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SAWANGWONGSE YAWNGHWEBullet School VI, 2018, oil and acrylic on canvas, 315 × 360 cm. Courtesy the artist and H Gallery, Bangkok.

Facing Reality Anew

Also available in:  Chinese

Covid-19 is radically upending how we live, think, and see. The pandemic has forced us to acknowledge aspects of the world’s existing social, economic, scientific, and cultural systems that we often overlook—from how we ship masks around the globe to how we harvest vegetables and care for our most vulnerable. We hope that anything that falls apart can be put back together—and ideally, in better shape than before. So as we attempt to mend and strengthen our shattered economies and social systems, it’s worth asking: what have we neglected in the past?

Perhaps we can find guidance in the practices of artists who have long asked themselves this very question. Our cover artist Sawangwongse Yawnghwe has dedicated his career to preserving the cultural memories of the Shan people, whose autonomy was overriden by the British colonial government of Myanmar in the 19th century, and quashed again by the independent Burmese government in the mid-20th century. Building on the archives of his family, he portrays, in paintings and installations, the history of his people, who are still persecuted by the state of Myanmar and overlooked by the international community. For example, curator Kerstin Winking describes Yawnghwe’s diagrammatic painting The Myanmar Peace Industrial Complex (2017), our cover image, as a “satirical peace plan for Myanmar” that lampoons how, despite their complex schemes for conflict resolution, state agents miss the obvious: “Peace cannot be achieved without the people caught up in conflict.”

The late Carlos Villa (1936–2013), the subject of our second Feature, likewise understood marginality. A second-generation Filipino immigrant born in San Francisco, he advocated for gender, racial, and ethnic diversity in the cultural canon of the United States as a curator and arts educator. In his artistic practice, he sought a connection to his own heritage when racism was still the status quo. Yet, he never narrowed his gaze because of this. Abstract expressionism, feathers and bones—nods to his Austronesian lineage—and ancient mythologies all found a place in his works. In Ritual: A Painting Performance/Interaction (1980), for example, he donned an elaborate cape that he created himself, before smearing paint onto a canvas and slipping “into the role of a shaman who mediated ancient and contemporary, Western and Othered worlds,” in the words of curator Lian Ladia and AAP managing editor Chloe Chu. Ultimately, Villa’s work—as both an educator and an artist—asks us to contemplate the dark side of human alienation and the power of community as xenophobia flares around the world. 

The erasure of certain narratives is similarly the focus of the works discussed in the Up Close section. AAP associate editor Ophelia Lai studies Yhonnie Scarce and Edition Office’s architectural installation In Absence (2019), which challenges colonizers’ claims that the lands they annexed originally belonged to no one. Chloe Chu writes about the repression of trauma in relation to the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), as seen in Wang Tuo’s film Symptomatic Silence of Complicit Forgetting (2019). AAP news and web editor Lauren Long delves into Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation Free Biographies (2018–19), and how the duo add fictionalized, personal perspectives to the grand narrative of the Second World War.

Elsewhere in Features, Inside Burger Collection brings together three takes on artist Brie Ruais’s process-driven ceramic sculptures based on the weight of the artist’s own body, written by curators Frauke V. Josenhans and Jodi Throckmorton, as well as artist Martha Tuttle.

For Profiles, AAP Brisbane desk editor Tim Walsh spoke with Berlin-based, New Zealand-born artist Ruth Buchanan, whose mission is to unravel and redirect visitors’ attention to who is represented, and, conversely, who is missing from cultural institutions. Contributor Dave Willis visited MAIIAM Museum in Chiang Mai and spoke with founder and collector Eric Booth about his aims to “redistribute cultural capital away from the center of power toward the margins.” And in Macau, businesswoman Pansy Ho is imagining the potential of the former Portuguese colony to be not just a mecca for gamblers but for artists and creative professionals.

Elsewhere in the issue, Maria Taniguchi reflects on the influence that both Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Judy Freya Sibayan had on her works. KADIST’s curator of Asia programs Shona Mei Findlay files a Dispatch from San Francisco, where the vibrant and diverse history of the city is under threat due to gentrification, now further exacerbated by the economic fallout of Covid-19. For Where I Work, Michael Young visited the Shanghai studio of new-media artist Lu Yang, whose video games and animations revolve around the nature of consciousness and probe the limits of the human body. 

Finally, for The Point, Beirut desk editor Nadia Christidi looks at how the climate crisis will shift our collective understanding of what knowledge is, where it arises from, and who produces it. Although we commissioned many of the articles before Covid-19 became a global crisis, the underlying issues discussed in this issue take on an added urgency and significance now. If we hope to address existential threats such as climate change and the coronavirus, perhaps we need to start with reassessing our history before falling into old patterns of the present.

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