CHIANG MAI, Thailand — DIASPORA: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia upends notions of traditional craft in contemporary culture, through looking closely at a densely populated and culturally and linguistically diverse region. Artists like Pao Houa Her, Jakkai Siributr, and Piyarat Piyapongwiwat examine how the region’s rich history and iconography of color, material, and symbols are shifting and abrading as capital and people move between nations. Together, these artists and others present hybrid and evolving craft practices that are at odds with the notion of cultural purity, which is often resultant from an enforcement of national or ethnic boundaries.
I’ve covered Siributr’s work for Hyperallergic before. It is perfectly suited for the theme of DIASPORA. His four-banister installation “IDPS” (2016) recounts stories of immigration throughout the region through an emergent style of embroidery from Hmong refugee camps in Thailand. Having fled war in Laos, Hmong refugees came to Thailand with their craft, harrowing tales, and a desire to be heard. It is there that this style emerged as a more cross-culturally legible storyboard, collapsing the tragic stories of their flight and exile into a single tapestry.
There is a rich relationship between Siributr’s work “IDPS” and Piyarat’s multimedia installation, “Fabric” (2017). While Siributr looks to traditional craft and its development, Piyarat looks at the emergent craft of an industrializing and globalizing Southeast Asia. Together, with a video documenting factory garment workers in the region, Piyarat’s builds a multi-media installation that sews together textiles discarded from factories. These hangings point to the profusion of craft as an increasingly more widely practiced art among the poor, working in a place experiencing dramatic economic growth.
As a Muslim of Malaysian descent, growing up in Perth, Australia, post-9/11, Abdul Abdullah’s arresting photographs from the series Coming to Terms is a stand out in the exhibition. Abdullah’s work deals with what he calls “the monstrous other,” a term he connects to the process of dehumanizing people different than ourselves, whether via, for instance, borders, religion, or race. The work questions who are we as a species, without resorting to universalizing platitudes, or a cheery, superficial humanism. These dark, complex self-portraits are deeply unsettling, for they suggest that the violence of borders are mirrors to our own violent tendencies.
Like Abdullah, Pao Houa Her’s series of photographs, “Attention series; Hmong Veterans” (2012–14), asks us to look at how we give and receive dignity and respect. The series showcases Hmong war veterans who, like the artist, fled to Minnesota to escape persecution for their support of the US during the Vietnam War. While these veterans were recruited by the US to fight the communist forces in Vietnam and stop their spread into Laos, their service was never publicly acknowledged by the US government. They were not offered medals. In turn, seeking legitimacy and honor, the soldiers purchased their own lapels and uniforms, and gathered together in full regalia. The power of this gesture, in the face of their erasure from history by the state, is mesmerizing.
Conversely, Aditya Novali’s “IDENTIFYING SOUTHEAST ASIA: Borderless Humanity” (2017) seeks to question the function and operation of borders, and issues of acculturation, but the work loses nuance along the way. Novali’s elegant new media map makes a game of Southeast Asian borders. Here, one can tactlessly flip on and off nations, creating new maps and borderlines on an individual whim. While the work recalls such monumentally violent decisions by colonialists, it is far too haphazard in design to be effective. The work pales in effect and affect in contrast to Indonesian artist Tintin Wulia’s deeply unsettling work on borders, for instance, “Untold Movements” (2015).
Walking through the galleries, you notice four monitors placed next to the two main stairwells. You catch an occasional glimpse of a person sprinting past the frame; the sound of his running feet echo through the hushed museum. The sound triggers questions: is he running from or toward something? Where is he running to? The runner is a Myanmar migrant worker living in Thailand, and the work is “Signal” (2016–ongoing) by Thai artist Nipan Oranniwesna. Perhaps much like the entire show itself, “Signal” is a haunting but ultimately fleeting examination of diaspora.
The stakes communicated through the work on view in this exhibition are high and stretch way beyond being simply interesting aesthetic experiments. This is arguably best embodied in Sawangwongse Yawnghwe’s work, especially his complex and layered installation, “Spirit Vitrines (Memoirs of a Shan Exile)” (2016–2017), which is a long vitrine housing figurines in a procession. These protective amulets are made to be carried during perilous journeys; whether by refugees in flight or great migrations.
Yawnghwe’s heavily researched work adopts a kind of magical realism, using tactics somewhere between art and archive to document the ongoing ethnic atrocities in Myanmar. Their arrangement mirrors an exodus, and resonates all too closely with images from around the world, particularly the Rohingya. Displayed as though conceived for an anthropological exhibition, and exhibited together with excerpts from Yawnghwe’s father’s book, The Shan of Burma: Memoirs of a Shan Exile, “Spirit Vitrines (Memoirs of a Shan Exile)” calls into question the function, the life, and the value of art to the endangered lives of refugees. Walking through the rest of exhibition, I couldn’t help but feel that art, at least in this white cube context, had very little to offer such people, but perhaps this is okay. Overall, this show brings into focus the monster lurking deep within ourselves.
DIASPORA: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia continues at MAIIAM in Chiang Mai, Thailand until October 1.