“Can we not have the pink?”
“Yes, that’s been our constant objection.”
Dr. Michelle Antoinette and Dr. Wulan Dirgantoro look at each other in unison, nod firmly, and so the decision is made.
They have chosen not to be photographed in front of the pastel pink wall which frames the hipster environs of Bearded Bella café in Tanjong Pagar, Singapore, where we have convened for a discussion about their new show Shaping Geographies: Art | Woman | Southeast Asia, presently being exhibited at Gajah Gallery.
It’s a towering exhibition featuring 40 works by 11 female Southeast Asian artists, rather daringly timed to open amidst the whirlwind of events and press previews of the Singapore Biennale’s opening week. What might have seemed like a foolhardy move on the part of gallerist Jasdeep Sandhu, turns out to be oddly prescient and certainly on all fours with the gutsy themes of a show which aims to challenge, confront and reshape our views of women artists and the very notion of Southeast Asia itself.
Wulan and Michelle are not unknown to me, or indeed to any serious scholar of Southeast Asian art history—the former supervised my own master’s thesis on Indonesian art and the latter has always been a friendly (and incredibly knowledgeable) face at art events and conferences. They are each academic powerhouses in their own right, having published such seminal tomes as Feminisms and Contemporary Art in Indonesia: Defining Experiences and Reworlding Art History: Encounters with Contemporary Southeast Asian Art after 1990.
Thus, sitting here in Bearded Bella, with my rapidly melting chocolate cake in front of me, I find myself transported to my student days. Wulan and Michelle while friendly and warm, have approached this interview with the rigour and discipline of an academic viva, and my questions are met with counter-questions, interrogations and alternative forms of framing.
In a show that aims not to communicate any form of essential ‘woman-ness,’ I ask the pair whether they considered leaving the word ‘woman’ out of its title altogether. Perhaps the inclusion of the word draws unnecessary attention to the notion of gender? Might it be more useful to consider the participants of the show, as artists first?
Michelle responds with a firm and steely gaze, “These are interesting questions that you’re asking but (let me) flip the question–what would we gain, or not, by leaving it out?”
(The nervous sweat pools in my shirt and I am pathetically grateful for its dark colour which consumes the stains of my fear.)
“These are perennial issues to do with… identity politics,” she continues.
“Whether it’s about women, whether it’s about race–what are the strategies for giving agency to different identities where and when needed? I think it’s very hard to talk about that stuff in abstract terms, it’s all very contextual and it has to always be considered in relation to what’s happening at any one time.”
Wulan chimes in with a thoughtful interjection, “Even when we don’t have (the word) ‘women’ in the title, you’re still going to be asked about it when it’s an all-woman show, it’s still going to be a describer.”
Indeed Suzann Victor’s work Promise which greets exhibition-goers at the entrance of the show makes no bones about its intense look at notions of femininity. Exhibited for the first time since 1995, it is an extension of Victor’s earlier installation work His Mother is a Theatre (1994). Concentric rings of red ‘hairscript’ are laid on the floor spelling out direct labels of femininity – words like “fallopian”, “umbilical” and “cervix”. Bread loaves which appear to be lit from within, flank a series of clanging woks. It’s a noisy, abrasive and in-your-face expression of womanhood in all its messy glory. Featuring kitchenware, food, blood, noise and curved delicate forms, the installation is a heady mix of power, stereotype, and resistance.
Victor’s work also picks up on another carefully elucidated strand of the exhibition, one which links the development of Southeast Asian art to Japanese influence. Promise was first shown in the 1995 Japanese exhibition Visions of Happiness. As Victor has herself explained in her thesis written in 2008, the work “was produced at a time when the plight of the Karayuki-San or ‘comfort women’ was emerging internationally.” It sought therefore to “re-create the (Japanese) flag’s central red sun motif,” through its textual collage of red hair” that spelt out “the sexualized anatomical parts” of these women.
The Japanese connection also comes through in Savandhary Vongpoothorn’s Footsteps to the Nigatsu-do, a collaborative work in which the artist has paired her rubbings from the sacred steps of the Nigatsu-do hall at the Todai-ji temple complex in Nara, Japan, with tanka poems from Japanese poet and calligrapher Noriko Tanaka.
It’s a timely investigation into Japan’s history in Southeast Asia, given the external noise swirling around the ongoing Singapore Biennale and Singapore Bicentennial. In the former, curator Patrick Flores attempts to expand the notion of Southeast Asia beyond its geographical boundaries. In the latter, Singapore seems to practice the selective commemoration of British colonial rule, a reflection that appears to ignore the innate violence of colonisation and foreign occupation. Shaping Geographies reminds us of our complicated relationships with our former colonial masters (such as Britain and Japan) and prompts us to think deeply about how such connections have evolved over time.
The curators note that Japanese entities such as the Fukuoka Art Museum and Japan Foundation have assisted the development of Southeast Asian art practices from the 1980s, sponsoring artists, residencies and art scholarships. Artist connections to Japan, therefore, extend to institutional support as much as they do to personal sources of inspiration.
We end our brief interview with a photoshoot.
I am planning to use the curators’ images for a social media campaign that seeks to highlight and share the personal struggles of the various women involved in the exhibition.
Wulan and Michelle are having none of it though, preferring not to “dwell on assumptions (associated with) the ‘struggling woman artist.’ ”
Michelle explains, “I suppose even the idea of struggle is very subjective.”
“What does one so-called ‘struggling artist’ mean to another ‘struggling artist experience’? Again, doing the flip exercise, would this question be asked of a male curator, or a male artist? Probably not.”
The curators are tough to the end, but clearly see themselves as fierce guardians of the women they have brought together and the ideas which they seek to disseminate through this art exhibition.
In the end, the interview is itself a masterclass on sisterhood and friendship. The pair declined to be photographed separately or to be baited with questions of conflict in the process of working together.
“Disagreements,” Michelle explains carefully, “are productive things, they’re not turned into personality conflicts and it’s all part of the intellectual debate.”
Our planned photoshoot takes an unexpected segue into the back lanes of Tanjong Pagar:
Here, the two ladies gamely holler out hellos to resting workers as they clamber up the gritty staircase of an old shophouse. They chortle, make self- deprecating jokes about awkward postures and the state of their hair, and pose with relish and gusto, as workers, gallery staff and our own Plural crew watch on in bemusement.
And there, dear readers was where we found the perfect personification of the Shaping Geographies art exhibition—one that was underpinned by profound intellect, easy laughter, a deep sense of self-awareness and above all, fierce female solidarity.
Shaping Geographies: Shaping Geographies: Art | Woman | Southeast Asia, runs at Gajah Gallery till 31 December 2019.
This article is produced in paid partnership with Gajah Gallery. Thank you for supporting the institutions which support Plural.