and from home redefine the vagaries of cultural, physical and geopolitical borders that conventionally determine issues of belonging and status.  

18 established and emerging artists have been invited to respond to the curatorial focus on mobility and displacement. These responses emerge oftentimes from the artists’ own experiences, as individuals who are both participating and observing in the patterns of human flows from within the diaspora itself. By blending subjective personal understandings with objective historical details, the produced works ultimately seek to disclose an immutable humanism that persists beneath such transitory passages.

Abdul Abdullah, ‘The lies we tell ourselves to help us sleep’, 2017, c-print photograph, 100 x 100cm.

Abdul Abdullah is one such artist who blurs the boundaries between the personal and the communal; the self and the other. In the self-portrait series, ‘Coming to Terms’, Abdullah explores intimate aspects of identity as an elucidation of the human condition that constitutes perceptions of cultural hybridity, ritual and ceremony. The distinctively dark undertones shed light on the insidious processes that characterise how distorted social perceptions can alter the realities of self-perception. In one of the photographs entitled ‘The lies we tell ourselves to help us sleep’, Abdullah himself dons a prop monkey mask from Tim Burton’s film ‘Planet of the Apes’ (2001) while cradling a life monkey against his bare chest. Tracing the oblique movement from self to otherness, the artist makes astute observations about how his Muslim identity is lost beneath the machinations of ideological representations.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, ‘The Ground, the Root and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree’, 2004 – 2007, single channel digital video, 14 min.

In contrast, Jun Nguyen-Hatsusihba’s ‘The Ground, the Root, and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree’ tells a more hopeful tale. The video installation was created in collaboration with 50 students from Luang Prabang School of Arts and Crafts, and unfolds in three chapters. ‘The Ground’ features a few young joggers who are determined to exercise in a semi-abandoned open-air stadium. Serving as an interlude, ‘The Root’ presents a collage of illusory images of lanterns reminiscent of the festival of lights in Luang Prabang. In the final chapter, ‘The Air’, 50 art students take a journey on long-tail boats, painting the Mekong riverscape and the sacred Bodhi tree, a symbol of Buddhism. Adopting a nonlinear, mystical narrative, Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s work does not simply chronicle the turbulence of uncertain cultural identity, but is a story of honest, youthful dreams towards a global society that can still arise despite their struggles to retain traditional values.

Serving as the physical manifestation of movement and diaspora is ‘Vessels (after the ‘Fleet’ project)’ by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan. The work is a series of sculptures that comprise an assemblage of boats made from recycled cardboard, alongside the cargo boxes themselves that have been used to literally ship the boats to the exhibition. The iconography of the boat stands out as the key symbol of journey and displacement, and viewers are compelled to challenge their pre-existing notions of the boat, which can take a wide range of forms from ships to cargo boxes.

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, ‘Vessels (after the ‘Fleet’ project)’, 2015 – 2017, cardboard and wood, 1 x vessel and crate approx. 260 x 243 x 65cm; 3 x vessels and crate approx. 150 x 89 x 32 cm each; 1 x vessel and crate approx. 120 x 89 x 36cm.

The exhibition’s artistic direction is also characterised by its desire to educate. Rather than mere documentation or passing commentary on the migratory circumstances that have defined and shaped Southeast Asia, ‘DIASPORA’ seeks to start real conversations with audiences about lived experiences of diaspora that are revealed in the artworks. Aligned with the Museum’s dedication to research, the exhibition will be furnished with topic-specific seminars and film screening programmes that complement the artistic material on display. To cultivate awareness of knowledge of diaspora, a catalogue featuring specially commissioned essays by historians and experts on related topics will be published and complemented by a panel discussion with the writers.

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