Who is “the Other”? What does it mean to represent or depict peoples different from one’s own? This is one of the most contested issues of our time. National Gallery Singapore will explore the idea of how “the Other” is represented in art from Southeast Asia and examine its own practices of cultural representation through the paintings and photographs by three Southeast Asian figures.
Familiar Others: Emiria Sunassa, Eduardo Masferré and Yeh Chi Wei, 1940s–1970s, on show from 4 August 2022 to 19 February 2023, is premised on ongoing debates surrounding cultural representation by exploring how communities in the region have been depicted in modern art. It focuses on the mid-20th century, as it was an important period when artists from Southeast Asia sought to represent peoples familiar to them as a means of establishing a stake in emerging ideas around nation and region.
Through this exhibition, the Gallery aims to prompt critical reflections around what it means to look at these depictions today, a delicate topic that continues to trigger debate. In response to artworks featured in the exhibition, eight text responses were commissioned from artists, academics, poets and musicians with ties to the communities represented in the artworks. 2 These responses are used in place of conventional museum descriptive wall labels and are intended to provide new perspectives on the artworks.
The second exhibition at Dalam Southeast Asia, Familiar Others is part of the Gallery’s ongoing efforts to engage its public by diversifying its featured narratives, with a focus on representing less-studied artists and innovate more inclusive forms of storytelling. Dalam Southeast Asia debuted in 2021 with the exhibition, Tailors and The Mannequins: You Khin and Chen Cheng Mei, which was accompanied by an array of writings and public programmes. While rethinking what a collections-based display is and may seek to achieve, Dalam Southeast Asia contributes to growing consciousness among modern art museums from a distinctly Southeast Asian standpoint by sparking conversations around the production, circulation, display, and writing of modern and contemporary art. Familiar Others continues this trajectory by asking critical questions about how the image of “the Other” has been presented in Southeast Asian art, and the implications for how such artworks are presented in the current museum context.
Dr Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore, says, “Across the formerly colonised world, how communities are depicted continues to be a matter for debate. As Southeast Asian nations achieved independence, our artists have actively sought to address this issue by challenging conventions established during the colonial period. Indeed, the communities represented in works of art have also sought to have a say in how they are represented. Familiar Others represents the Gallery’s efforts to actively examine our own practices through unexpected curatorial approaches, fresh ideas and research processes.”
The three spotlighted artists frequently made works about peoples or cultures other than their own, yet which were familiar to or intimately connected with them, inspiring the exhibition title “Familiar Others”. Pioneering Indonesian female painter Emiria Sunassa (1894–1964) made images of peoples from all over the Indonesian archipelago and had a special interest in Papua (then part of the Netherlands East Indies, now part of Indonesia). She claimed to be the rightful “Queen of Papua” – based on her familial connection to the former Sultan of Tidore, which had historically ruled areas of Papua.
Regarded as a leading figure in photography in the Philippines, Eduardo Masferré (1909–1995) sought to photograph peoples from the communities of the Cordillera region of the Philippines where he lived. These communities had previously been the subject of demeaning and sensationalist representations – especially during the colonial period – but Masferré aspired to present their culture in a dignified and respectful manner. One of the key painters of the mid-20th century in Singapore, Yeh Chi Wei (1913–1991) travelled throughout Southeast Asia with the Ten Men Art Group, but was especially inspired by the Indigenous Peoples of Sarawak and Sabah. Yeh Chi Wei’s approach to this subject also combined his interest with Chinese cultural tradition, as well as his own personal history, in a manner that blends ideas of “self” and “Other.” The exhibition spotlights these aspects of the three artists’ works, and prompts visitors to contemplate the past and present implications of these representations.
The eight commissioned responses received to the artworks highlight personal, historical, aesthetic and critical points in relation to the artworks, as well as reflecting on the project taking place at National Gallery Singapore. In response to an untitled, undated work by Yeh Chi Wei, Kulleh Grasi, a writer and singer-songwriter of Iban descent from Sarawak, has written an incantatory poem, which will appear in Iban and English versions in the exhibition space. The poem imagines aspects of the artist’s original 1960s visit to Sarawak from the perspective of his Iban hosts – perhaps the writer’s own ancestors – and reflects on the cultural knowledge that is conveyed and concealed in the final painting, as in this extract below:
“Conceal it all, Ah weh—we know nothing of the words you exchanged with the elders of Sibu. Perhaps you encountered something as you roamed, sleepless, somewhere near Pakan road. Or your lost soul was transformed by the night of the sun, as you slept soundly upon stones and shells.”
Prominently displayed as wall text in the exhibition, in place of standard artwork descriptions, the commissioned responses diversify the voices behind the exhibition’s narrative, provoking new ways of thinking and broadening the conversation about the images.
In addition, visitors may also be surprised to see that the artwork labels in the exhibition sometimes record multiple titles, showing how the works have been presented at different points in their history. One example is Emiria Sunassa’s painting Bahaya Belakang Kembang Terate (Danger lurking behind the lotus). This title comes from the artwork’s original exhibition in 1946, yet later in its history, the work was exhibited under the title Dayak. Subsequent scholarship has proposed that the image in the artwork is likely to be a figure from Papua. This unconventional form of presenting artwork labels showcases the different presentations of the artwork over time, drawing attention to how the title and labelling of an artwork might affect the viewer’s perception of the image. This transparent format of artwork labelling is spurred by the Gallery’s self-reflection of its own museum practices of cultural representation.
Familiar Others can also be considered in relation to ongoing exhibitions at the Gallery including the current special exhibition Ever Present: First People’s Art of Australia; with both exhibitions engaging with pertinent topics of decolonisation and cultural representation. Phoebe Scott, Senior Curator at National Gallery Singapore and a member of the curatorial teams for both exhibitions, notes: “These exhibitions aim to present new perspectives on art history that challenge conventional narratives, some of which are associated with Eurocentric or even colonialist perspectives. Coupled with this, these two exhibitions have also tried new experiments in the way that information is presented to the public in the exhibition space, aspiring to bring the same critical sensibility to our practices within the museum context.”
Images courtesy of National Gallery Singapore
Familiar Others runs from 4th August 2022 to 19th February 2023 at National Gallery Singapore. For more information, visit their website here