PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — For far too long, and to this day, Southeast Asia has been aestheticized, largely by the French, as a means to advance the role of the colonizer. The myth of Southeast Asia, especially French Indochina, has been depicted — through posters, postcards, and notable exhibitions, such as the Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris in 1931 — as an exotic other, a land of myth, magic, beautiful women, spectacular artifacts, and possibility. A new and wondrous fruit, ripe for the taking. Of course, looking closely, we find that Southeast Asian communities were fighting to define themselves as well, and the region’s complexity and diversity resists any archetypical or singular narrative.
Many Southeast Asian nations sought to redefine themselves in postcolonial times. In the mid-19th century, independent Cambodia, with no war in sight and under the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk, experienced a flourishing of the arts, with new music, architecture, visual art, and film. Sihanouk sought and invested heavily in his own understanding of a modern yet uniquely Khmer society.
Coming out from under the French Protectorate in 1953, and the involvement in the 1955 Bandung Conference and subsequent Non-Aligned Movement, Sihanouk sought to build a regionally important and strong nation, investing in schools, conference halls, monuments, theaters, and the Olympic Stadium, created to host the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO), a sort of alternative to the Olympic Games for non-aligned countries.
In the exhibitionThe Singapore Art Archive Project, at Sa Sa Bassac, Singaporean artist and archivist Koh Nguang How invites us to investigate Chinese-born, Singaporean-based artist Shui Tit Sing (1914–1997) and his travels in Cambodia with a band of artists and artist teachers known as the Ten Men Art Group. The exhibition, curated by independent curator Vera Mey, and Melanie Mermod, program coordinator at Betonsalon Center for Art and Research, delves into an aspect of Koh’s Singapore Art Archive Project, which sets out to document art in Singapore from the 1920s to the era of the internet. Here, he presents original documents, sketches, travel logs, reproductions, and artworks of an artist and art group reaching for a regional style amidst great diversity and rapid historical change.
Shui’s studies in China taught him both traditional Chinese forms such as calligraphy, but also Western painting, and sparked an admiration of art movements flourishing in Europe and the United States. We find in his archive books on abstract art, Cubism, Paul Klee, and Henri Matisse, with careful notes in Chinese. Shui wanted to move to Europe, but World War II prevented him, and instead he moved to Singapore in 1940. Situated where it is, and with its long colonial history, Singapore was perhaps as far West as Shui could get.
However, with Japan’s brutal occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, which led to shaky and short-lived governments until independence in 1965, Shui found himself in a nation searching for itself. In the small nation comprised largely of immigrants, Singapore experienced a cultural tug-of-war, while deadly ethnic and religious clashes tore through the country. Needless to say, Singapore’s aspiration for a regional harmony and aesthetic was a fraught process.
There were, however, regionally focused art groups and movements, such as the Nanyang Style, formed by largely Chinese immigrants, that combined both Chinese and Western aesthetics; the anti-colonialist Social Realist Equator Arts Society, begun in 1956; and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) formed in 1967. It is within this context that a group of largely Chinese immigrants to Singapore, including Shui, formed the Ten Men Art Group and began to travel to Southeast Asia to document, research, and draw from regional traditions and cultures.
Shui writes in a statement about his wood carvings: “I recall my visit to Angkor in Cambodia in 1963. Its magnificent bas-reliefs made me feel that our distinctive oriental artistic style being a rich cultural heritage should be promoted.”
The Ten Men Art Group (which actually consisted of several women) began when a wealthy business woman named Chen Cheng Mei initiated a trip to Malaya and suggested artist Yeh Chi Wei lead the group. Also traveling with the artists was art critic and historian Marco Hsu, who published two books on the group’s trips, notably Journal of Thailand and Cambodia (1966). Over a few decades the group traveled to several countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Koh, currently the artist-in-residence at Sa Sa Bassac, is an obsessive and meticulous historian, continually seeking evidence to further confirm, complicate, and situate his material. Curator Mey wrote me over email, “Mr. Koh also reminds us that the process of researching and going through the archive is a very human interaction. … This human element and exchange is crucial to the work.” Koh is also incredibly giving with his archive; we talked for a long time as he carefully and patiently narrated Shui’s travels with the Ten Men Art Group, and the context from which those travels sprang, all the while relying entirely on evidence. If Koh says a date or a name, he has the materials to prove it, usually several.
As I watched Koh unpack his archive on Phnom Penh, he planned on checking many of them as best he could, not trusting the notes he’d written in notebooks or on the back of photographs. Afterward, he would return from walks, excited to announce the confirmation of a photograph’s accuracy, as he had just verified it by visiting the very site it depicted.
Through the destruction or neglect of archives and libraries and the deliberate near-annihilation of artists and intellectuals, Cambodia’s devastating civil war (1967–75) threatened the memory of the country’s then-recent cultural production, known as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (or the “Community of the Common People”) period, from 1953 to 1970. The little materials that remain from Cambodia during that time stir our collective imagination. Like Singapore at the time, there were new styles representative of rapid change and political movements vying for power.
Now, this exhibition can help show us hints of Cambodia through the lens of materials and artists living in Singapore. Through his project, Koh simultaneously sharpens and complicates the memories and myths of this era, country, and region, never settling on any true regional style, with international powers pulling artists in many directions, with no clear borders separating the insider from the outsider.
The Singapore Art Archive Project continues at Sa Sa Bassac (#18 2nd Floor, Sothearos Blvd, Phnom Penh) through October 8.