I expected to spend about thirty minutes at the exhibition Inheritance. But it turned out to be a good two hours. Not that I am complaining, though, for the unexpected turn of events was an inevitable consequence of the richness – and importance – of the stories on display. And surely, as with quality wines, great cocktails and, indeed, anything of worth – a solid show deserves our close and unhurried attention.
Featuring eleven works, Inheritance is Objectifs’ latest edition of their annual Women in Film and Photography programme. Heavy on content and (occasionally) light-hearted in delivery, the show is curated by Emmeline Yong and Leong Puiyee. Casting an unflinching eye on how the personal relates to the social and cultural, the show weaves together tales of connection and loss, memory and identity, and public and private histories from different parts of Asia.
Divya Cowasji’s Remember Me is easily one of my favourite works. It is a vivid tale of the artist’s family history, told through objects left behind and passed down in a house that has sheltered five generations. There are photographs of the women in the artist’s family, of the objects they held dear, and of Divya posing with these inherited objects. Interspersed between them are texts that felt like intimate journal entries, and a video featuring Divya’s paternal grandmother, who used to be a glamourous movie star! There is even a portion of a redacted family secret recipe for orange cake (spoiler: no oranges are involved, from what I read).
What I love about Remember Me is its potent concoction of sorrow and humour. And for me, this is most competently expressed through the pairing of texts and images. Take the black and white photo of a table overflowing with objects like lamps, vases, candle holders, photo frames, and teacups. Its tones of grey lend the image a historical quality and a solemn mood. Thwarting that however, is a sly, playful move by Divya – she has inserted herself (or at least, her head) into the bottom right of the frame. A pitch-perfect caption accompanies the image: “Five generations of things.”
I chuckled, before mulling over how wit, here, is employed as a buttress against the scars of loss, the burden of memories, and the knowledge of our inevitable mortality. Such poignancy and humour echoes through the artist’s self-portraits, where her use of inherited objects allude to her desire to connect with her late family members and how their lives had left indelible traces on her being. Viewing Remember Me is akin to a discovery, with objects telling of both joyous as well as difficult family events at every turn. If this ongoing project were a love letter to her family as the artist has claimed, it is a poignant and heartrending one.
Another beautiful work that carries the theme of connection and loss is Moe Suzuki’s Sokohi. Sokohi is Moe’s poetic response to her father’s battle with glaucoma, a condition that has resulted in the gradual narrowing of his vision. Mounted on the exhibition wall are old family photos and texts that he no longer can see and has given to Moe, layered with her drawings that call to mind the fragile thread-like nerves in our eyes. Many of the photographs are underexposed, their dimness suggesting not only a loss of vision, but also dark moods. Some of the images have laser-cut holes in them too, as if simulating the defects – or the blind spots – in her father’s visual field. They also speak softly of fading family memories and the transience of moments where father and daughter share a common world through the sense of sight.
Two pieces of translucent fabrics with images printed on them are installed for Sokohi as well. As I watched the fabrics sway ever so gently to the currents of cool air in the exhibition space, they seemed to whisper about the quiet passing of time and the tenderness of love.
Striking a more uplifting note in the show is Michelle Chan’s Kaufu. Big on colour, the work pays homage to Michelle’s late bus driver uncle, whom she admits to never having known well when he was alive. It mainly comprises collages that she has created out of the objects he left behind: cassette tapes, comic books, CDs, and a whole lot of bus-related memorabilia. Her glossy, vibrant collages are dizzying. There is a lot going on, from fishes swimming out of her uncle’s hair (made out of tyres) to guardians of the underworld floating nonchalantly on hot-air balloons. Together, these collages put forth a whimsical, fanciful tale of her uncle’s imagined afterlife.
I was never close to Kaufu. My only memory of him was of buses. Kaufu is … a homage to the bus driver uncle I regret never getting to know, and a tribute to his obsession with buses.
Those interested in social issues might find themselves drawn to Aakriti Chandervanshi’s After Eden. This body of work deals with the plight of a piece of sacred land in Nepal, believed by the locals to be blessed by the goddess Shikali Devi. Currently under threat by construction of the State initiated Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway, its indigenous inhabitants are uniting to protest and resist their own displacement and the ecological destruction that is occurring under the guise of progress. Chandervanshi’s starkly arresting photographs give voice to an all-t00-familiar refrain of environmental denigration, the displacement of peoples, and the loss of collective memory in the face of progress and development.
Expanding on the idea of inheritance in a rather novel and unusual way is Natalie Khoo’s installation A Spider, Fever and Other Disappearing Islands. The work comprises a two-channel experimental film, along with a giant furry spider and smaller arachnids (no kidding!) lounging in front of the projection. At times comical and in parts strange and spooky, the non-linear film is inspired by Natalie’s grandmother’s migration from the Riau Islands to Singapore and her tales about a mythical spider spirit.
Not to be missed, too, is Amrita Chandradas’s Phase/less, a collaboration with dancers Aarthi Sankar and Ruby Jayaseelan. Commissioned by Objectifs, the film examines generational traumas, superstitions, rituals, and the idea of womanhood within the Tamil Singaporean community. What was arresting for me was how this body of work engages with and explores cultural symbols. For instance, in the film, the two female dancers are each dressed in a white Veshti, a garment commonly worn by Tamil men, not women. Within the exhibition space, the film is also projected on a Veshti owned by Aarthi’s father. Through the manipulation of symbols such as this, Phase/less unveils how cultural meanings are fluid, negotiated, and can, at times, be subverted.
Wandering through the various works, I felt myself akin to a witness to the lived experiences of the artists featured. Most stories appear to have emerged out of moments of pain, uncertainty, and yearning, whether that be the loss of a loved one or the partaking of an oppressive cultural practice. In viewing these stories, I was reminded of the oft-quoted saying by Sufi poet Rumi: “The wound is the place where light enters.”
Perhaps, as the saying suggests, when we slowly lean into and talk about the wounds we inherit as well as hold space for one another, understanding will come. So, if you have an afternoon to spare, catch the show and listen to the stories on display. They may remind you of your own. They’ll also be worth your time.
Note: This year’s edition of the annual Women in Film and Photography exhibition is on at Objectifs Chapel Gallery until 19 December 2021.