Pan-Asian art show weaves a worthy but off-key narrative of colonial exploitation

Bold and ambitious in scope, group show at Para Site art space in Hong Kong points a finger at legacy of imperialism, but doesn’t suggest what can replace Western liberal democracy – and evokes ethnographic museum displays

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 April, 2018, 7:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 9:11am

“A Beast, a God, and a Line” is an exhibition based on cultural connections between seemingly disparate Asia-Pacific societies that was first shown at the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh in February.

Curated by Cosmin Costinas, executive director of the Para Site art space in Hong Kong, it is an ambitious undertaking in both mission and scale. Indeed, Para Site has temporarily hired an extra floor beneath its home in the Wing Wah Industrial Building in Quarry Bay to show the works by nearly 60 artists.

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One common denominator for many of the contributors is that they are based in countries where an Austronesian language is, or was once, spoken. This linguistic distinction links Taiwan (through its aboriginal Formosan languages) to Malaysia (and Malay speakers in Singapore), Indonesia, the Philippines, the Pacific islands, New Zealand, Hawaii and Madagascar – a region spanning roughly 15 time zones.

It frees its members, at least within the exhibition confines, from the normally inescapable gravitational pull of mighty America, China and other major economic and political powers.

Beyond language, the exhibition points to other shared traits, such as shrugging off the colonial straitjacket – or, as the curatorial statement has it, the “process of replacing its colonial cartographic coordinates, a process this exhibition proudly serves”. This perhaps helps to explain the otherwise incongruous presence of artists from places of non-Austronesian heritage such as India and Hong Kong in the show.

There is also a suggestion of mutual cultural markers, such as animistic iconography and sophisticated textile traditions, aspects that provide thematic and visual cohesion for an overwhelmingly busy display. More than half of the exhibits are either woven or fabric-based, including a number of pieces by master weavers that combine exquisite craftsmanship with powerful artistic intent.

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Zamthingla Ruivah’s Luingamla Kashan (1990 and ongoing) is a bright red traditional Nagaland dress that the artist created in memory of her friend, Luingamla, who was killed by two army officers in the northeast Indian state of that name in 1986 when they tried to rape her. To this day, members of her Tangkhul community still wear Ruivah’s distinctive design as a symbol of solidarity.

A 2010 skirt woven by Raja Umbu on Indonesia’s Sumba Island depicts the arrival of her ancestors on the island, a foundation myth that helps her community retain its identity, just as it has kept its unique dyeing and ikat weaving techniques.

There are textile-related pieces about how Western powers destroyed native skills and sustainable economies and turned them into a part of the globalised, outsourced supply chain. Manish Nai’s Untitled (2017) is made of scrunched-up, indigo-dyed burlap, a reference to how British colonialists forced Bengali farmers to cultivate indigo instead of food crops, led them into indentured servitude and eventually, rebellion during the Indigo revolt that started in 1859.

Munem Wasif’s Machine Matter (2017) is a video showing an abandoned jute mill in Bangladesh that recalls how the British destroyed the local cotton industry in the 18th and 19th century in favour of imports from William Blake’s “satanic mills” in England and Scotland, and which has deep resonance in modern-day Bangladesh, where factory workers churn out cheap garments for the rest of the world. (Labour rights is one of many tangents the exhibition flies off on, hence the exhibition’s rather digressive detour to a roof shed where Dilbar (2013), a short film of a Bangladeshi construction worker in the United Arab Emirates, is showing.)

The exhibition is about diversity and alternative perspectives, a statement about its curation says, and it makes for a stimulating and boisterous exhibition.

It features both pieces that are anti-commodity and culture-specific, such as the handmade pieces by Ruivah and Umbu, and Taiwanese Etan Pavavalung’s paintings based on his indigenous Paiwan identity, and more conceptually driven installations about the global flow of ideas, such as Melayu Pono’i (2018) by Malaysian writer Simon Soon, whose story about the last Hawaiian king’s travels was executed by Filipino artists.

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There is an overarching narrative here, albeit one that risks being seen as simplistic, especially in a city trying to come to terms with its own colonial experience. The heavy-handed finger-pointing at the damaging legacies of Western imperialism (reminiscent of Documenta 14 under artistic director Adam Szymczyk) is justified, but doesn’t offer any fresh perspectives on how to fill a growing vacuum of ideas as confidence in Western liberal democracy retreats.

Works that celebrate indigenous identities – too often silenced by modern national or international allegiances – are important statements amid the continued persecution of the Rohingya and Shan people in Myanmar, and other minorities. But seen together, they resemble an ethnographic museum display and suggest a yearning for a mythical, pre-colonial past – a paradise lost.

It is deeply ironic, therefore, that Ming Wong’s Bloody Marys – Song of the South Seas (2018) so dominates the section of the exhibition on the 22nd floor. It includes a video of the Singaporean artist impersonating Juanita Hall, the African American actress playing the part of a Tonkinese woman whose show tune in 1958 film South Pacific was Bali Ha’i, and described in the exhibition notes as a construction of the exotic that is a crucial instrument of Western colonialism. (Incidentally, You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught, another tune from the musical, has to be one of the most powerful songs against racism ever sung on the big screen.)

That Bali Ha’i played very loudly on a continuous loop made it difficult to do justice to the other art on the 22nd floor.

The show is a bold undertaking that gives visibility to artists and artistic practices from the margins, but is ultimately let down by its overbearing, joyless tone – and a bit too much Bali Ha’i.

“A Beast, a God, and a line”, co-organised by Para Site, The Dhaka Art Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw is on show at Para Site, 6/F, 22/F and rooftop, Wing Wah Industrial Building, 677 King’s Road, Quarry Bay

Wed-Sun, 12pm-7pm. Until May 20