BRISBANE, Australia — Suppressed voices, marginalized histories, and public spaces take center stage at the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial (APT8), displayed at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane, Australia. Throughout the exhibit, art and activism bring the outside in, the peripheral to the center, and the unacknowledged to a point of great relevance. By using the body as a vehicle for change, artists from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, and across Asia commit to a language that unites their endeavors to overturn post-colonial legacies, invert hierarchies of power, and stretch frontiers of assessing art in new and expansive ways.
Beginning with the acknowledgement of the Aboriginal body in Australia’s historical narrative, Wiradjuri artist Brook Andrew’s painted walls in the QAG, inspired by the chevron markings on the skin of his people, and Gunybi Ganambarr’s intricately painted poles at GOMA, which are meticulously filled with dashes and lines denoting sacred Aboriginal signs, bring the story of dispossessed peoples to the core of each exhibit. Akin to the ancient tribal forms and patterns seen in the elaborate display of vernacular art from India in the “Kalpa Vriksha” (which means a divine or wish-fulfilling tree) section at the QAG, the similarities in these artists’ use of organic materials, as well as their timeless adaptation of geometric shapes and concentric structures that were once deemed unimportant, establish the essence and resilience of art forms that have been used by these indigenous cultures, passed down from generation to generation.
Resilience is the flip-side of activism for many artists in the Triennial. Aligned in their efforts to reframe colonial histories, these artists created portraits on native soil to form their essentialist regional narratives. Although some critics of the APT have carped that the theme of post-colonialism was overused, the works withstand this critique. The multidisciplinary Cambodian practitioner Khvay Samnang’s self-portraits from the Rubber Man series (2014), for example — color photographs of the artist pouring white rubber sap collected from expanding rubber plantations first grown in Cambodia during the French occupation onto his naked body — give voice to the plight of a local populace that is continually uprooted from their terrain and denied equal representation in land ownership. Samnang’s white, camouflaged, and unidentifiable specter-like figure, photographed on different plantations, are as a strong symbol of invisible indigenous people. His close ties with the land is no different than Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller’s dark, poignant photo portraits of the Buka people on the Bougainville Island of Papua New Guinea shown tilling the soil and working on a native landscape that has been usurped by the mining industry. Association with the land is also deeply entrenched within recovering indigenous identity for the transgender Samoan artist Yuki Kihara. Her black-and-white self-portraits as a fictitious Samoan woman on decolonized Polynesian territory in the series Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (2013) demonstrate that effort.
The transformative aspect of using the body as a signifier is particularly relevant now, in light of the increasing ostracism and fear of Muslims in the West. Abdul Abdullah’s series Coming to Terms (2015) was conceived to reveal inequities faced by ordinary Muslims like himself living in Australia. In his photographs, Abdullah and other local residents are dressed in wedding attire but also wear balaclavas, like terrorists, that conceal their features. Photographed in portrait studios, these faceless individuals in celebratory marital garb highlight the fear of being unjustly marginalized and denied the right to live affably and unharmed due to the widespread fear of Islamic fundamentalism.
Anida Yoeu Ali’s highly aesthetic and technically astute video “The Buddhist Bug, Into the Night” (2015) showcases her performance as an agent of change, generating an immersive experience for the viewer. In it, Ali returned from the US to her birthplace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia — the former Khmer Rouge that she escaped as a child — to reintegrate with a community that has been traumatized by its history of genocide. She is shown throughout the film adorned in an extensive orange costume that resembles a caterpillar with a hood made to evoke a hijab, and the fast-moving video of the ubiquitous bug in malls, theme parks, street traffic, and nightclubs filled with prostitutes, youths, and foreigners gives potency to her presence as a Muslim minority in a city dominated by saffron-clad Buddhist monks. But the most compelling aspect of the video is the sense of urgency it creates. Projected on two adjacent walls, the large-scale work draws the viewer into the breathless street life of Cambodia in the same way that Myanmarese artist Po Po’s video “VIP Project, (Yangon/Dhaka)” (2010–15), filmed at bustling bus stops in Myanmar and Bangladesh, does. Ali’s bug transported on a three-wheeled tuk-tuk and Po Po’s VIP signs placed on benches at bus terminals in two neighboring South Asian countries become symbols of public intervention through which the viewer can experience the raw grittiness of the street and the momentum of rapid urbanization as powerful motifs of change.
The notion of reframing the outcast is a central theme throughout the Triennial, such as with the disenfranchised populations that appear in New Zealander sculptor Francis Upritchard’s odd, skinny figures with dopey semi-shut eyes, birdlike features, and ungainly limbs. Constructed from polymer modeling clay and steel wire frames, the sculptures pay homage to a world of people who have been ostracized for being different. By contrast, however, performances by the transgender Singaporean artist Ming Wong and his troupe, as well as the Bhenji-Ra dance collaboration between two transgender Australian artists, capitalized on their difference by being sensational rather than shedding light on their community.
Yet what is evident from most of the works is the varied artists’ unified voice in carving a place for marginalized languages and practices. Much like the Indian/British artist Hetain Patel’s video “The Jump” (2015), in which Patel’s vault across the room in a Spiderman costume might be interpreted as a sign of his resilience and talent, the artists from the Asia Pacific region repeatedly demonstrate the value and importance of their work, despite the odds. In this regard, the APT continues to be an important platform showcasing artists, aesthetics, and mediums determined by the urgency of the specific historical concerns shared by various countries in the region. Unlike many biennials, the APT8’s careful selection and curation ensures that the show is a thoughtful representation of emerging and established artists from the Asia Pacific Region.
The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial continues at the Queensland Art Gallery and the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (Stanley Pl, South Brisbane QLD 4101, Australia) through April 10.