The art of SEA: Identity and integration



IT seemed to have been a surprise to the panel during the press briefing for the (then) newly opened National Gallery of Singapore (NGS) late last year, this question about ASEAN integration and where the trumpeted museum collection of Southeast Asian art stood relative to the geo-political integration of countries across SEA.

It was clear that the state of SEA and the impending integration of all 10 nations under the ASEAN was not part of the bigger picture that the NGS was working with. Neither was this fact part of the framework for Between Declarations and Dreams, what has since been called by press releases (pretending to be reviews) as the “largest,” “most important,” collection of SEA art.

It is, reason for worry, if not distress. Even more so given the NGS curatorial team’s assertion of re-writing, re-doing, re-assessing ASEAN art/history through this collection.

One realizes that other than being clear about what we are responding to, what might be more important is a sense of what this is all for.

Without the latter, one can only wonder about representation and identity, at this critical time of political integration.

Representing Southeast Asia
The representation of Southeast Asia in Between Declarations and Dreams is reason for anxiety if you are part of a member country of the ASEAN, and if you take regional integration seriously as a political enterprise that will affect how we live relative to the rest of the world, given the dominant narratives about us as region.

This is the thing with an exhibit like this one. Inevitably, it will represent a narrative of Southeast Asia that will be used for or against us; undoubtedly, it speaks of a very complex region made up of very specific national histories. This is why the question about ASEAN integration was important: what will this exhibit say about Southeast Asia, and how might that narrative be used against us as we learn to engage with the world as one region?

 NGS’ newest exhibit ‘Between Declarations and Dreams’ tries to give a representation of Southeast Asia

NGS’ newest exhibit ‘Between Declarations and Dreams’ tries to give a representation of Southeast Asia

If this exhibit is any indication, then our art will be used against us because what we continue to be bound to, what we continue to speak of as history, is one that’s bound to art patronage and globalized art forms, colonial influence and the Western gaze.

If I were a (neo-, post-)colonial power, I would take such pride in the kind of art that I am being credited for across Southeast Asia. I would love that even important work by artists like Juan Luna and Raden Saleh are not imbued with power independent of patrons, and specific to nation. I see that a new generation of Southeast Asians will not be educated differently by this exhibit, because save for the great number of works, nothing here debunks the Western narrative about us as region, as colonized, as post- and neo-colonized.

One realizes it takes more than just gathering 400 works across 15 galleries and three floors of the NGS. It takes more than the question: how would it look if we draw connections among the different nations’ art and go beyond geo-political boundaries? Which is what this collection sought to answer. To its own detriment.

Framing in confusion
How it looks is precisely what the West will expect. It is disjointed and fragmented to the point of incoherence. It is an insistence on commonality that is not problematized, and therefore is without an anchor or stable point of reference. It is art decontextualized, removed from very specific national identities, which are sacrificed for nothing but ambiguous and highly questionable generalizations about the region and its creativities at any given point in history.

This is why there is a Gallery 3 that dares assert that at some point in history, all of us in the region were doing landscapes because of the influx of modern infrastructure, which is about both “colonial ambition” and artists’ personal connection to the land. This presupposes that we all came upon infrastructure at the same time within the region; it also imbues the landscape with a painfully superficial meaning, one that we all apparently hold across the region. Too this question: were the peoples who were tilling the land, creating those landscapes—were they the ones painting at all?

And then there is Gallery 4 that was about how “traveller-artists saw Southeast Asia and its people as exotic and sensual, a stark contrast to European urban modernity,” an unapologetic—unthinking—display of the necessarily political Western gaze upon the region. To me, this was the most painful space to see, because it should not have been there at all: it is the Western gaze that remains our problem as Asians, and as an ASEAN region. It is the Western gaze that is still integral to the patronage and market of our art, one that is problematic precisely because it reimagines, retells, insists upon a narrative for our creativity that we have no control over, and which one hopes an exhibit like this one would be able to respond to.

To include that Western gaze as part of an exhibit that is about Southeast Asian art is an injustice to our histories of resistance against the hegemony’s portrayals of us, it is an affront to the constant rebellions against misrepresentation that exists in so much of our works.

Declaring, dreaming little

An exhibit that is the “largest” can only speak of being “representative,” and this is really the problem with Between Declarations and Dreams: it seems to want to evade the question of representation, as if that is even possible. In the process what it presents is exactly what is already being said about us: confused and divided, the conquered and the dominated, ahistorical and anti-historical.

Meanwhile, what the current state of SEA demands of us is a more stable telling of our history as region, using more concrete frameworks for these narratives about art and cultural production. But this exhibit seemed afraid to work with something more concrete, more stable. It seemed to dream for so little: a gathering of works, acknowledged as political but necessarily depoliticized by the task of framing these under simplistic assertions.

The crisis might be pinned down to a statement from the exhibit’s main note, which says that the art was “displayed chronologically [ . . . ] and organized under shared artistic impulses and historical experiences, the works explore possibilities of connection beyond the nation.”

In the case of Between Declarations and Dreams “beyond nation” apparently means taking liberties with decontextualizing—anti-contextualizing?—any work as one sees fit, and forcing connections instead of problematizing these. Worse, many of these assertions were neither here nor there, uncertain about where it even stood really with regards plotting a history of SEA.

Of course this can be seen as nothing but starting point, but at this critical juncture in our history as SEA, selling itself as a region via integration, it seems the more important and urgent task was not to find a starting point, but to dare declare an identity and a stand, that is uniquely ASEAN, distinct from the rest of Asia, distinct from the West.

Anything less than a framework that already asserts SEA as an independent entity, one that has constantly and consciously negotiated with, navigated, engaged and disengaged with, the rest of the world, one that has a distinct personality and identity as region that knows to resist and rebel—anything less than this framework merely feeds what the world already presumes about us, stereotypes and archetypes included.

Here was an opportunity to dream big, declare even bigger. This is SEA, hear us roar! Instead this exhibit makes do with little less than a whimper.


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