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HO TZU NYEN, The Nameless, 2015, single-channel video installation with color and sound: 21 min 37 sec. Courtesy MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiang Mai. 

Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia

Also available in:  Chinese

Curated by Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani, the ambitious survey “Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia” featured works by 18 artists and artist collectives, and was centered on three facets of displacement: “exit,” which implies economically motivated emigration; “exile,” the removal and disempowerment of a person; and “exodus,” suggesting a group or common experience of leaving one’s home. 

Aside from a few artworks referencing conflicts of the 20th century, such as Pao Houa Her’s melancholic photographs of Hmong veterans who fought for the Americans in the Vietnam War, or the beguiling, pastiched video The Nameless (2015) by Ho Tzu Nyen, which narrates the peregrinations of a communist triple agent during the Second World War, most of the works were related to existing diasporas, of which there is no shortage. In particular, since 1948, Myanmar has been facing a massive and protracted humanitarian crisis, giving rise to a series of brightly colored tapestries by Jakkai Siributr, which depict the organized persecution of ethnic minorities such as the Kachin, Chin and Rohingya peoples. Heartbreaking for their matter-of-fact scenes of massacres, the images are nevertheless uplifting in a sense, having been hand-embroidered in Bangkok by the very same refugee survivors whose stories they show.

Sawangwongse Yawnghwe also addresses the situation in Myanmar to poignant effect. Grandson of the first democratically elected president of the Union of Burma (who was deposed and murdered in the coup of 1962), the artist makes work that is refreshingly unapologetic about its politics. The 2017 painting Peace Industrial Complex II charts the tangled web of economic and political ties that have engendered disinterest in ending the conflict among the country’s powerful, while another canvas screams “Pay Attention Motherfuckers: War Zone in Kachin and Northern Shan State,” attempting to reignite public discussion of a long-running conflict that has intensified in recent years. The paintings are accompanied by an installation of miniature figurines, intended to be used as amulets during crossings, lined up inside a long vitrine to evoke the ongoing exodus. 

Many Burmese émigrés are based in Chiang Mai. Wishing to make this marginal population more visible, Nipan Oranniwesna invited a member of the community to collaborate on a site-specific installation, Signal (2016– ). The work consists of four video monitors installed close to liminal spaces of passage, such as stairways and doors. Most of the time they appear blank, but every few minutes a figure darts across the screen. By recording his collaborator running around the museum in a loop, Nipan emphasizes the insecure status of those who live in constant fear of deportation.

Though Thailand represents a vision of safety and opportunity to refugees from neighboring Myanmar, Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Report ranked it the third most economically unequal country in 2016, with the highest earning one-percent owning over 58 percent of the nation’s wealth. In 2018, Thailand topped the list. Many Thais looking for stable incomes are forced to emigrate to the West or to richer Asian countries such as South Korea—an issue explored by Prapat Jirawangsan in his video The Wandering Ghosts (2016). Featuring audio from a phone call in which a man politely asks a job broker how much his sister could earn as a sex worker in a Korean massage parlor, the work underlines the phenomena of trafficking women to pay off family debts, and the country’s misogynistic culture.

Among such narratives of persecution and suffering, the work of Aditya Novali stood out on account of its playfulness. Titled Identifying Southeast Asia: Borderless Humanity (2017), the interactive installation consists of an LED map of the region, subdivided into zones that can be backlit or obscured by viewers using a row of switches. The areas do not correspond to current national borders, and instead depict smaller ethnic or geographic regions that predate colonialism and other national contestations. The work exemplifies Paracciani’s intention “to pave, through the language of art, the ground for mutual understanding that replaces that perilous ground of not belonging”—as outlined in her catalog essay—a goal that was certainly achieved in this benchmark exhibition of contemporary Southeast Asian art.

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