22 – 31 January 2021
Tanjong Pagar Distripark

Positioning the Gallery with Can Yavuz

Can Yavuz is the Founder and Managing Director of Yavuz Gallery. Born in 1972 in Turkey, Yavuz grew up in Germany and completed his studies in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His first banking job led him to Singapore in 1999. Fascinated by the artistic voices in the region, he started collecting Southeast Asian Art. In 2009 he opened a commercial gallery space in Singapore and left his corporate job to pursue a career as a gallerist.

Do you feel the role of the gallerist has changed, in recent years? Have your motivations and vision shifted or changed since you first established Yavuz Gallery in 2010?

The art world and business models have shifted and changed over the last ten years. For instance, the incredible and swift rise of social media, particularly Instagram, has ushered in a shift in how we experience, share and conceive images and art. Collectors can now easily search at will for information, and likewise galleries are able to easily reach out and provide additional spaces (digitally or otherwise) to showcase their artists. This in turn has opened up a myriad of new roles a gallery must embrace, which is increasingly multi-faceted and complex. It has a democratising effect – we are part of wider dialogues and can reach broader audiences, including artists, art professionals and collectors. Personal and relationship management is still core to my business.

The gallery’s vision has remained the same since 2010. We predominantly work with artists from the region who have a strong social significance to their works, which is the guiding principle behind our programming. In the past three years, the stable of our represented artists has increased to include artists from Australia and New Zealand.

How do you see Yavuz Gallery positioned in the artistic landscape of Southeast Asia?

For us, focus and consistency in our programming are important. The gallery is committed to showcasing Southeast Asian and artists from the Pacific region and beyond. We work equally with young and established artists.

You lived in Hong Kong prior to moving to Singapore. Why did you choose Singaporeas the birthplace of your gallery? What aspects of Singapore’s scene and potential prompted your choice?

I think we are in a unique position here as a commercial gallery in Singapore. We are functioning in an environment highly supported by a government programme, which runs parallel. There is a lot of funding to establish Singapore as one of the key hubs, and as a hub that links Australasia up with China, Japan, Pakistan, the Middle East, etc. There are institutions here such as the National Gallery Singapore and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, and an incredible group of people run them – many of whom are well respected in the region and internationally. Eugene Tan for instance is voted one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Art Review’s “Power 100” for the sixth year running, which is a reflection not only of him but of the efforts on every level, whether commercial or institutional.

I had previously lived in Singapore from 1999 – 2001 and started collecting Southeast Asian art during that time. The art from this region was my first love and remains what I know best. Singapore is home to me and I am happy to be part of a welcoming commercial and institutional community that supports each other. Having said that, Hong Kong is also much fun and I love visiting on a regular basis.

You’ve expanded to Sydney. Why Sydney, and what are some key differences between the markets of Singapore and Sydney?

Opening our second permanent space in Sydney was a natural progression for the gallery – Since 2013 we have been showcasing Southeast Asian art in Australia and vice versa. We have been working on building a bridge between the two regions and opening a space there cements it. Sydney attracts many of its local Australian collectors as well as collectors from New Zealand, some of whom might find it too far to travel to Singapore.

Installation view of Yavuz Gallery Sydney’s inaugural exhibition, Abdul Abdullah, Contested Territories (15 September – 27 October 2019). Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Your exhibitions prioritise a strong social significance, while balancing commercial viability. Could you share more about the challenges and opportunities of this often delicate balance?

I don’t believe that having strong social significance necessarily opposes commercial viability. As mentioned, the gallery champions artists with a strong conceptual basis who are leading in their own specific field. We love presenting exhibitions with an element of surprise like our recent solo booth by Ronald Ventura at Art Jakarta. If they happen to be commercially viable, that’s fantastic!

Within the gallery’s yearly exhibition programme, it seems that solo presentations feature more strongly than group exhibitions. What drives this approach?

I feel that with solo exhibitions, the artist has more freedom to explore and tease out the nuances in their practice and specific conceptualisations. It allows them to showcase their works in an entirety instead of pieces. The gallery associates with artists and their works that are socially significant, conceptually driven or otherwise, and I feel that solo presentations tend to fulfil that direction and vision more rigorously.

While you represent artists from a wide range of backgrounds, there seems to be a leaning towards painting practices. What is it about the medium and practice of painting that continues to compel and inspire, in an age many may describe as ‘post-medium’? Who are some important contemporary painters, or artists employing the medium of painting, in Southeast Asia today?

I feel there has been a resurgence of painting practices, particularly with young painters from the region in response to the advent of said “post-medium” age. We are encouraged to see this return in our repertoire of artists, for instance with Alvin Ong, Yeo Kaa and Luke Heng

Could you let us in on a few young artists from the region you’ve been excited about and provoked by?

There are so many! To start, Singaporean artist Khairullah Rahim creates these complex mixed-media assemblages that blend the found and the new, from objects sourced through specific sites that minority and marginalised communities occupy. These sites, and therefore objects in the artwork, are imbued with powerful symbols that refer to their lived experiences and realities, which are often hidden in plain sight. He provides a powerful voice and platform for these communities. Khairullah is also currently part of the Singapore Biennale with one of the largest installations he has made called Intimate Apparitions.

Ronson Culibrina from the Philippines, paints these lush colourful paintings that depict the clash between tradition and modernisation. Oftentimes, he looks at this through the prism of ecological damages, inspired by his own coastal hometown in the Philippines. While inspired by a crisis, Ronson injects playful elements with references to pop culture (such as a Kusama-like polka dotted tentacle rising from the sea and chasing fishermen). Ronson was recently named one of the Top 10 Young and Inspiring Filipinos, and he has been chosen by Forbes as one of its 30 Under 30 Asia in the arts.

Ronson Culibrina, Walk the Talk, 2020, Oil on linen canvas and bamboo. Image courtesy of the artist, the Working Animals Art Projects and Yavuz Gallery.

With the Singapore art scene in mind, do you think there is a need for commercial galleries and public art institutions to work in closer tandem? How can closer cooperation bring about more fruitful dialogues and offerings for the public?

Absolutely, both commercial galleries and public art institutions are part of the larger art ecosystem. One cannot do without the other; there is a symbiosis in the relationship. Galleries present and nurture younger and emerging artists, as they have the capacity and flexibility to do so. This in turn ideally feeds into later shows at institutions. In doing so, institutions support the galleries, allowing them to be able to do what they do. It all comes full circle.

What are some exciting programmes or plans in store for Yavuz Gallery in 2020?

We have an incredible line-up this year with upcoming shows in 2020. The first one in Singapore will be with Ronson Culibrina opening during Singapore Art Week. Later in the year we will showcase leading Burmese artist Po Po, as well as Tada Hengsapkul from Thailand.

In Sydney, we are opening shows with Australian artists Debra Dawes and Dean Cross, as well as husband-and-wife-duo Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan for the first half of the year.

Aside from this, the gallery is also participating in art fairs in Tokyo, New York for the first time, alongside our staple participations in Taipei Dangdai, Art Fair Philippines, and Art Basel Hong Kong.

Yavuz Gallery will be participating in S.E.A. Focus 2020, presenting works by Luke Heng. Click here to find out more.

Exploring (Trans)regional Locality with Jasdeep Sandhu

Jasdeep Sandhu founded Gajah Gallery in 1996, and the Yogya Art Lab in 2012, based on his dedication to promoting artists from the region and highlighting their international relevance. Over the years, the gallery has reinvigorated academic contributions to the category of Indonesian art and history, with landmark shows such as “Lokanat: Ground Zero, Intersections: Latin American and Southeast Asian Contemporary Art”, and “Semsar Siahaan – Points of View”, as well as supporting the production of some of the most extensive printed publications on seminal Indonesian artists and collectives.

Furthermore, Gajah Gallery has collaborated with several national institutions, holding Srihadi Soedarsono’s joint show with Chua Ek Kay at the Singapore Art Museum in 2005, and exhibitions on Yunizar and the Jendela Art Group at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum in 2007 & 2009. Jasdeep has also donated several artworks to these institutions, and as recognition of these generous contributions, was awarded the Patron of Heritage Award in 2008 by the National Heritage Board of Singapore.

In 2013, Jasdeep was appointed as co-chair of the Inaugural Asia Society Art Gala in Hong Kong, a prestigious charity event honouring three art practitioners for their significant contributions to the field of Asian contemporary art.

Gajah Gallery has mounted a number of exhibitions in locations around the world since its establishment in 1996. Do you think a concept of the ‘global’ has changed for the arts industry in recent times? Has this affected the ways in which Gajah Gallery positions itself within Southeast Asia and, more broadly, on the international stage?

Since Gajah’s founding in 1996, Southeast Asian fine art has definitely witnessed an increased visibility on the international stage, whether through art fairs, biennales, museum exhibitions or, more recently, virtual displays and social media. In 2018, Centre Pompidou in Paris – one of the leading museums in the world – exhibited the pioneering Malaysian modernist painter Latiff Mohidin. In February 2021, Pompidou will be exhibiting the works of another crucial figure in Southeast Asian modern art – Burmese painter Bagyi Aung Soe – and I’m honoured to share that around 50 artworks from the Gallery’s permanent collection will be on display. These are just two examples of how the concept of the ‘global’ is evolving in the arts industry.

Having a distinctly regional focus, the Gallery’s reaction to this exposure is to keep abreast with international standards. So far, we are very satisfied with what we have accomplished. When we participate in international art fairs, the Gallery’s artists garner as much commercial and institutional attention as artists from other parts in the world. A revealing example of this was when a Handiwirman Saputra installation in our collection, Tak Berakar, Tak Berpucuk No. 7 (No Roots, No Shoots No. 7), was featured at the central pavilion of the 2019 Venice Biennale, proving that the work truly stood apart for its curatorial and historical significance.

You have mentioned that the Yogya Art Lab (YAL) aspires to bring “local sculpture-making to an international standard”; throughout discussions of the YAL there also seems to be a recurrent push towards the ‘international’. To what extent would you say that the hierarchies between the local and trans-local are effectively navigated through the YAL’s programmatic structure?

The ‘international standard’ we speak of in describing YAL addresses the lack of foundries, laboratories and workshops dedicated to producing high quality contemporary art in Southeast Asia. During YAL’s early days, Indonesia-based artists Yunizar and Ashley Bickerton expressed their desire to explore sculptural possibilities in their work, particularly with bronze and aluminium mediums. As we aided artists in their experimentations with three-dimensional forms, we discovered that most of the local foundries in the area would not use pure bronze, affecting the quality of the patina and colours of the finished sculptures. This is the main reason why we had to move the casting process in-house, and transform YAL into a full-blown foundry.

Jason Lim and a craftsman preparing a kiln for sawdust firing at YAL, 2017. Photo courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

With YAL, we sought to provide a platform for artists where they need not feel burdened by a lack of access to quality resources, costs, and most crucially, time. We believe that when we set up a stable, conducive environment for artists to innovate and create freely, they can produce their best work. In YAL, Suzann Victor produced ethereal sculptures made of crushed glass and her iconic lens series that highlight women’s stories in Asia; Jane Lee explored pigmented concrete to create wall-based sculptural works that reframe masterpieces in art history; and Uji ‘Hahan’ Handoko created bold, polished bronze sculptures that continued his ironic critiques on the art market. The success of certain works produced at YAL is also testament to how they reach out to a broad, discerning international audience – most recently, British contemporary artist Damien Hirst collected one of Ashley Bickerton’s sleek and surreal bronze sculptures, Shark.

In an interview with Ocula back in 2015, you mentioned encouraging organisers of Bazaar Art Jakarta (now Art Jakarta) to take a firmer stance towards supporting “fine art”. The Yogya Art Lab seems also to straddle the realms of the artisanal and the ‘white cube’. How would you describe the YAL’s contemporary relationship with Indonesian craft and local expertise in traditional sculpture?

Craft, be it in Indonesia or anywhere else in the world, is a highly respected trade, yet oftentimes overlooked. In Southeast Asia, contemporary artists have recently been reclaiming the trade, questioning and blurring the boundaries between craft and fine art. For example, Bali-based Ashley Bickerton has not only found inspiration in the crafts of Indonesia, but also absorbed them into his work, seamlessly integrating traditional crafts into rich, complex and provocative works of art.

Patrick Kipper conducting training at YAL with local craftsmen and foundry director James Page, 2015. Photo courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

At the YAL, most of the artisans and technicians are graduates of the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI) Yogyakarta [The Indonesian Institute of the Arts Yogyakarta], one of Indonesia’s foremost contemporary art schools. Thus, these artisans are not only highly trained in their traditional craft, but they also have an incredible aptitude for producing quality works of contemporary art. We strive to enrich their already strong expertise in traditional crafts, while simultaneously expanding their contemporary perspective and enabling them to embrace new techniques, such as 3D-modelling and printing. In 2015, we invited the internationally renowned, Colorado-based patina expert Patrick Kipper to train the team on highly specialised bronze processes, allowing the team to broaden the capacities of the foundry, and consequently, match the innovative, creative visions of the artists in residence.

Gajah Gallery’s current exhibition “Navigating Entropy: Artists-in-Residence” opened just recently. Could you tell us more about the significance of this exhibition, and how ‘entropy’ figures as a framework for the showcase?

The exhibition is a watershed show for us in terms of how far we have come in YAL; not only does the show trace our accomplishments over the past eight years, it points towards a very strong potential for the future in terms of producing invaluable works in the region that continuously meet international standards, both commercially and institutionally.

Exhibition installation view of “Navigating Entropy”, 2020. Photo courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

The works produced by our artists in residence were incredibly diverse. Thus, we had to find a common thread to frame their works that simultaneously did not constrict or limit their meanings. ‘Entropy’ served as the perfect entry point to connect the works together, as it offers an insight not so much into the finished product, but the process behind their creations at YAL. As they navigated new territories in their residencies – both literally immersing in the new ‘territory’ of Yogyakarta and figuratively facing the daunting process of taking bold steps in their art practice – the artists, in varying degrees, allowed a sense of ‘entropy’ and chaos to enter their artistic processes. Whether they were expanding from two-dimensional to three-dimensional forms, or from a solitary to a more collaborative practice for the first time, it was in taking that leap into entropy, I would argue, that enabled them to move beyond orthodoxies and conventions in their oeuvres, and in turn produce inventive works that went beyond their expectations.

What are some projects or ideas Gajah Gallery is working on at the moment? What can audiences expect in the months to come?

Next year marks a major milestone in the history of Gajah Gallery as we will be celebrating our 25th anniversary! Expect a year of festivities as we kick-off January 2021 with a landmark solo exhibition of Ashley Bickerton, followed by a collaboration with the Centre Pompidou on the aforementioned Aung Soe show. We will then be launching a publication on Jogja-based Yunizar, which looks back on his works and practice over the last two decades. And of course, we are planning something big for our 25th anniversary celebratory show, gathering over twenty artists we have worked with since the Gallery’s inception.

Later on in the year, we are also looking forward to publishing a seminal book on contemporary Indonesian art, and launching a major exhibition featuring three women artists from Singapore and their monumental works created at YAL.

Exploring Yogyakarta with Mella Jaarsma

Mella Jaarsma has become known for her complex costume installations and her focus on forms of cultural and racial diversity embedded within clothing, the body, and food. She was born in the Netherlands in 1960, studied visual art at Minerva Academy in Groningen (1978-1984), Art Institute of Jakarta (1984) and at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta (1985-1986). She has lived and worked in Indonesia ever since. In 1988, she co-founded Cemeti Art House, now called Cemeti Institute for Art & Society with Nindityo Adipurnomo, one of the first spaces for contemporary art in Indonesia, which to this day remains an important platform for young artists and art workers in the country and region.

Mella Jaarsma’s works have been presented widely in exhibitions and art events in Indonesia and abroad, including: ‘Dunia Dalam Berita’, Macan Museum, Jakarta (2019); the Thailand Biennale (2018); the 20th Sydney Biennale (2016); ‘The Roving Eye’, Arter, Istanbul(2014); ‘Singapore Biennale’, Singapore Art Museum (2011), and many others. Her work is part of the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, National Gallery of Australia and the Singapore Art Museum, amongst others.

Under what socio-cultural and socio-political conditions was Cemeti birthed? Are you still responding to those conditions to date, and have your motivations and vision for the space shifted or morphed since its establishment?

By the late 1980s, well over a decade after the founding of the New Art Movement, there were only a handful of artists who continued to challenge the political status quo in Indonesia. The newly opened Cemeti, however, provided space for experimental practices and diverse art forms, thereby becoming a playground that nurtured an emerging generation of artists who in the 1990sre-engaged with socially and politically focused works. Cemeti provided a place for artists to meet and to present their works free from state, institutional, or market regulations and conservatism. We went on to create diverse programmes and encourage audiences to become part of the art scene, participating in group discussions, artists’ talks, events, etc. When selecting artists to work with, we were not so much looking for the “new” in the sense of “avant-garde”, but rather for work that had something to say, raising questions and proposing different perspectives through its visual language.

We have been running Cemeti for ten years under the Suharto regime. The different eras since then are very much reflected throughout our programmes and projects, but the basic concept of providing space for diverse perspectives, discourses, and dialogues through the arts is still in place. Shifting social and political contexts, as well as the work and practice of different artists across generations, have also changed the form and focus of Cemeti. When we started in 1988, our goal was simple: to create a space for artists to meet and exhibit their work. As time went on, we engaged with the social and cultural climate, hoping to learn from it and develop projects that were relevant to the conditions in Indonesia at any given moment. Our main tactic for survival was to stay under the radar while connecting to local realities. Our exhibitions and projects were connected to the local public in a fast-changing society, while at the same time we tried to make the work of the Indonesian scene visible to the international art world.

What position does Cemeti occupy in the development of Indonesian contemporary art, and what existing positions or forces does it seek to challenge and problematise?

In the beginning, we had to fulfill the task of ‘promoting’, to get the Indonesian artists on the International map, when in the nineties slowly there started to be an interest of what was happening in South East Asia. So we started with documenting, creating artist’s files, publications and connecting the artists to curators, as well as trying to bring the artists further in career by seeking further studies, residencies, etc. The international exchange and the growing art infrastructure in Indonesia had brought many changes. The art scene is dynamic and nowadays it feels much more like we can work and collaborate on different issues with many partners, looking into different challenges like; government support, alternative education, the dominance of the art market, growing conservatism, public involvement, censorship, etc.  

The term “laboratory” or “laboratorium” is often used to describe art spaces, particularly artist-run ones, in Indonesia. What do you think is the allure or effectiveness of such a term? Would you describe Cemeti as a “laboratory”?

I think every space has their own vision and objectives. I think Cemeti is not a laboratory, because we care as much of communicating to our public as the development of artists and art workers. But anyhow, the work that we have been doing in Cemeti, I see it as being in a kitchen, experimenting, trying things out, with a focus on the process and discussion. We (the artists run spaces) are cooking, while the museums, commercial galleries, and art fairs can ‘eat the food that is ready’ to consume.    

How would you characterise the energy and spirit of collectivising in Indonesia, specifically in Yogyakarta, where collectives like MES 56 and Taring Padi were founded? Are there common urgencies that drive their approach, and how do they contrast or support art education in the country?

Yogyakarta is the melting pot of artists from different regions and cultures in Indonesia. Artists come from other islands and areas to study art in Yogyakarta, after which they often don’t return because there is no art infrastructure. I see the community-based art practices in Yogyakarta as a sort of alternative education system. With the character of the city in which it is easy to ‘go around’ and ‘hang around’, artists’ communities are sort of organically taking shape during or after official education.  Some of them arise from frustration, criticising the dated art education system, or from protests towards the government like Taring Padi, or because they share a passion in a specific discipline, like MES 56 with video and photography.  

With no government support, for young artists to work in a community-based manner is a liberating endeavour. They can set their own rules and it is an important playground to develop all kinds of aspects. But on the other hand, I also criticise the communities that sometimes play too safely – they can hide, and they don’t make an individual statement through their art; in this way, too much is compromised.

You take on multiple roles that, for certain, converge in many ways – as artist, teacher, “art worker”; do you find one taking precedence over the rest? What do you consider your work or your practice?

I think this also reflects the situation in Indonesia. If you want things to happen you depend on personal initiatives, which grow out of necessity. So working in Cemeti is as important for me as developing my work as an artist.  Throughout 28 years of running Cemeti together with the team, I spent 80% of my time at that job. I am now happy to be balancing this after stepping out for three years and being able to now spend approximately 80% of my time on my art practice.  

What is the significance of IVAA, and do you feel that the function of and engagement with the archive differs between Indonesia and Europe?  

This archive-cum-foundation was also founded out of urgency. When we started in 1995, no visual art archive existed, except the Jakarta Art Council archive. In that sense, it is very different from the European archives, in which an awareness of the importance of historical materials is part of government policies. Because of the lack of an established infrastructure with museums and other institutions in Indonesia, on one hand, most roles in the arts like curators, achievers, and art historians are self-taught and develop slowly, but on the other hand, this also creates space and freedom to work in non-conventional ways.

Who are some younger artists and/or art projects in the Southeast Asian region you’ve been excited about and provoked by? Why?

The contemporary art scene in Indonesia has been limited to Java and Bali and is particularly clustered in such cities as Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta. When we talk about Indonesian artists we usually mean artists from Java or artists from other regions who settled in Java, because of its art institutional landscape. I was very excited to see the Biennale Jogja XVEquator #5, which took place this year and had the title ‘Do we live in the same PLAYGROUND?’. It was curated by Akiq AW and Arham Rahman from Indonesia, and Penwadee Nophaket Manont from Thailand. Bringing together artists and collectives from Southeast Asia, it finally included artists from regions like Aceh, Kalimantan, Madura, Sulawesi and Pattani, drawing into the center issues of the periphery. This was also the first Biennale in Indonesia with a balanced selection of female artists.

What are some of your upcoming projects or collaborations in 2020 we can look forward to?

I am looking forward to the upcoming two-year focus on Cemeti’s programme ‘Rhizomatic Archipelago’, which will run land, sea and river residencies for diverse communities across the Indonesia archipelago. I am also working towards my solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Jakarta which will take place in July 2020, curated by Alia Swastika. I am excited to show my works from the past ten years, as they haven’t been exhibited together. I am concurrently working on a new series of work – after the exhibition in Jakarta, I hope to show everything back at my basecamp, Yogyakarta!

Mella is a panellist for the S.E.A. Focus talk Southeast Asia Art Watch: Indonesia alongside Dr. Oei Hong Djien, Mira Asriningtyas, Dito Yuwono, and Tom Tandio. Click here to find out more.

Unforgetting Weretigers

If you find someone at night when you are sitting on a raised platform waiting for game, give that person a matchbox. If the person cannot light a fire, then shoot. That thing is a weretiger. 

This is a tale I heard over a bonfire almost twenty years ago. Weretigers are known in Thailand as Sa-ming. The common threads are they are either a human who shapeshifts into a tiger, or a tiger who transforms into a human. If the tiger were originally a human, then that person had used magic to change into a tiger. If it were a tiger, it had eaten a human. Regardless of their original form, weretigers act the same way: they hunt humans. The subject of weretigers caught my interest again in recent years from the theatre production Ten Thousand Tigers (2014) by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen, and an article on George Coleman’s tiger attack by Kevin Chua.[1] Nonetheless, weretiger stories do not specifically belong to Thailand, Singapore or Southeast Asia alone. One can also find them in Southern China, India and Sri Lanka. This means that the genre’s dissemination was subject to the inhabitants and the frequency of encounters between the two species. The declining accounts of weretigers tells us beyond the disappearance of man-eaters themselves; it might hint at the lack of diverse relationships with nature in ourselves. 

Cover of Long-Prai: Tuktapee (7th Edition, 1993).

In Thailand, weretiger stories were first recorded in King Chulalongkorn’s journal on a trip to Chanthaburi, south-east of Bangkok. He wrote that there were three weretigers in the town. They were men who stole weretiger oil from their master and ran away from Cambodia.[2] Later, after the Second World War, a literary genre emerged that was dedicated specifically to the jungle. Influenced by adventure novels about “white hunters” in Africa, Thai writers produced adventure fiction that took place in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. The first of its kind was Long-Prai [ล่องไพร], a series of adventure stories featuring a Thai amateur hunter from Bangkok and his sidekick who was a Karen (a hill tribe). They usually assisted anthropologists or ethnographers from the West in their exploration treks to unknown villages or civilisations. In the novels, the reader would see the Thai hunter mediating the tension between Western scientific knowledge and local folk beliefs. Of course, the author Malai Chupinit (1906 -1963) suggested that the best practice would be a combination of the two.[3] The novel speaks of the common attitude of Thais, which while tending to believe in modern weaponry over black magic,remains true to the dharma of Buddhism. Ironically, this genre is also where animistic and mythical accounts, such as that of the weretiger, were documented and preserved before they vanished following the conversion of untamed nature into Cold War battlefields and national parks. Long-Prai would later become one of the inspiration sources for Apichatpong Weraseetakul’s Tropical Melody (2004) which represented the environmental poetics of the jungle being preserved in a film. 

In lelaki harimau [Man Tiger: A Novel] (2004), Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian writer, also wrote about weretigers. The story, set in Indonesia after the Second World War, tells the story of Margio, a skilled young hunter who received the spirit of a white tigress from his grandfather. Interestingly, the story takes place on the outskirts of a small town rather than in a jungle. Kurniawan spends a great deal of the story describing the rapid spread of modernity and colonization of nature through monoculture plantation. When Margio as a young boy escaped from the town and travelled through the jungle to meet with his grandfather in a faraway village, Kurniawan adds small touches of magical realism. He describes the relationship of the child to genies in the forest, who would guide him to his grandfather’s village. Learning from a storyteller that his grandfather had inherited a tigress from the ancestor, Margio asked what if he did not inherit her. His grandfather replied, “[s]he will go to your son, or your grandson, or she might never reappear if our family forgets her.”[4] We do not know for sure whether the tigress ‘skipped’ a generation and missed the modern subject of father or not, but the tigress came to Margio because he does not forget. Despite the story ending in tragedy, lelaki harimau highlights how quickly one belief disappears because of the change of its surroundings. But the question that remains and matters is – why should we remember weretigers today? 

I want to point out that the disappearance of weretigers is only a symptom of a bigger problem. It entails the disappearance of the aesthetic experience of a jungle, or a tropical forest as such. If the number of tigers in a forest shows its biodiversity, a declining number of stories about weretigers would indicate the lack of diversity in our perception toward nature, as it is being rapidly consumed in the Capitalocene age. When the forest is being converted into scientific discoveries, natural resources and leisure spaces, its magic perishes. It has also marked the disappearance of the contact zone in experience where things could remain withdrawn, mysterious and sacred. Fortunately, this experience is preserved in literature and revived by contemporary art. Nonetheless, we should choose to remember it despite its absence, so that weretigers can continue to reappear even in a future where there is no raised platform for game. 

Published January 2021.


[1] Kevin Chua, “The Tiger and the Theodolite: George Coleman’s Dream of Extinction,” FOCAS: Forum on Contemporary Art and Society, August 1, 2007: 124-149.

[2] King Chulalongkorn, Prarajaniponsadejprapartchantaburi [พระราชนิพนธ์เสด็จประพาศจันทบุรี], Cremation Volume of Chao Chom Manda Sud, 1912, 145-146.

[3] Long-Prai was on air first as a radio drama in 1955 via Thai Television before converted into publications. The novels contain a detailed account of the environment of a vast jungle beyond Thailand as the explorers traveled even beyond Southeast Asia to Nagaland and New Guinea.

[4] Eka Kurniawan, Man Tiger: A Novel, Translated by Labodalih Sembiring, New York: Verso, 2015, E-book edition.

About the Writer

Photo courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

Vipash Purichanont is a curator based in Bangkok. He is a lecturer at the department of Art History at the faculty of Archeology, Silpakorn University. His curatorial projects include ‘Kamin Lertchaiprasert: 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit’ (Chicago, 2011), ‘Tawatchai Puntusawasdi: Superfold’ (Kuala Lumpur, 2019) and ‘Concept Context Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia’ (Bangkok, Yogyakarta, Hanoi, Yangon, 2013-2019). He was an assistant curator for the first Thailand Biennale (Krabi, 2018), a curator of Singapore Biennale 2019 (Singapore, 2019), and a co-curator of the second Thailand Biennale (Korat, 2021). He is a co-founder of Waiting You Curator Lab, a curatorial collective based in Chiangmai.

Weaving Memories

Exploring Trauma and Forgotten Histories in the Works of Dinh Q. Lê

1978: ten-year-old Dinh Q. Lê steps onto a small, overcrowded fishing boat in Southern Vietnam. Together with his mother and several family members, they drift across the Gulf of Thailand, spending a year in a Thai refugee camp before heading to the United States. 

Considered one of the world’s most renowned Vietnamese contemporary artists, Lê’s artistic creations germinated in a pond of cloudy memories and second-hand recollections of the Vietnam War[1] and its aftermath, continuously striving to remember and preserve a part of history that risks being forgotten. The systematic revisiting of these traumatic memories is a distinctive characteristic of his multi-disciplinary practice, one that continuously looks at a history that is difficult to remember yet impossible to forget. Does this process of repetition provide a platform for Lê to reconcile with a troubled and amorphous past, abating the emotional impact of not only experiencing the war but also the guilt of surviving it? With a look at Sigmund Freud’s[2] theorization of trauma, a better understanding of Lê’s practice as one that “merges fact, fiction, and personal recollections to create a tapestry of memories”[3] can be attained.

Lê was born in 1968, in Hà-Tiên, a small town in the south of Vietnam. His family lived through the war, eventually fleeing to the United States when the Khmer Rouge[4] started making cross-border incursions from neighbouring Cambodia. Arriving in California in 1979, he grew up with Hollywood depictions of a war whose history had been written almost exclusively by the West. Lê explains that “as a child growing up in Simi Valley, California, with the distant memories of a country whose culture and imagery was being fed back to me via mainstream television and film, it was at times difficult to pinpoint which memories were mine or popularly inherited.”[5] This volatile interchange between memory and illusion, fact and fiction, recurs in his practice, which is still galvanized by the process of perceiving the Vietnam War through a Vaselined lens.

The definition of ‘trauma’ centres on intense personal suffering, and is one of the many afflictions that Sigmund Freud studied throughout his career. After World War I, he was intrigued by the propensity of his patients to repeat and re-live unpleasant experiences. He observed that this compulsion was prevalent after sudden and unexpected shocks; the brain inflicts the same traumatic damage on itself, repeatedly. The element of surprise or fright was constant across these patients, the normal defences against danger not having time to operate and the individual being overwhelmed by dread. As a young child experiencing the onslaught of war and having to flee the country, Lê was exposed to a plethora of unpredictable and shocking events. This characteristic of repeatedly reliving these traumas is reflected not only in the subject matter of his works, but also in the processes he uses to create them.

The Vietnam War sparked a renewed interest in the topic of trauma and 1980 saw the formal acknowledgement of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by the American Psychiatric Association. The method of catharsis, where patients uncover original traumas and purge harrowing memories by vividly recalling them, was pioneered by Freud and has subsequently been widely used to treat patients suffering from PTSD. After years of suppressing his childhood memories, Lê’s recollections resurfaced upon returning to Vietnam in 1993. Through his practice, he grapples with his own traumatic experiences and draws attention to the victims of the same conflicts, memorializing them through the act of creation. Through this process of catharsis, he not only pays tribute to the casualties of war, but also forever attaches his name to them.

Dinh Q. Lê, Untitled From Vietnam to Hollywood (paratroopers), 2005, C-print and linen tape. Photo courtesy of Ocula.

Merging Eastern and Western cultures, Lê’s works have ventured into the realm of large-scale photo montages and installations, documentary film, and appropriated objects and images. His re-interpretation of traditional grass mat weaving has become his trademark, a technique he learned from an aunt during his childhood in Hà-Tiên. Focusing on the recent history of Vietnam, Lê explores themes of loss and redemption, ensuring that the histories of those who perished in its wake are not forgotten. Whilst at the University of California, he engaged with the topic of the Vietnam War for the first time. Frustrated by “an Asian culture with which the West was for a time intimately and violently engaged with, but about which it knew almost nothing about,”[6] Lê produced a series of posters juxtaposing American media images of the war with photos of Vietnamese suffering, unmasking the contradictory accounts of the conflict’s history (Fig. 1).[7] This was the beginning of a practice that continues to challenge the apathy towards war memories and shines a spotlight on forgotten histories.

Dinh Q. Lê,  Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness Triptych, 2005, photo weaving and linen paper. Photo courtesy of Fine Art Biblio.

A trip to Cambodia in 1994 resulted in Lê’s acclaimed Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness series (Fig. 2). He visited the temples in Siem Reap and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh,[8] located at the site of the Khmer Rouge prison and execution centre. Shocked by the contrast between the cruelty of the regime and the beauty of the temples, Lê began working on a series of photo weavings that blended the images of the intricate temple carvings with haunting photographs of the prisoners. Cutting the images into strips, he weaved them together as a way of intertwining cultures and identities.[9] In a careful and repetitive manner, he interweaves the faces of the prisoners with images of the monuments that were also privy to the deaths of countless individuals who helped build them. The artist revisited this series during a residency at STPI in 2018,[10] throwing himself into this compelling act of repetition (Fig. 3).[11]

Dinh Q. Lê, Splendor & Darkness (STPI) #32, 2017, foiling and screen print on Stonehenge paper and archival print on Awagami bamboo paper. Photo courtesy of ArtAsiaPacific.jpg.

The attempt to justify abject brutality and unfathomable aggression under the pretext of war, is one that continues to challenge those who have not only experienced it but also suffer the emotional consequences of having survived it. Shaped by his own recollections of the war, together with second-hand memories and photographic cues, Lê has used his practice as both a refuge and a vessel to immortalise those who no longer have a voice. Freud noted that traumas are alternately relived and suppressed, and Lê’s process of healing and acceptance of his past continues to be an onerous one. Reflecting on the experience of living through but also later remembering the war from afar, his works offer a distanced view of a history that he was born into but living away from. With his photo-weavings now firmly established as his trademark, the repetitive nature of Lê’s practice sees him continuously revisiting the past. Is this done in an attempt to deal with a troubled history or is his mind unable to process these traumatic events, compelling him to continuously relive them? Is war ever truly over for those who have experienced it so vehemently? The nature of suffering is a complex and multifaceted one; whilst Lê’s art has set him on a journey of catharsis, this is one where the destination is still unknown.

Published January 2021.


[1] The Vietnam War took place between 1954 and 1975. It was officially fought between North and South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese army supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist allies and the South Vietnamese one backed by the United States, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and other anti-communist allies. US military involvement escalated in 1961 and continued until their withdrawal in 1973. Two years later, Communist forces ended the war by seizing control of South Vietnam and in 1976 the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

[2] Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist best known for developing the theories and techniques of psychoanalysis. Freud posited that neuroses had their origins in deeply traumatic experiences that had occurred in the past, forgotten and hidden from consciousness. His theories on child sexuality, libido and the ego, are some of the most influential academic concepts of the twentieth century.

[3] Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio, “Contemporary Asian Art.” (Singapore: Thames & Hudson, 2010).  

[4] In an attempt to socially engineer a classless communist society in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge government, led by Pol Pot, rose to power in 1975 after winning the Cambodian Civil War. Forcibly depopulating the country’s cities, they targeted and murdered perceived political opponents and carried out a genocide in which an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people were killed or died (source: Encyclopaedia Britannica). The Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979.

[5] Dinh Q. Lê, “On Dinh” in Dinh Q. Lê: Monuments and Memorials, exhibition catalogue, 2018 (Singapore: STPI 2018), 12.

[6] Holland Cotter, “Vietnamese Voices Against a Whir of War,” nytimes.com, USA, 12 August, 2010, accessed 23 April, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/arts/design/13dinh.html

[7] Lê blended iconic images of the Vietnam War with documentary photographs and anonymous family portraits that he had bought in thrift shops in Vietnam, Lê created a tapestry of memories and fictions that all merge together. From Vietnam to Hollywood explored and reflected upon the experience of living through and later remembering the war from a distance.

[8] A former secondary school, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, was used as a prison and interrogation centre during the Khmer Rouge regime. Soldiers, government officials, academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, to name a few, were imprisoned, tortured and killed during the four year regime. An estimated 17,000 people were murdered at the prison and only seven inmates survived.

[9] Photos are cut into strips and the ones placed horizontally are woven into the vertical ones.

[10] Lê’s exhibition at STPI – Monuments and Memorials (17 March – 12 May, 2018) establishes a strong connection between previous works and his STPI residency. He revised the Cambodia: Splendour and Darkness series and adopted the same weaving technique and style for these new works. Having previously done little with the print medium and no papermaking experience, Lê was pushed out of his comfort zone, going beyond the weaving process and creating new three-dimensional works.

[11] As Freud points out in his research findings, repetition itself is the aim of the compulsion.


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Chiu, Melissa and Benjamin Genocchio. Contemporary Asian Art. Singapore: Thames & Hudson, 2010.

Conway, Martin. A. ‘Memory and Desire: Reading Freud.’ The Psychologist, September 2006.

Coombe, Sofia. ‘Trauma & Memory: Weaving the Past and Present in the Works of Dinh Q. Lê.’ Masters essay, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2018.

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Reid, Anthony, A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads. UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Singapore Art Museum. Still Moving: A Triple Bill On The Image. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2014. Exhibition catalogue.

Snowden, Ruth. Freud: The Key Ideas. From psychoanalysis and sex to dreams, the unconscious and more. Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017.

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About the Writer

Based in Singapore, Sofia is an art consultant and independent curator who holds a Master of Arts, Asian Art Histories, from Goldsmiths University of London through LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore.

With over a decade in Southeast Asia, Sofia was the Press and Media Relations at STPI – Creative Workshop and Gallery for 2 years. In 2016, she founded Art Locker, a Singapore-based art consultancy offering marketing, PR, curatorial and strategic advice, as well as artist representation. She has collaborated with a plethora of artists from the region, curating shows and managing special projects. In 2019 she partnered with Amador Arts Projects on the production of a short video on audience reception of Cambodian-American artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s ‘The Buddhist Bug’ performance in Kuala Lumpur.

Sofia is the co-founder of Art World Database, a new online compendium of Southeast Asian contemporary artists, set to launch in 2021.

Unearthing Cultural Realities with Shubigi Rao

Artist and writer Shubigi Rao’s interests include archaeology, neuroscience, libraries, archival systems, histories and lies, literature and violence, ecologies and natural history. Rao has also been featured at international biennials and festivals such as the March Meets 2019 as part of the 14th Sharjah Biennial; the 4th Kochi Biennale, India (2018); the 10th Taipei Biennial, Taipei, Taiwan (2016); 3rd Pune Biennale, Pune, India (2017); Singapour Mon Amour, Paris, France (2015); Digital Arts Festival, Copenhagen, Denmark (2013); and the 2nd Singapore Biennale, Singapore (2008). She is currently Curator for the upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2020.

You’ve been appointed as curator for the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. What do you regard as your primary cultural and curatorial responsibilities in this role?

As the first curator for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) not based in India, and as a Singaporean, I see this as an opportunity to spotlight the vivid practices and discourses in South and Southeast Asia (while simultaneously examining the terms), especially in relation to the global south. 

I see the KMB as being more than a cultural staging area; it is a crucible within which these intersecting discourses and practices can occur. As a possible knowledge commons, the conversations that would emerge from the exhibition, the seminars and other programming would be vital in demonstrating the diversity of strategies that artists employ. Though we may share the same concerns of land, migration, the climate crisis, rising neo-fascism and the future of technology for instance, we diverge in our methods and approaches in thinking and in making. This is what I’ve been looking for during my curatorial research and travel over the last six months. This diversity of strategies, methods, and production can be emphasised and shared. It is not a new approach, and is evident in places and practices such as the significant work increasingly being done by artist collectives. A powerful example would be the multiple acts of remembering and reintegrating precolonial community-based thinking and practices in performance. Active decolonising initiatives, unearthing of overlooked histories and bodies of knowledge – all these are of keen interest to my plans for the biennale, as they have always been in my work as an artist. 

The idea and site of a biennale often trigger critical discussions around the spectacle of exhibition and how localities are accessed, read, and exploited. To challenge this you speak about “reposition(ing) discourse and practice through acknowledging intersecting contexts”. What does that look like?

Given the scale of the Biennale (touted as South Asia’s largest arts festival), it can be challenging to ensure that the biennale doesn’t descend into a flattening spectacle, and the invariable fatigue of encountering so many artworks doesn’t devolve into shallow readings. While there are multiple ways to alleviate this, it becomes vital to recognise the importance of site as extending context. It is important to ensure that sites, especially heritage sites with immense historical baggage, do not subsume the works displayed.

Ideally, sites can provide sensory or cognitive cues to viewers that would, I hope, make the reading of regional specificities more fluid. A lot of contexts intersect – the most obvious one would be the similar and divergent ways that post-colonial nations continue to grapple with generational trauma, or the way so much of the global south continues to cater to the north, in terms of resources, but also in the neo-colonising of our nations as ideological battlegrounds. It isn’t simply about the ‘balance of power’ – itself a hierarchical phrase that denies other forms of power within communities and collectives – but about acknowledging that the rhetoric that privileges certain groups over others is already being reframed or dismantled, and a key aspect of this reframing involves the acknowledgement of intersecting contexts. 

One of the roles of cultural institutions, artists, writers, academics, etc. is to grapple with the issues of their times. In doing so it is easy to become disenchanted with, or apathetic about the state of our societies, our collective futures, and the planet. Yet I would argue that our fears for the future do not detract from our abilities to think and to make, but fuel our yearning to articulate through art the complexities of our realities. This affirming power of artistic work, no matter the medium, has been a keystone in my practice, and will continue to inform my curatorial work for the KMB. The ability of our species to flourish artistically in fraught and dire situations, this refusal in the face of disillusionment to disavow our poetry, our languages, our art and music, our optimism and humour, is a stubbornness to be celebrated. The communities that come together to make this happen are to be celebrated. This is what I hope to foreground in the next edition of the KMB.

What are your thoughts on how the term “Southeast Asia” is used to approach and frame the paradigm of art and cultural production in this region?

In formulating the curatorial structure of a biennale such as this, it is important to consider the problem of how we construct region. A key issue, for me, will always be the dangers of the appeal to authority, or the claim to speak on behalf of a region from a position of knowledge that, as a curator, is sometimes expected. Southeast Asia is a difficult term to reconcile, as it would appear to bring together states that diverge quite radically, but also given the complex geo-politics, histories, and cultures with porous ‘boundaries’ here, it presents them as a supposedly unified geographical region.

For me, the term is especially troubling because it assumes that we must read this rich tapestry, this multiplicity, primarily as state (or nation) first. This is especially applicable when we see how the interaction between cultures or communities is invariably framed as transnational or statist, where national identity is regarded as the signifier of all parties in the conversation. At the same I do recognise the importance of cultural production (in thinking, writing, and making) in postcolonial states having to grapple with what constitutes statehood, nation-building, and regional allyship. 

As an artist you’ve worked extensively with ink, from fluid ink renderings on paper that evoke old natural history illustrations, to publishing Pulp, a film, book and visual art project, in five volumes. What is your relationship to the medium and substance of ink?

I enjoy working in ink for many reasons, primarily for its unpredictability and because it resists control. I’ve worked with ink in its more fluid form as well as in etching and intaglio printmaking, and of course in bookmaking. I find it embodies the diffusion of contradictory impulses, of the impossibility of perfect clarity and communication. Ink is indelible, yet archivally fragile and prone to fading. My drawings hold that tension – from the shortness of the word to the expansiveness of bodies of knowledge signified by that word. Ink signifies the history of writing, drawing and print, but is destructive as well. In referring to the historical destruction of libraries (in this case the specific destruction of the House of Wisdom in 13thcentury Baghdad), I made River of Ink in 2008, an installation of a hundred handmade books filled with drawings and text about a hundred different fields of knowledge and then soaked the books in the same ink, destroying most of the content.

Shubigi Rao, River of Ink (detail), 2008

Your work is also frequently shaped by the notion and passage of time, particularly Pulp, a project that is 10 years long and that examines the history or histories of book destruction. How would you describe the character of time? How have your motivations for and sentiments towards a long-term project like Pulp shifted and transformed since you first began it?

We measure our lives in decades, and this is my second ten-year project. I do sometimes feel trapped — I miss making ironic work, playful and bizarre works (in the past I’ve even made satirical board games). Now, it’s just this project — which is why I can’t restrict myself in terms of media — I’m publishing five books, because one is not enoughand am making multiple short films and will make a couple of feature-length ones, or perhaps just a mountain of never-to-be-edited testimony.

The commitment to a project such as this, spanning the whole history of book and library destruction, and the history of books as resistance, is almost absolute, because the subject matter is so dire and demands that I not be removed from it. We have a fear of commitment because we have to live with our decisions, and I want to be able to live with this decision – to live with a project that would haunt me.  

Shubigi Rao, Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book Vol. I, 2016. Photo credit: Maria Clare Khoo.

As for my shifting sentiments towards the length of the Pulp project, I’m reminded of what I wrote in 2015, in the afterword to the first volume of Pulp: “This has been an impossible book to write. To convince myself, I’ve had to play the long con, telescoping it from an eighteen-month project to one that now spans a neat decade of my existence (paltry in the grand scheme, I know), and broken into ‘bite-sized chunks’ (ha) of two years each. This is a hire-purchase scheme, where each instalment involves a year and a half of travel, research, filming, recording, then crunching numbers into a cohesive tome with aesthetically arranged text and image (all balanced just so), with adequate academic cred and literary flourish, and where the outrage, anger and despair are tempered with humour and a pretend-objectivity… As I write this, I think of ISIS and what they have done to Hatra, Mosul and more. But more than that, I think of how dated this example of ISIS will have become, because of how much more will be lost (and how fresh tyrants are yet to be hatched) between this moment and the time these five books, this project, will be complete. This is a futile chronicle, but at the very least, I hope to point to that body, that corpus, that library, the book as collective humanity.”

What comes to mind when you are thinking about the forces driving art production in Singapore?

While the primary drivers may appear to still be heavily market-driven or state-supported, there are heartening outliers. It is gratifying to see the work of artist-initiated and -managed spaces like soft/Wall/studs, for instance, and for the programming they do that ranges far outside of standard exhibition production.

Who are some of the art collectives in the Southeast and wider South Asian regions you feel excited about and challenged by?

Too early in my curatorial research to disclose, but I would like to mention the effectiveness of collectives in decolonising and recording subsumed histories. I’m excited by the growth and quality of art historians, archivists and writers in Southeast Asia now, a number of whom are also working with living artists and artists spaces. 

Rao is a panellist for the S.E.A. Focus talk The Future of the Singapore Art Scene alongside Usha Chandradas, Connie Wong, and Honor Harger. Click here to find out more.