Gajah Gallery explores photography and colonial pasts in contemporary art

Through the works of eight Southeast Asian artists, the Singaporean art gallery grapples with the complex colonial histories of photography and their continued influence today.

by Jones JohnPublished on : Nov 26, 2020

The history of photography in Southeast Asia, as in other regions fraught by the colonial experience, is one burdened by the introduction of the medium as a tool to assert various kinds of hegemonic authority and though this history had been largely ignored through the 20th century, more recent scholarship has provided contemporary artists a fertile ground to explore various fractures that have been the result of this encounter. Complementing this enquiry has been exhibitions through the 2010s, notably the Garden of Eden (2014), which presented photographs taken in Indonesia between the 1850s and 1940s at the National Gallery of Australia, and Afterimage: Contemporary Photography from Southeast Asia (2014), which explored photographic practices “that expand the medium’s field of operations as art, visual language and social practice”, as described on the catalogue’s back cover, have worked within two distinct trajectories to understand the impact of the medium in contemporary social and artistic praxis. Now, as the decade comes to an end, these two distinct pathways have found an interesting marriage in (Re)Imagining the Image: Contemporary Artists in Asia Converse with Photography at Gajah Gallery in Singapore.

‘Tumpuk Lapis Tampak Isi’ (2018) by Fika Ria Santika | (Re)Imagining the Image: Contemporary Artists in Asia Converse with Photography | Fika Ria Santika | STIRworld
Tumpuk Lapis Tampak Isi (2018) by Fika Ria Santika Image: Courtesy of Gajah Gallery

The exhibition is divided into two sections, one that displays the works of several colonial-era photographers including Kassian Céphas, who was the first native Indonesian photographer, which was once part of the Gunter Heil collection, and another featuring works of several contemporary photographers who have engaged with the photographic medium in divergent capacities, and through these disparate units, it carefully succeeds both at presenting the self-implicating violence of post-colonial cultural identification and at shedding light on the anxieties that have emerged through the course of this longstanding cultural dialogue. While such conversation inevitably emerges from almost every nook of the exhibition, it would be unfair to say that the discourse surrounding the exhibited artwork is completely shadowed by this kind of gloom, as some, such as Li Jin’s Impressions of Bali, are the result of leisurely travel, and others, particularly the works of Fika Ria Santika, are meticulous articulations of personal relationships with native landscapes. None of these descriptions are categorical as all the exhibited artworks, from both sections, continuously bounce their individual energies off each other, thereby continually developing and problematising their relationships with each other and the context within which they are displayed.

‘Photograph of Two Ladies’ allegedly taken by Kassian Céphas in the 1900s | (Re)Imagining the Image: Contemporary Artists in Asia Converse with Photography | Kassian Céphas | STIRworld
Photograph of Two Ladies allegedly taken by Kassian Céphas in the 1900s Image: Courtesy of Gajah Gallery

Céphas’ photograph, titled Photograph of Two Ladies, which appears on the exhibition’s banner, provides a suitable entry point into the discussion around representation and the indigenous identity. One is struck by the evident discomfort on the face of woman who is staring back at the camera, and if the photograph was indeed taken by Céphas, it is interesting to think about, as has been done in the exhibition’s catalogue essay, what could be the cause of her confrontational glare. It could have been intentional on the part of the photographer to have his subject photographed in this manner, but it could also have resulted from the various dynamics at play in the image’s staging, dynamics of power such as that mentioned above, that of the photographer and the subject, compounded by traditional gender roles or other cultural apprehensions, possibly directed towards the medium itself, as it also brings into question the autonomy of the subject and the social implication of the act of photography within indigenous contexts at the time.

From left to right: ‘Mevrouw Paradiso’ (2018) and ‘Give Me Pearl Necklace’ by Octora, and ‘Impressions of Bali’ (2017) by Li Jin | (Re)Imagining the Image: Contemporary Artists in Asia Converse with Photography | Octora and Li Jin | STIRworld
From left to right: Mevrouw Paradiso (2018) and Give Me Pearl Necklace by Octora, and Impressions of Bali (2017) by Li Jin Image: Courtesy of Gajah Gallery

There is also an authorial uncertainty that allows space for contemporary artists to engage with these enquiries pragmatically as seen when these questions appear to reverberate into the works of artists Suzann Victor, from Singapore, and Octora, who was born in West Java, who through their unique modes of obscuring and mutating, in the case of Octora through an added layer of self-staging, try to shed light on the characteristics of female subjects that are lost or rendered unrecognisable through historic image-making practices in Southeast Asia, be they for the making of travel postcards or the fortification of ethnographic studies. Something the exhibition’s curator, Nicole Soriano, had mentioned in a slightly different context becomes incredibly relevant here, expanding the possibility to read any engagement with historic photographs as being intrinsically relevant its unfolding history: “the caption that came with the (historic) photographs, they can all be questioned. The captions are not fixed, in a way that artists, by manipulating the photographs or altering them or making themselves the subjects, they are also captioning these images in their own way”.

‘Sanur Beach after Le Meyeur and Ni Pollock’ (2014) by Ashley Bickerton | (Re)Imagining the Image: Contemporary Artists in Asia Converse with Photography |Ashley Bickerton | STIRworld
Sanur Beach after Le Meyeur and Ni Pollock (2014) by Ashley Bickerton Image: Courtesy of Gajah Gallery

The above questions reflect once more, though referentially, in a painting of Ashley Bickerton, titled Sanur Beach after Le Meyeur and Ni Pollock. In this painting, Bickerton, who is an American expat living in Bali, reinterpret a photograph of the Belgian Adrian-Jean Le Meyeur, to whom the contemporary artist has been likened to by virtue of him being a White artist living in Bali, who is also married to a Balinese woman, painting his wife. In his painting, Bickerton caricaturises himself and his wife, Cherry Saraswati Bickerton, within opposing stereotypical modes, him possibly as seen through the lens of locals, as an eccentric alien, and her through a lens that can be assumed to be belonging to a White man, as an exoticized subject whose skin is rendered into a monochromatic one-dimensionality through a historically advertent fetishisation.

From left to right: ‘Vickers Carden’ (2014) and ‘Mount Batur’ (2020) by Mangu Putra and ‘Re-Reading Landscape, Color Guide #1’ (2020)) and ‘Re-Reading Landscape, Color Guide #2’ (2020) by Jumladi Alfi | (Re)Imagining the Image: Contemporary Artists in Asia Converse with Photography | Mangu Putra and Jumladi Alfi | STIRworld
From left to right: Vickers Carden (2014) and Mount Batur (2020) by Mangu Putra and Re-Reading Landscape, Color Guide #1 (2020)) and Re-Reading Landscape, Color Guide #2 (2020) by Jumladi Alfi Image: Courtesy of Gajah Gallery

Beyond enquiries into the male/colonial gaze inherent in historic photographic practices, is the problematising of another dominant mode of colonial image-making, namely that of the picturesque. Artists such as Santika and Jumladi Alfi, who both hail from West Sumatra, and Mangu Putra, from Bali, each tackle the history of landscape photography, albeit sometimes unconsciously, by providing personalised accounts of their individual connections to their surroundings with perspectives that are free from the need of commercial beatification that characterised the practice in the past. Despite his best intentions, the Malaysian artist Ahmad Zakh Anwar’s Postcards from the Fringe almost appear as a metaphorical deathblow to the colonial enterprise within the vicinity of the exhibition’s overt yet unassuming politics.

‘Unequal Innocence’ (2020) by Suzann Victor | (Re)Imagining the Image: Contemporary Artists in Asia Converse with Photography | Suzann Victor | STIRworld
Unequal Innocence (2020) by Suzann Victor Image: Courtesy of Gajah Gallery

It is easy to question the relevance of reiterating these historical narratives of marginality, even for the purpose of contesting them, and almost to assert their importance, Soriano reflects, “these things continue to be questioned and engaged with because they do help you understand the past better and the present better. History is not dead, it’s very much alive, and if we look closely its around us. How do we replicate these traditions? What can we do that’s different, that is more sensitive? How do we respect the people who are being photographed and their sensibilities? It is not just in the colonial era that these questionable practices were done, take (contemporary) photojournalism. We have to constantly keep that in mind”.

‘Postcards from the Fringe’ (2020) by Ahmad Zakh Anwar | (Re)Imagining the Image: Contemporary Artists in Asia Converse with Photography |Ahmad Zakh Anwar | STIRworld
Postcards from the Fringe (2020) by Ahmad Zakh Anwar Image: Courtesy of Gajah Gallery

The exhibition was on view till October 25, 2020, at Gajah Gallery, Singapore.

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