Whether art can be the ping-pong of post-Cold War diplomacy or not, the route to forging, furbishing and firming up ties among Asian nations through cultural interaction certainly needs to be explored and more so now, with a shrinking globe and huge technological advances.
Two exhibitions in the city suggested that this is, indeed, being done. The first, still on at the Victoria Memorial, focuses on East Asia. The second was hosted at the Rabindranath Tagore Centre by the ICCR to display works that were the outcome of a week in Darjeeling during which eight Indian artists joined 17 others from nine ASEAN members. The only grouse the reviewer might have had was the duration of the show. Surely it deserved to be on view for more than the miserly seven days allotted to it?
First-impression comparisons suggest, at the risk of sounding hasty, that artists in East Asia seem keener to rework traditional methods and manners than those in South-east Asia. Which is not surprising. For, while the cultural heritage of East Asia was disturbed by foreign intrusions, it wasn’t disrupted the way tradition was by the rule of the Dutch, the French and the English in South and South-east Asia which stepped into the modern age under Western dominance.
Merging Metaphors — which is what the show was called — wasn’t an inappropriate name because a certain overlap of concerns is expected in a region with strong cultural and commercial contacts that endured up to the Middle Ages and is still nurtured through Indian settlers in ASEAN nations. But a more immediate reason for an Indian flavour in some of the works was the absorption of local colour by the guest artists.
Of whom Malaysia’s Dato Choo was one. The mise-en-scène of both his watercolours was consciously Indian, with a picture-within-a-picture device used in one. Myanmar’s Min Wae Aung was another. His Indian Girls is interesting not so much because of the theme, but the presentation. Girls and women, familiarly attired, walk away, backs to the viewer, but strangely excerpted from their social milieu and cast in an anonymous afternoon glow. If the Malaysian Sam Karuna’s batik was quite a feat in technical terms, Zaw Mong @ Win Zaw of Myanmar produced one of the most captivating works of the show, combining (or should one say subverting?) faux-Mondrian schemes and order with blithe, playful figures and movement.
And then, of course, there were the Buddhas. Thailand’s Thawal Praman showed a Buddha awash in a muted verdant effulgence whose highlights suggested an illumination from within. However, the image was more about deference to traditional iconography than a dialogue with it. Yet, individual deviations don’t always work. Nivong Sengsakoun of Laos, for example, wasn’t able to come by a cogent correlative in depicting the Buddha as a still centre in the swirl of life. The sculpturesque figure by Nataphon Na Nakorn (Thailand) conveyed a sense of tight desperation despite the embellishments of Om in gold. But Saykham Oudomsouk (Laos) appeared rather too poetic.
Striking for its stark, cartoon-style simplification and strong colours was the acrylic of Cambodia’s Em Riem while the other Cambodian, Sareth Svay, interpreted ASEAN in a sturdy, masculine installation with wooden boxes connected to each other with pipes. The Indonesian artists, too, showed riveting works. While Ivan Sagita’s romanticism was shot through with anxiety as dark acrylic smudges portrayed trees as silent phantoms, Papuk Daru Purnomo recalled Freud in his expressionist strokes, insinuating volatile emotions.
No less stimulating were the artists from Brunei. The geometric abstractions of Brunei’s Osman Mohammad with their interplay of rectangles and rough textured colours balanced rigour and flexibility, immutability and openness. The other, Zakaria bin HJ Hamid, reinvented the summer beauty of Darjeeling in an oil that, erupting in rich colours and a quaint perspective, brought Howard Hodgkin to mind, and was complete with a location signature: the toy train (picture).
The wood engraving of Vietnam’s Sac Ngo evoked a period appeal, but Dao Hai Phong’s landscape was noticeable for the sensuous radiance of the palette. And the last and only woman ASEAN artist was Quek Kiat Sing of Singapore whose Chinese ink and paper works were elegantly spare, sketchy and reticent.
Those who caught the eye among the Indians were Tapos Sarkar with his amusing fibreglass kitten; Sujith SN for his pensive watercolours, touched with surreal nuances; Pradeep PP with his mythic Primitivism; Pampa Panwar for cleverly weaving allusions; and Binoy Varghese for his portrait of loneliness. Ganesh Gohain, Seema Kohli and Vivek Vilasini also participated.