Happy Oriental Trading Co.’ in The Hague
Review by Clarissa Lim Kye Lee

In the cold winter of The Netherlands, encased within the white plaster walls of a neoclassical building, a shack appears, wavering. It is held up by wooden struts decorated and topped off with a familiar corrugated tin roof. A neon sign shouts boldly: ‘Toko Gembira’, or in English, ‘Happy Oriental Trading Co.’, a ghostly outpost of the trading routes of the colonial Dutch past.

I stumbled upon this piece while scrolling on Instagram in Malaysia – a South-East Asian “shack” encased within the facade of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Experiencing the work is an exercise in excavating the visual culture of the region through the everyday objects strewn across an uncanny neighbourhood store. In an explosion of bright, fluorescent colours, the installation exhibits a plethora of languages and exudes an unapologetic messiness. With motifs of our culture on display, the work appears to be positioned uncomfortably in the overlap between the familiar and the exotic.

Photo courtesy of Marcos Kueh

Yet, curator Marcos Kueh is aware of its contradictory and even controversial effect. In fact, this was deliberate. The Sarawakian curator, who is a current student of textiles at The Royal Academy of Art, collaborated with Izabelle Lacheta (Interactive Media, Malaysia), Ain Halim (Fine Arts, Malaysia), VY Dang (Fine Arts, Vietnam) and Kiara Mohamad (Fine Arts, Indonesia) to create a collective installation. Together, they put this installation together over a period of six months, and it exhibited at the premises of the academy for four days in December 2020. It now haunts Kueh’s official Instagram. I interviewed Kueh to unpack the “pride and shame” intimately tied in the collective piece.

Photo courtesy of Marcos Kueh

The installation concurrently deals with scarcity coming from the global south, performs as an ode to the entanglements of global trade and ultimately grapples with our post-colonial identity. Statements such as “jawatan kosong” are juxtaposed with a 90s throwback scene featuring artefacts such as the tube television, sachet packet toys and sharp, bright colours. Can you explain this clash between the subject and the choice of aesthetics?

I’ve always been fascinated by this idea of the exotification of our culture, where, in the local context we read and associate these visual cues differently from how my classmates in the Royal Academy of Art would understand it. Even though we are well aware that this is not what contemporary poverty looks like in our region, the highly saturated vintage execution is to exaggerate the imposed idea that we are happily stuck in the past, underdeveloped, malnourished and poor. This is reflected in the Chinese store name: 安贫 (an pin) which roughly means to be contented in poverty and devoted to spiritual things, or to repose in poverty and delight in wisdom. For many of us however, poverty was not really a choice.

The artist statement indicates that the work was made together with four artists from the South-East Asia region, all studying at the Royal Academy of Art. How did you all meet and work on this installation?

I have my own Asian network in my school because it is just easier to connect and communicate with peers of similar cultural backgrounds. As art students eventually we just had to express this serendipitous phenomenon through our works. I came up with the idea and curated the show but the whole process of artmaking was a collective one. We didn’t have any specific roles imposed on each other. As long as we had time to work on the project in between our super packed school schedules, we did.

As an installation piece, there are several layers of found objects, created artefacts and the graphic textile treatment. There are the ‘found objects’ –the wooden frame and corrugated tin roof, bamboo, packets of cement, bucket and broom, wooden clips, cardboard boxes. Atop these objects and the built-up space is an overwhelmingly colourful and bright veneer of graphic messages in paper, cyanotype art, woven textile in contrasting colours, and small clay creatures and human figurines in individual sachets. Instilled within these pieces are a plethora of languages, subversive statements and suggestive implications. Are these layers a device to address this difficult topic?

Addressing issues like our post-colonial internalised trauma (in art) is something very complicated with many facets and layers. I believe as humans we are smart and capable of understanding complex subjects, so I have never been a person who is scared of just vomiting out whatever is on my mind. But the golden rule is to make sure that it grabs people’s attention and the storytelling is well designed and easy for visitors to digest.

The store itself to me is like an open story book. My team and I give curatorial tours where we walk around the store. Depending on which direction you walk from, the flow of our stories changes.

In your artist statement, you cite the British Museum almost as if it's an institution of the world, made up of “exotic artefacts”, a physical “imperialist fantasy”. Happy Trading Co. seems to be anti-institution, an alternative collection of our South-East Asian heritage. What are your thoughts on this?

One of the biggest challenges for me as the curator is to figure out the question of how we can have a meaningful conversation about colonial pains with an audience from a colonial background. The store itself is purposely set up in the most gallery-like space of my academy, detached from its cultural context. It is an object of study. In a way it is also a small reflection of how our identities are usually seen by the western culture – exotic, fascinating and underdeveloped. It’s in the way we dress, the way we talk, all the way to the colour of our skin.

The store is an open-hearted piece where we willingly manifested and surrendered all our vulnerabilities and shame into this one object for people to judge and comment on. We willingly put ourselves to be an object in a museum. It makes people wonder why and creates an opportunity (for them to) have these hard conversations with us. It is political in its own way, but not everything political needs to be radical and aggressive. The academy should also have South-East Asian discourse and representation. I would say that the exhibition is mainly for ourselves, as a testimony that we are ready to have that conversation with the world – or whoever wants to hear it.

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Clarissa Lim Kye Lee is a writer under the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021

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