A Region of Brilliance

It’s Time For Southeast Asian Artists To Shine

Joyce Toh, the co-founder of Arto, shares her thoughts on six Southeast Asian art pieces from the recent S.E.A Focus contemporary art fair.

It’s Time For Southeast Asian Artists To Shine
Pessimism is Optimistic, 2017 by Nadiah Bamadhaj

Long relegated to footnotes in art booklets, Southeast Asian artists are jostling their way into the limelight, thanks to a concerted effort from organisations, galleries and champions like Joyce Toh, the head of exhibition and public programmes for S.E.A. Focus and co-founder of Arto.

We invited Toh to select and commentate on six works of art from the recently concluded 2022 edition of S.E.A. Focus.

Commander of Air, Jawaharlal Nehru, 2021 by Tammy Nguyen (Vietnam/USA)

Commander of Air, Jawaharlal Nehru, 2021 by Tammy Nguyen
Commander of Air, Jawaharlal Nehru, 2021 by Tammy Nguyen

Multimedia artist Nguyen created this suite of visually captivating paintings to respond to the region of Southeast Asia. Her practice explores the intersection of geopolitical realities with fiction, and these four works – while compact – fold in several large ideas. She summons utopian ideals and failure via references to the 1955 Bandung Conference, as well as the mega-development of Forest City in Malaysia.

Pessimism is Optimistic, 2017 by Nadiah Bamadhaj (Malaysia)

Pessimism is Optimistic, 2017 by Nadiah Bamadhaj
Pessimism is Optimistic, 2017 by Nadiah Bamadhaj

Bamadhaj uses her signature mode of charcoal and collage to take on the cungkup, an architectural structure that covers gravestones in parts of East Java. For the artist, the cungkup is symbolic of the complete subjection of the human form. While the work is monumental, it also rewards intimate viewing. Delicate details of the torn paper and the interplay of light and shadow come to the fore when you get up close and personal with this poignant work.

Bend in the River: Curl, 2018 by Ong Si Hui (Singapore)

Bend in the River: Curl, 2018 by Ong Si Hui
Bend in the River: Curl, 2018 by Ong Si Hui

This minimalist sculpture offers much to contemplate. Hand-carved from a single piece of marble, this was part of a small constellation of sculptures from this young, accomplished sculptor. Chance and careful planning co-mingle in her works. Si Hui works with quarry “off cuts” – odd-shaped pieces of stone that most buyers are uninterested in – and “finds” the shape of the work by feel and instinct.

Not From Here, 2021 by Sarah Choo Jing (Singapore)

Not From Here, 2021 by Sarah Choo Jing
Not From Here, 2021 by Sarah Choo Jing

Choo deftly compresses different periods of time and history in a composition that stages various facets of hawker life in Singapore. This luminous work incorporates photography and painting details. Consistent with Choo’s exploration of the moving image, Not From Here stays in motion, as varied images recede or emerge with the slow shifting of the light.

Every man who takes a stand helps keep the flame of freedom burning, 2021 by Robert Langenegger (Philippines)

Every man who takes a stand helps keep the flame of freedom burning, 2021 by Robert Langenegger
Every man who takes a stand helps keep the flame of freedom burning, 2021 by Robert Langenegger

Langenegger’s visual aesthetic can be confrontational or even ugly. Yet, closer attention to this work reveals a technically assured painter. He uses satire to make fun of different situations and enjoys depicting social ills. The wry humour is also one aspect I enjoy about this painting, as suggested by its long, rambling title.

Galian, 2021 by Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo (Indonesia)

Galian, 2021 by Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo
Galian, 2021 by Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo

Sunaryo is well-known for his use of resin. He is constantly experimenting, and his technique is such that he never quite knows how the finished work is going to turn out. Chance plays a significant role. In some pieces, he’s played with his own created pigments, ash from the Mount Merapi volcanic eruption, or even food. For this enormous work, Sunaryo used metal powder and made the resin behave like folded metal sheets.

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