Art as a Medium of Resistance

Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America (installation view at National Gallery Singapore, 2023). Courtesy National Gallery Singapore

The tropical ‘attitude’ that brings together two regions in rejection of European colonialism

With over 200 works on display, spanning the course of a stuttering twentieth-century modernity, this is something of a sprawling exhibition. Like its subject: the territories that span the eastern and western extremes of the equator (depending, of course, on where you’re starting out from). Within that ambit are narratives that track resistance to European colonialisms (and a support for its opposite: traditional or indigenous wisdom) and drive towards a form of comparative solidarity that might unite these two seemingly distant regions, an ‘attitude’ that the museum labels ‘tropical’.

The ‘attitude’ manifests through three chapters: ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native’; ‘This Earth of Mankind’; and ‘The Subversive’. There’s also a ‘special zone’ called ‘The Library of The Tropics’, which includes an assemblage of books (ranging from novels by Barbara Cartland and Lonely Planet travel guides to art catalogues of work by Paul Gaugin that promote stereotypical imaginaries of the ‘tropics’). Throughout there’s an intriguing tension between the imagery twentieth-century artists were fighting against and the kinds of imagery they were fighting for. Underlying this is the ambition to place the holdings of a museum primarily dedicated to southeast Asian art in conversation with the wider world.

While that means ‘blockbuster’ works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Tarsila do Amaral, Gaugin, Latiff Mohidin and a series of interactive sculptures by Lygia Clark, it’s some of the less well known, almost banal-looking objects that have the most subversive edge. What look like archaeological drawings of ruins by the Dutch artist W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp turn out to record the aftermath of a mass suicide at the royal palace of Denpasar in 1906. On seeing the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army land, the men, women and children of the palace ‘charged out’, the men stabbing the women and children to death before allowing themselves to be shot by the invaders. More than 1,800 Balinese died. The aftermath in question is simply the remains of the burned palace. These remains, of course, are the kind of objects that end up in European museums, where Nieuwenkamp’s extended collection of Balinese objects was frequently exhibited prior to its acquisition by the National Gallery. But it’s also in works like these, however, that the exhibition’s claim to be telling stories really, and intriguingly, comes to the fore. This focus on the contingent (contextual) rather than necessary (depicted) histories that surround objects is later picked up in David Medalla’s annotated archive of newspapers from the Philippines, Kumbum Banners (1972), which tries to express what was really going on (behind the headlines) under the Marcos regime. (The title relates to the 108 chambers of a Buddhist Kumbum Stupa, which are arranged as a three-dimensional representation of the Buddhist cosmology. There are 108 collages in the full series, 28 are displayed here.) ‘This paper [The Manila Chronicle] has been closed by MARCOS since martial law was declared’, reads one annotation. ‘The editor and several staff members are now in a military concentration camp.’ Proof, if you like, that art continues to be a medium of resistance in the postcolonial era.

Hélio Oiticica. Tropicália. 1966–1967, remade 2023. Wooden structures, fabric, plastic, carpet, wire mesh, tulle, patchouli, sandalwood, television, sand, gravel, plants, birds, television and poems by Roberta Camila Salgado, dimensions variable. Collection of Projeto Hélio Oiticica. Installation view, Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America, National Gallery Singapore, 2023. Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

One of the three sections of the exhibition, ‘This Earth of Mankind’, takes its heading from the title of the first volume of Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer‘s ‘Buru Quartet’ (1980–88). In the series, which charts Indonesia’s emergence from various colonial occupations, the author discusses the debates about what language the independence movement should adopt (Malay or Javanese), which was the language of the people and which the language of the elites (more closely aligned with the colonisers). Of course, there is the issue that the texts included in the exhibition (many of a decidedly leftist bent, among them Indonesian artist-activist Semsar Siahaan’s 1988 ‘My Art, “Art of Liberation”’ and Mexican David Alfaro Siqueiros’s 1923 ‘Manifesto of the Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors’) are all presented in English (in the catalogue that accompanies the show they are presented in their original tongues as well), which is in one sense practical and in another sense an indication that all museums are to some extent colonial legacies.

It’s presumably to disrupt this sensation that the curators of the show have chosen to replicate Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi’s celebrated 1968 exhibition design devised for the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), where paintings were mounted on ‘crystal easels’ (vertical glass panels atop concrete plinths) with caption information (as well as the occasional transit or condition report) on the panel’s reverse. Bo Bardi stated that she had come up with the display ‘to destroy the aura that surrounds a museum’ and to ‘revitalise a painting, liberating it from the role of mummy’ by removing any sense of hierarchy and division in its presentation. The system was withdrawn from MASP in 1996 before being reinstated for an exhibition in 2015 (by MASP’s director and curator of this year’s Venice Biennale, Adriano Pedrosa). Here, while it performs something akin to Bo Bardi’s stated intentions (in this case, true to the exhibition’s premise, erasing a sense of geographic hierarchy), it comes across as a cultural or art-historical gesture and lacks the true sense of Bo Bardi’s radical ideology (which, if followed through, might logically – if admittedly impractically – require paintings from the entire National Gallery collection to be hung this way).

That’s not to say that there are not radical (and humorous) works in the show. A version of Hélio Oiticica’s take on the cliché of the tropical, Tropicália (1966–67/2023), is installed, with live plants and parrots, amid the palm-fronded colonial capitals of Singapore’s former City Hall Chamber. Naeem Mohaiemen’s extraordinary three-channel film Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), documenting the rise and fall of the Non-Aligned Movement, features a video clip of a speech by Singapore’s first foreign minister, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, pointing out to delegates at the movement’s 4th Summit (1973) that the only way they can communicate with each other (and thus operate as a movement) is through technologies supplied (and controlled) by aligned countries. Ultimately this exhibition never clearly demonstrates an entanglement between the art of its two geographic poles (which, at best, come across as fellow travellers, while actual entanglements, such as the fact that, during the 1960s, Israeli advisers training Singapore’s armed forces were referred to as Mexicans so as not to upset the city-state’s Islamic neighbours, are avoided), but it does convincingly demonstrate how art can be deployed to subvert and challenge received wisdoms, change narratives and use the local to address the global. In that sense, it’s a timely intervention.

Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America, National Gallery Singapore, 18 November – 24 March

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