Many of us Singaporeans are descendants of immigrants. Our forefathers left their tumultuous home grounds in search of greener pastures and willingly took the gamble in Singapore. We are, by and large, a diaspora community, who’ve grown to enjoy the melting pot of cultures and traditions.
Yet, as a millennial, I find myself caught in a predicament where my identity is being pulled in two opposing directions—the complexities of past histories and the demands of the present. Stepping into the reopening of esea contemporary with the group exhibition launch of Practise till we meet again, felt like I’m at once confronted by the pull and push factors of migration.
Tucked along the corner of Thomas Street in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, esea contemporary, in its bid to abate earlier controversy on perpetuating racial inequalities and discrimination institutionally, recently rebranded to platform artists and art practices relevant to the East and Southeast Asian community.
In the intimate exhibition featuring five artists and two collectives, guest curator Zhang Hanlu aims to evoke a collective history and shared memory of a former homeland that may or may not be familiar to the audience. The exhibition strives to delve into the diasporic experiences of various generations across different countries, and how the diverse perspectives contribute to the diaspora identity in the context of global changes.
Where might home be?
Navigating headfirst to the noticeboard which asks where home is for me, I confidently wanted to pin down Singapore. But I held back as I asked myself if the tension of embodying first-world attributes while holding on to age-old (sometimes obsolete) traditions has ever made me feel at home.
Growing up in the decade of digital media with the advancement of the World Wide Web, the term ‘citizen of the world’ is easily an identity that I would adopt in a heartbeat. But claiming this global identity as a Singaporean is difficult due to the unspoken diasporic expectations and the upholding of mixed-cultural traditions. For instance, our generation’s freedom is oftentimes met with envy from past generations but heavily criticised for the cause of today’s declining public morals.
I believe that remedying cultural identities can be formative to building a global identity, especially for a diasporic individual. But it cannot otherwise be done if we are circumvented to think that national identity (which is largely tied culturally) is all that matters.
And so I sought to find out more about how fellow contemporaries interrogate these complex identities spanning the global, cultural and national, as I steered through the sea of themes to reconsider my answer.
Across the seas
Turning my attention to the sound of a narrator detailing the ruthless and illegal act of repatriating undesirable Chinese seamen from Liverpool between 1945 and 1946 to make room for returning servicemen, Asia-Art-Activism’s (AAA)’s installation titled In 1875 We Met at the Docks of Liverpool 於梨花埠遇上(2021) employs role-playing and storytelling to convey the suffering and anguish of families left to fend for themselves in the U.K..
Digitally mapped with oral histories and interviews with the descendants of the seamen, Allison of AAA recreated a digital landscape with queer performers as imagined inhabitants to illuminate forgotten diasporic histories. She also uses diverse artefacts, such as watercolour sketches, which were hung by the side window beside the video, to retell the narratives of intergenerational sorrow and displacement, bringing to light the marginalised diasporic histories.
This installation presents a crossroads in the lives of a new generation of British Chinese as they seek to position themselves amidst this enlarged backdrop of their diasporic histories.
Such juxtaposition and decentralisation of narratives are also evident in Asian Feminist Studio for Art and Research (AFSAR)’s Proxy Conference: On Boat (2023). This saw the use of video conferencing platforms such as Zoom as common ground for people from diverse backgrounds to share their lived diasporic experiences, enabling sustainable interactions that minimizes harm to the environment and society while enhancing social well-being in our ever-changing world. In this video conference and in its bid to create a safe space, participants and hosts were all masked with filters to ensure anonymity as they shared their memories of immigration and their experiences of vulnerability.
Stagings and re-examinations
Moving into a different kind of storytelling to confront diasporic experiences, Koki Tanaka uses pseudo-documentary to reveal deeply challenging conversations about the subjects’ diasporic experiences in Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie) (2018). In what seems like a scripted conversation between two young people on the road together, the film slowly unveils the struggles met by the hybrid identities in Japan’s diaspora communities. The exchange of detailed accounts of discrimination and systemic racism sheds light on Japan’s polarised society which is marked by the unfair treatment of minorities and gender biases.
I particularly enjoyed how Tanaka tastefully staged such a rare occurrence of individuals discussing identity and politics in the highly closed and conservative Japan.
I believe such sentiments of social separation, do not just exist between the conservatives and the liberals, citizen and alien, but also generationally. Mauritian artist Audrey Albert’s Matter Out of Place (2020) uses her photo series to display her Chagossian heritage and the everyday objects unique to her roots to examine the forceful displacement of the Chagossians in the Chagos Archipelago sovereignty dispute.
Albert combines her family photos with symbolic objects that represent both the Chagossian and Mauritian cultures, creating a bridge between the past and present. Through her personal recollections, the photographs convey a carefully crafted story, preserving memories for generations to come.
In re-examining and redeveloping histories, Issac Chong Wai’s Two-legged Stool (2023)installation with video accompaniment Rehearsal of the Futures: Is the world your friend? (2023) examines the history of protests. It materialises the conflicts of the handover of Hong Kong between the U.K. and China as an unstable stool and a flurry of movements by performers that seems to suggest the need to prepare for yet another turmoil. This also reflects how the diasporic dilemma of a Hong Konger might lie between the cultures of their colonial past and their contentious Chinese-ness—which Chong contends with through his art practice.
Staging acts to relay the diasporic dilemma also makes up Liu Weiwei’s Australia project (2017) where he is seen to be orchestrating encounters for a future immigrant, by way of his brother. Using both painting and video installation, Liu got his brother Liu Chao to paint a replica of Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867). This painting depicted the execution of Emperor Maximilian I along with his two generals at the fall of the Second Mexican Empire, which suggests Liu Chao might risk facing significant opposition in a foreign land.
This is accompanied by a self-explanatory video on his thought process of migration, followed by an ultimate ‘trial’ by a community jury and lawyers to examine his case—likening it to a form of ‘execution’ as faced by Emperor Maximilian. This staged work portrays Liu preparing his brother for various unknown experiences as an immigrant, emphasising how society shapes assumptions about the citizen and the alien, and how this contributes to the challenges and experiences of the diaspora.
Combining both cultural hybridisation and assimilation as a Costa Rican of Taiwanese descent, Hsu’s displacement of the Spanish text within a newly reformed art centre is very telling of the change in diplomatic recognition by Costa Rica in severing ties with Taiwan and establishing relations with China.
I feel that this also extends to how the art centre dropped ‘Chinese’ from its previous name to claim broader affiliations with East and Southeast Asia. Though it might be an overstatement to think that the earlier circumstances of the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) have given rise to what we know as esea contemporary today, I would like to think that it is a good work in progress.
A successful interrogation?
Overall, the works interrogate the highly complex issues faced by the diaspora communities and create conversations around the root causes of diasporic experiences. I applaud the artists’ and collectives’ efforts in manifesting bottom-up practices to contribute to addressing issues and challenges faced by the diaspora communities in their local context.
As to whether the works emulate the title Practise till we meet, I think the works did well in expressing that practice is a two-way street in the context of understanding the diaspora communities. But both the title and the works do little to highlight the complexities of assimilation in the diaspora, which reflects on the challenges of balancing the desire to preserve cultural identity with the need to adapt to the dominant culture and society.
It is a huge undertaking to address the diaspora’s many nuanced factors, and this exhibition did its bare minimum to articulate and represent visually. Additionally, the experiences of the diaspora vary greatly depending on factors such as geography, culture, and historical context, making it challenging to form a cohesive and inclusive exhibition.
In a world now concerned with the ongoing Ukraine war, trans rights, climate change, and COVID-19 still lurking, Practise till we meet can be seen as grounded in care ethics where it highlights the need to provide care for all crisis-affected people.
Now leading back to my initial question, I believe home (Singapore) is where I belong and in respect of achieving the diasporic utopia that I so seek, I am convinced that it starts first with self-care and introspection.
The group exhibition Practise till we meet runs till 28 May 2023 at esea contemporary, 13 Thomas Street, Manchester, M4 1EU United Kingdom. Click here to find out more.