Southeast Asia Meets West: Quenching The Thirst for Art’s Sake
Review by Wai Lu Yin

“Nighthawks No More” by Trang Dang

Cultural imperialism and the history of colonialism in our part of the world mean that some of us are well-versed with Western art, but lack knowledge about Southeast Asian art - especially Malaysian art. We usually view artworks in exhibitions through recalling well-known Western artworks, iconic figures and events, and cultural references. We need to find a cultural reference point closer to home, and this is where GOFY comes in, with artists finding ways to reintroduce their cultural roots and history in art while still including some Western elements that people can recognise.

Independent Singapore-based creative community, GOFY (pronounced go-fee), presents 62 artworks in For Art’s Sake: Shaken & Stirred, which runs till May 2. Fifty artists from six Southeast Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – reimagine famous Western art with their own unique flavour and style. They explore their Southeast Asian identity and collective experience while reflecting on the influence of the Western art movement, tying the elements together with the universality of art . These artworks are displayed at participating venues across Singapore, with an online version available for those overseas.

“NEOTHAICIVILIZATION” by KNN.5 | “Komposisi” by Riandy Karuniawan

Thai artist KNN.5 and Indonesian artist Riandy Karuniawan brighten up a few well-known 20th century artworks by adding components of Asian pop culture. Inspired by Salvador Dali’s “The Elephant” and the iconic melted timepiece work, KNN.5 incorporates a diverse mix of Thai icons, such as the Royal Elephant, to interpret the legendary Himmapan forest from Thai mythology in his latest piece, “NEOTHAICIVILIZATION”. He also adds in global pop-culture references such as an Akira-inspired motorcycle. In response to Mondrian’s “Composition II with Red Blue and Yellow”, Riandy’s “Komposisi” consists of sci-fi components that explore the alternative realms of natural life forms and technology. Both of their works suggest a hybrid discovery of a world where tradition and modernity collide at a slow and steady pace.

“Small Hours” by Hey Mady! | Bottom Row: “Nocturno” by Salmoncartoon and “Twilight Hours” by Cid Gonzales

Salmoncartoon, Trang Dang, Hey Mady! and Cid Gonzales tell visual stories of life in their respective cities by contextualising their version of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, a painting of people in a downtown diner late at night. “Nocturno” by Indonesian artist Salmoncartoon, “Small Hours”, a series by Filipino artist Hey Mady!, and “Twilight Hours” by Filipino artist Cid Gonzales depict people savouring cheap comfort food as they persevere in their daily quest to make ends meet. "Nocturno" features a salmon-like character enjoying a meal in a warung regal (known as warteg for short), with a wide open window depicting the character's feelings of loneliness and solitude during the pandemic. Hey Mady! presents a day and night version of "Small Hours" where people find peace and refuge in their meals during the wee hours in a 24-hour Filipino lugawan. "Twilight Hours" displays corinderias (eateries) in a Filipino market, where the locals savour an early breakfast and enjoy warm interactions in the twilight hours. On the other hand, Vietnamese artist Trang Dang’s “Nighthawks No More” explores the opposite, reflecting on people not being able to come out for the nightlife due to the pandemic, resulting in the bartender being unable to keep his business afloat. These works reflect the universality of individuals who struggle to get by and live to their best, financially and emotionally, through their small businesses.

“Day Off” by Orkibal | “Telur Mata” by Valen Lim | “Asian Sauces” by Marse Le | “Rayum” by PRAWR | “The Teh Botol” by Nadio So

The Southeast Asian food culture is undoubtedly a vibrant one. More importantly, food represents a sense of home and builds a bridge between Eastern and Western culture. One group of artists succeeds in elevating everyday food items into works of art. Orkibal and Valen Lim put a classic Malaysian twist on some of the most recognisable Western artworks. Orkibal's “Day Off” shows a chilled-out Mona Lisa with her nasi lemak and teh tarik. Valen Lim's “Telur Mata” is a Rene Magritte- inspired portrait of telur mata, kicap and teh tarik. Indonesian artist Nadia So, Thai artist PRAWR and Filipino artist Marse Le take on Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans'' and put their works in a local context by reconnecting with the food items they love, such as the Indonesian Teh Botol Sosro and various delectable sauces. Looking at the illustrated food makes my mouth water!

Sa-Jarah by Yoss Yosseff_A Woman Bound in Gold by Daniel Lee Adams and Abinaya Dhivya Mohan

But let’s not forget the history that builds a culture’s stronghold and pushes us to constantly question everything and take action in contributing to our communities. Malaysian artist Yoss Yosseff plays with the words sejarah (history) and jarah (loot) in the title of his work, “Sa-Jarah”. The work depicts Michaelangelo’s “David” dressed in Malaysian clothes. It references the colonisers’ behaviour of invading a territory and looting its treasures.

Based on Gustav Klint’s “The Woman in Gold”, “A Woman Bound in Gold”, photographed by Daniel Lee Adams and Abinaya Dhivya Mohan, is probably the most visually striking artwork in the exhibition. Made in memory of brutal custodial deaths from racial profiling, this piece speaks out on the themes of injustice, discrimination, police brutality and demonisation faced by the Indian community in Malaysia. The pair include subtle symbols that relate to these themes such as the Sejarah textbook and banana leaves, and reference local commodities like rubber. Both “Sa-Jarah” and “A Woman Bound in Gold” shed light onto certain parts of our history to understand where we come from and how we relate to these stories. They also highlight the need for us to figure out how we can undo these negative stigmas and stereotypes in Malaysia.

For Art’s Sake: Shaken & Stirred is a thought-provoking exhibition which touches on important themes centred around the Southeast Asian experience, while showing universality and relevance to Western art history. Yes, the artists are inspired, taught and influenced by Western art, yet they take these references and styles to express their culturally unique voices. For art’s sake, they show the best and worst of both worlds, providing us a glimpse of the other side.

All images are sourced from the GOFY website.

The artworks for “For Art’s Sake: Shaken & Stirred” are displayed online and shown at the participating venues in Singapore from Feb 5 till May 2.

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.

Wai Lu Yin is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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