Pablo León de la Barra

Leon de la Barra, Pablo.JPG

As a first-time visitor to the region and to CIMAM I’m very thankful of the opportunity given by this travel grant, specially for being able to meet and engage with art and colleagues from the region and beyond, and in particular those from the global south. It is also interesting to note the almost complete absence of colleagues and institutions from the United States which sadly echoes Trump’s withdrawal of the USA from the global arena. This withdrawal gives us an opportunity to dismantle dominant narratives that have now long passed their expiration date and to bring forward other histories that existed unacknowledged.

I was particularly struck by the display of art from the 60s/70s in the Southeast Asia display section of Singapore’s National Gallery which contributed to my further understanding of the art histories from the region as well as creating regional visibilities and transregional dialogues. It must also be celebrated that a National gallery moves from presenting only National displays to engaging, presenting and collecting the histories of the region. For me it was especially important to be able to experience live works and documentation of artists I only knew from books or the internet and also discovering many others I didn’t knew. This works included amongst other:

From Philippines: David Medalla’s (1938) iconic Cloud Canyon first done in 1963 and thought as a work that could generate itself, and change shape and form continuously as clouds do in the sky; Edgar Talusan Fernandez (1955) Kinupot from 1977 which refers to the abduction of political activists by the military or paramilitary during Ferdinand Marcos martial law (1972-81); Documents detailing the involvement of artists Roberto Chabet (1937-2013) and Raymund Albano (1947-85) in the Cultural Center of Philippines (Including a facsimile of the letter signed in 1967 by First Lady Imelda Marcos where Chabet is appointed director of the CCP and documentation regarding the exhibition a Decade of Developmental Art from 1979) as well as works by Chabet, Kite Traps, 1973 (remade 2015) and Albano, Hot Springs, 1970.

Works from Indonesia included Siti Adiyati’s Jejak (Footsteps) a group of plastic sandals falling from a hanging net from 1976 (remade 2015); Jim Supangkat (1941), controversial KenDedes from 1975 (remade 1996) and which is a figure with the head of a Javanese goddess and the body of a provocative modern woman and was considered by some as an insult; and FX Harsono (1949), Paling Top (Top Most) 1975 (remade 2016), a plastic rifle inside a wooden crate covered by wire mesh reflecting on the increased militarisation of a the era and signaling arts need to be political; also as part of the display there was documentation of GRSBI and II exhibitions of 75 and 77 and a manifesto including the 5 lines of attack of the New Indonesian Art Movement.

Works from Malaysia included documentation of artists Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa’s exhibition Toward a Mystical Reality which took place in Kuala Lampur in 1974 in dialogue with works from both artists including The Mystical Reality Reinvented-Half Drunk Coca Cola Bottles from 2015 which announces that “Abstract Expressionism is truly one of the most successful American exports to the world, perhaps next to McDonald and Coca-Cola.”

If there’s a lesson to be brought forward from these excellent displays of art from Southeast Asia at Singapore’s National Gallery is how the works challenge the notion of abstract art championed by American Abstract Expresionism by bringing context and politics back into the work of art. This said, every exhibition and display it is also a history of that which is absent, and in this case we must signal the absence of women active during this period, something yet to be researched and hopefully presented, as well as a later incorporation of other artists from other countries from the region (Thailand, Vietnam) from this same period who at the moment are not present in the display.