In Our Best Interests and Jalan-Jalan di Asia Cast a Thoughtful Gaze on Southeast Asia
By Adriana Nordin Manan

In any community, creating a sense of cohesion and joint destiny involves experiencing a shared journey. Two current exhibitions stand out as being in the service of this notion for Southeast Asia. In Our Best Interests, accessible at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University as well as online, and the online-only Jalan-Jalan di Asia: A Walking Dictionary cast the region as a plane of transnational solidarity and site of historical pasts, and a present that is beholden to the past, presenting a sturdy offering of art and research that at times can get a bit textually overwhelming.

Curated by Kathleen Ditzig and Carlos Quijon Jr, In Our Best Interests foreshadows its content well by its full name: “In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War.” This is an exhibition enmeshed in meta narratives, concerning a large chunk of the global map and the interactions and interchanges therein during the heady days of the Cold War, when newly independent former colonies stood like chess pieces in the dance of dominion and influence between the United States and the Soviet Union.

It combines archival research, writings in political science and art from nine artists to explore interactions between Southeast Asia and Africa, the latter including the diaspora specifically the African-American community. If you enjoy long essays on political theories of worldmaking and postcolonial pangs of nationhood, there is much to savour in the curatorial essay. The curators also explain the thematic segmentation that led to the division of artworks between the venue’s two galleries, which cannot be appreciated as much spatially when viewing online. Nevertheless, given the sheer amount of information conveyed in the exhibition, the benefit of having the online version is that you can visit many times, taking in the essay in pieces and spending time by each exhibit.

In a text-heavy exhibition where the curators expound on complex and dense topics, the art on display drives home art’s strength in personalising and humanising such topics. A personal favourite is Ariko S. Ikehara’s “Sketches of Teruya Ar(t)chive,” with its black and white photographs of Teruya, a district in Okinawa during the American occupation (1945-1972). Street photographs of residents of Black District, a shopping and clubbing district popular among African-American servicemen, show snippets of life where “the dramas of everyday life unfolded against the backdrop of the US military occupation, the black international radical movement, the military sexual economy of the bar and entertainment districts, and the everyday life and hustle of Okinawa.” Alongside the accompanying captions, the photographs show us the revealing everyday encounters in places one might not immediately think of when imagining cosmopolitan locales. Never far away, questions of occupation, empire and transnational solidarity frame the goings-on. We are also invited to consider the prejudices of colourism and anti-blackness that pervade the time and place. Who saw who as beneath them? What were the social hierarchies that formed from this “community” slapped together by the pursuit of cold, hard (military) power?

Jalan-Jalan di Asia is a website featuring keywords from art, culture and performance history in Japan and Southeast Asia. Funded by the Japan Foundation Asia Center and brought together by a team of curators and artists from Japan and Southeast Asia, the website states that its presentation of keywords is meant to resemble an art exhibition.

And what a jumpy exhibition it is, literally. A web of multicoloured boxes dance around the screen, reminding me of both the mind mapping study method drummed into my head as a child, and the scene should the tiles on a smartphone screen decide to link up and glide about without end. Containing words such as “The Forgotten Japanese” and “The Chivalrous Bandit,” Jalan-Jalan di Asia communicates with us sparingly, leaving unexplained codes such as the different colours of the boxes, for visitors to dig about and try to understand what is being presented.

After some time and clicking back and forth, I gathered that the different colours were categories of content that appear when the boxes are clicked. Seafoam green for books, light green for interviews, yellow for people, and orange for exhibitions. Who knows if I’m off mark? I suspect it doesn’t matter, because at the end, all the boxes provide information relevant to Southeast Asia and in some instances, its encounters with Japan (cough cough, Occupation).

If In Our Best Interests has a curatorial essay that resembles a PhD research paper, Jalan-Jalan di Asia presents one like a completely unassuming, cute ditty that understates the depth and range of the content. In just over 100 words, the curators present it as “a virtual space for exploring the arts and culture of Japan and Southeast Asia through various classic writings and keywords.” Cutesiness always present, the last line reads: “Let’s go for our walk around the forest of culture and the arts!”

Different as they are, the exhibitions draw comparisons for their rootedness in history. They urge us to consider the counterfactual. Part of In Our Best Interests, Fyerool Darma uses flags to broach Maphilindo, the shortlived attempt of solidarity between Malaya, the Philippines, and Indonesia in 1963. Lasting a month before being overtaken by Sukarno’s Konfrontasi, Maphilindo is described as “an idealistic, failed dream for a pan-Malaysian Southeast Asian regionalism.” Similarly, Mark Teh’s description of “Unforgetting” in Jalan-Jalan di Asia' asks us to question suppressed memories, using the example of the 1976 massacre of student protestors in Bangkok’s Thammasat University. These are events in history, and in the hands of artists they take on an air of ambivalence, but we can’t help but wonder, what if? What would Malaysia and her neighbours look like had Maphilindo taken shape? Under different “regimes of truth”, to quote Teh, what value would be ascribed to the Thammasat protestors? Heroes or rabble rousers, people with a calling or victims of indoctrination?

Similarities also emerge in overlapping content. Works of literary canon, such as “Noli Me Tangere” and “Bumi Manusia/Earth of Mankind” receive mention, as do Afro-Asian solidarity or The Bandung Conference. Attempts to reverse what colonialism has wrought in the region is a shadow that looms large, even if not stated explicitly.

The academic, interrogative aspects don’t mean the exhibitions are uncompelling to casual art enthusiasts. For example, tracing the connecting lines between the boxes in Jalan-Jalan di Asia shows insightful patterns that connect, say, a renowned artist to an institution of education they were affiliated with, and how the latter figures in a country’s contemporary social landscape. Text and curatorial language are foregrounded, but not at the expense of accessibility.

Whether effusive or hands-off and sparse, In Our Best Interests and Jalan-Jalan di Asia demonstrate how the social sciences, research, and art can coalesce into offerings that light a spark in our imagination yet leave us a wide berth to explore, wonder, and want to engage in conversation long after we have left. For someone unfamiliar with Southeast Asia, they can be dossiers, a primer that can become their first port of call to the region. But with the state of knowing and unknowing in the world today, Southeast Asians too stand to learn much and benefit, by contemplating the histories that got away.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Adriana Nordin Manan is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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