Unspoken, not Unforgotten
TAKE on art|July - December 2016

Writing on Contemporary Art of Southeast Asia.

Bharti Lalwani

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting

- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979)

With an audience that was welcoming and curious, I had an invaluable opportunity to share my learnings on the history and art of Southeast Asia (SEA) not as a presumed expert on the region but as a student, a specialist critic, still grasping at the diversity of SEA countries. Previous editions of TAKE on art magazine have given me great editorial freedom to review exhibitions and biennales from this part of the world which, in my view, is often overlooked in the international sphere save for the discussions on global art markets. Speaking in Baroda not only permitted the possibility to share what I have learnt but to also have my views tested, challenged and discussed within a safe but intellectually rigorous space in the presence of stalwarts from the Indian art scene.

Understanding art from any particular region requires for its entangled historical, socio-political, religious and cultural narratives to be contextualised in a manner that allows regional and international audiences to access its coded references and significance. Since my  move to Singapore in 2008, I naturally encountered art that emerged from specific  local circumstances. As an Indian hailing from Nigeria, I was evidently not a native of the region and I certainly did not come close to speaking any of the languages. Therefore, writing about regional art competently required considerable reading on my part that would enable me to transcend an artwork’s obvious formal imperatives. I familiarised myself with regional history and the cultural, economic and political shifts of various countries, their anti-imperialist struggles and burgeoning nationalist ideologies that indeed many Southeast Asian artists critique.

In order to access what these artists were saying and how they were saying it, I oriented myself with Southeast Asian art through numerous exhibitions at institutions, galleries and young biennales across the region alongside conversations with artists and curators who kindled a sincere appreciation of the region’s hybrid cosmopolitanism and historically inclusive, syncretic outlook, contemporary artists’ agency and their voice for the dispossessed. Having written about various artworks beyond their specific ‘local context’  for over some six years, I stand convinced that themes tackled by SEA artists would find common ground with Indian viewers unfamiliar with the region. And so I set about convincing the astute Baroda audience of Southeast Asian contemporary art’s universal appeal. But first, contextualisation  was key. I began by giving the audience a gist of crucial events from mid 20th century that shaped the political orientation of Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

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