An Overlooked History: Southeast Asian Art Explores Afro-Asian History and its Affinities

“In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War”, installation view, 22 January – 13 March 2021. Image courtesy of ADM Gallery.
Simon Soon and Munirah Mansoor, Papan Soerih Perhimpoenan Orang Melayoe, 2021, digital print on paper, 3 panels of 45cm x 84.1cm. Image courtesy of ADM Gallery.
Yee I-Lann, Borneo Heart, 2021, Off-set print, printed at Sabah State Government Printers, 59.4cm x 84.1cm. Image courtesy of ADM Gallery.
Ming Wong, Sunu Jappo/手拉手/Hand in Hand (film still), 2019, single-channel video, 14 min 36 sec. Image courtesy of the artist.
Vuth Lyno, 25, 2018, three-channel video installation with sound, 32 min 07 sec. Image courtesy of ADM Gallery.
TOP
717
42
0
 
10
Feb
10
Feb
CoBo Social Market News Reports

What transregional connection did Africa and Southeast Asia forge during the Cold War period and what legacies did it leave behind? An exhibition in Singapore revisits this history through archival material and contemporary artworks.

 

TEXT: Durriya Dohadwala
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

“In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War” is a research exhibition that traces Afro-Asian legacies in the Southeast Asia region presented by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Through archival material and nine artworks, the exhibition highlights key events and interactions between Africa and Southeast Asia, as global and regional solidarity movements and resistance projects emerged post World War II to tackle issues of racism and colonialism. The exhibition traces historical linkages between early solidarity efforts including the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, and regional imaginations such as Maphilindo (The Great Malayan Confederation) to contemporary appropriations of Afro-Asian histories, such as China’s development of cultural infrastructure in Senegal. The exhibition also highlights how the Cold War and subsequent peace-keeping missions gave rise to cultural exchanges and mini economies as well as mixed race communities in some Southeast Asian countries. Co-curated by Kathleen Ditzig and Carlos Quijon Jr, it is part of the “Proposals for Novel Ways of Being initiative” that brings together the artistic community’s response to COVID-19.

 

“In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War”, installation view, 22 January – 13 March 2021. Image courtesy of ADM Gallery.

 

Quijon explains[i] that when thinking of trans-regional connections between Africa and Asia, the more common entry points are India and China as there is ample evidence of encounters and trade between these Asian countries and the continent. But with Southeast Asia there is very scant evidence of such affinities. As a result, the curators decided to interrogate the early iterations of Southeast Asia regionalism like Maphilindo to expand and give context to discourses of Afro-Asian solidarity. Works that open these conversations are located in the first gallery.

Papan Soerih Perhimpoenan Orang Melayoe (2020) reimagines an archive of the Perhimpoenan Orang Melayoe, a Masonic organisation founded in the early 1930s by Wenceslao Q. Vinzons (1910–42) who was an advocate of the unification of Southeast Asian nations with a common Malay origin (the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaya). The triptych is a collaborative work between artists Simon Soon and Munirah Mansoor that emerged from a three-month long period of discussion and research on the visual history of the Malay world. Like the Masonic tracing boards which it references, the three images depict the imagined stages in the hierarchies of the Perhimpoenan. Alongside recognisable geometric and architectural Masonic symbols are the artists’ imagined ones—paddy terraces, coconut trees and boats reference the commonalities of a Malayan Southeast Asia and the gendered circle of the uninitiated in the first board evolves into women of influence in the final board as you read them in Jawi from right to left.

 

Simon Soon and Munirah Mansoor, Papan Soerih Perhimpoenan Orang Melayoe, 2021, digital print on paper, 3 panels of 45cm x 84.1cm. Image courtesy of ADM Gallery.

 

Vinzons’ idea of a Pan Malayan nationhood was realised in 1963 when the late Filipino President Diosdado P. Macapagal (1910–97) convened a summit in Manila where the three countries signed a series of agreements to resolve controversies over the former British colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak joining Malaya. Though the confederation, known as Maphilindo, was dismantled within a month—with the formation of the Federation of Malaysia which included the disputed territories—the idea of a united Malaya still resonates in the present on the Internet.

Fyerool Darma’s Flags for the failed 1963 Maphilindo Confederation (2021) interrogates this through three hand-stitched flags. Each is an imagined representation of Maphilindo by amateur artists that Darma found on Internet communities and forums (Reddit and Deviant Art) as recently as within the last five years. This recency indicates that disenfranchisement and a desire to reinvent a perceived ideal of Pan-Malayan unity continues to exist in the region even today.

Within the idea of regional Malayan solidarity in the 1960s was the issue of Borneo’s Northern state of Sabah. Though it became part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, it was a site of armed conflict in the ‘60s as Indonesia tried to prevent its assimilation into the Federation through former Indonesian president Sukarno’s (1901–70) policy of Konfrontasi (1963–66). Almost 60 years later, Sabah continues to be a site of dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia.

Sabahan artist Yee I-Lann who is known for her inquiry-based practice that engages with the turbulent history of the island and issues of colonialism, power, identity and historic memory has two artworks in the exhibition. The first, Borneo Heart (2021), is a poster map that situates Borneo at the centre and claims its position as the heart of ASEAN and the world. The map, which has been printed by the Sabah State Government Printers, is the only artwork that is on sale—at a price of SGD100 in an edition of 100—as its commodification and circulation is an indication of how narratives can be circulated and proliferated.

 

Yee I-Lann, Borneo Heart, 2021, Off-set print, printed at Sabah State Government Printers, 59.4cm x 84.1cm. Image courtesy of ADM Gallery.
Ming Wong, Sunu Jappo/手拉手/Hand in Hand (film still), 2019, single-channel video, 14 min 36 sec. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Yee’s second artwork, Dusun Karaoke Mat: Ahaid zou noh doiti (2020), is a bamboo mat (or tikar in Malay) woven by the artist in collaboration with indigenous weavers from the Dusun and Murut communities from Keningau, an area known for its resistance to joining the Federation of Malaysia at the time of its formation. Commonly found across the archipelago, the mat is utilitarian when laid out—as a place for conversations and social gatherings—but when hung as an object, with lyrics from popular local songs woven into it, it triggers the recollection of histories, memories and narratives.

Also included in the exhibition is a 2019 video work by Berlin-based Singaporean artist Ming Wong. Titled Sunu Jappo / 手拉手 / Hand in Hand, the video features the artist as a cultural ambassador visiting sites in Senegal built with Chinese aid. Among them is the Museum of Black Civilisations which was envisioned as a symbol of black identity more than 50 years ago by the founder of Senegal but materialised only in 2018. The 14-minute video shows Wong surveying a client state and an ‘Other’ culture while the soundtrack of a Senegalese student’s Chinese speech competition plays in the background.

The second gallery focuses on broader historical trajectories of Afro-Southeast Asian affinities from the Cold War into the present. The archival materials and artworks show brief moments of connections and the consequences of such encounters. These include Ariko S. Ikehara’s Sketches of Teryua Ar(t)chive (2021), an artwork and community archive that traces the evolution of a Black district in Okinawa and Cambodian artist Vuth Lyno’s three-channel video installation titled 25 (2018), which looks at the legacy of one of the United Nations’ most successful peace keeping projects of its time. United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) peacekeepers returned to their homes in 1992 but left behind their children conceived with local women. Many of these were of partial African descent and Vuth’s videos is a conversation among three of them discussing issues of identity, belonging and discrimination for this inter-racial community that emerged from an apparently peaceful mission.

 

Vuth Lyno, 25, 2018, three-channel video installation with sound, 32 min 07 sec. Image courtesy of ADM Gallery.

 

Music and songs are also featured in two artworks in this gallery. Artist, composer and musician bani haykal’s “We’re not satisfied with just making a noise.” (2021) interrogates how jazz was used as a medium of American cultural diplomacy to offset Soviet claims of racial inequality for African-Americans while Filipino artist Eisa Jocson’s Passion of Darna (2019) uses a Tagalog cover of African-American R&B artist Karyn White’s 1988 song “Superwoman” to speak to the struggles of Filipino domestic workers today.

Given how little of these histories are part of our discourse in Singapore, the exhibition is not easy to navigate. The wide-angle approach taken by the curators does however open up thought-provoking ways of seeing. In his address at the recent World Economic Forum on 25 January 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against a descent towards a Cold War mentality of building small circles, noting that global cooperation, economic openness, and multilateralism was in the best interests of a world meeting the challenges of a post COVID-19 world. Understanding these histories will be key to building these bridges in Southeast Asia, and perhaps the world at large.

 

In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War
22 January – 13 March 2021
ADM Gallery, Nanyang Technological University, School of Art, Design and Media, Singapore.

 

[i] Email interview with the author, 29/1/2021

 

 

 

 
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply