KHVAY SAMNANG, “Human Nature Series,” 2011, digital C-print, 80 X 120 cm. Courtesy Primo Marella Gallery, Milan. 

ADITYA NOVALI, “The Wall Series: 131-159,” 2012, wood, copper, brass, aluminum, resin, paint, fabric, LED on 28 rotatable triangular bars, 146 × 92 × 20 cm. Courtesy Primo Marella Gallery, Milan. 

SOPHEAP PICH, Untitled (Desert Life), 2012, bamboo, rattan, burlap, wire, beeswax, damar resin, earth pigment, plastics, charcoal, oil paint, 101 × 102 × 6 cm. Courtesy Primo Marella Gallery, Milan. 

Deep S.E.A.

Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia

Primo Marella Gallery
Italy Indonesia Singapore Vietnam Philippines Myanmar Cambodia Laos Thailand

For the latest of an ongoing series of exhibitions dedicated to Southeast Asian art, Primo Marella Gallery invited nine contributors to select artworks by emerging and well-established artists from across the region. Entitled “Deep S.E.A.,” the show comprises installations, paintings, photography and sculptures that cover a broad spectrum of themes. Curators Jim Supangkat, Jim Amberson, June Yap, Tony Godfrey, Zoe Butt, Patrick Flores, Iola Lenzi, Erin Gleeson and Catherine Choron-Baix selected works, respectively, by Aditya Novali (Indonesia), Ruben Pang and Donna Ong (Singapore), La Huy and Nguyen Thai Tuan (Vietnam), Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan (Philippines), Aung Ko (Myanmar), Sopheap Pich and Khvay Samnang (Cambodia), and Nithakhong Somsanith (Laos); also on show were works by Thai artist Natee Utarit. The show calls attention to the mosaic of approaches from this socio-politically diverse region, while also proposing that shared concerns resonate beyond national borders.

Reflecting upon social exclusion in Phnom Penh, Khvay Samnang presents “Human Nature Series” (2011), a series of digital prints featuring inhabitants of Bassac Municipal Riverfront Apartments, a government housing project erected in the 1960s now reduced to an overcrowded, dilapidated eyesore. Home to over 4,000 family units, including a community of artists and Kvay himself, the building is considered unsafe, and its inhabitants are targets of social prejudice. Kvay Samnang shows these residents in the privacy of their simple homes, wearing a mask on their faces to avoid discrimination. Almost painterly in their luscious, vivid hues, these tantalizing portraits deftly capture the dignity and humanity of a marginalized community.

Aditya Novali expands on the theme of social utopia-turned-dystopia with “The Wall: Asian (Un)Real Estate Project” (2012), a series of “rotatable paintings,” or large-scale wooden maquettes of suburban buildings made by assembling rows of triangular tubes. The tubes are divided vertically into cell-like rooms and can be rotated separately, allowing the viewer to choose from different combinations. Peering inside the miniature rooms one can catch a glimpse of bloodstained bathtubs, sculls and coffins. Novali’s dark humor links the lack of space to violence in suburban beehives, while making the viewer an accomplice in the making of his grim, urban landscape.

Nguyen Thai Tuan confronts the devastation left in the wake of a decades-long war in his native Quang Tri province. During the Vietnam War this northernmost region of South Vietnam became a center of American bases, and sadly, is known for the presence of unexploded landmines that continue to claim lives today. Part of a series of paintings entitled “Heritage,” Untitled (The Church in Quang Tri II) (2012) features a man in military uniform, his back turned to the viewer, standing in front of an empty altar inside a roofless, bullet-marked ravine of a church. Rendered in subdued shades of gray, Nguyen’s painting is a somber yet moving personal testimony of a historical trauma.

More oblique was Sopheap Pich’s meditation on Cambodia’s past. American-educated Pich is internationally known for his biomorphic sculptures made with rattan and bamboo, inspired by the fish-traps he was familiar with while growing up during the Khmer Rouge era. His recent works include wall-bound, cross-linked grids, built by fastening bamboo-and-rattan strips with metal wire. In the main gallery are four of these large, earth-colored pieces, which exude a sense of the Minimalist austerity. Yet a closer inspection reveals a subtle layering of different materials: colored earth pigments collected during Pitch’s travels across Cambodia, fragments of burlap from disassembled rice sacks, and bits of krama (a traditional Khmer scarf), were woven into the texture of the grids, serving as a metaphor for the complex intertwining of Pich’s personal memories with the Cambodian collective identity.

“Deep S.E.A.” achieves the aim of showing the diversity of contemporary art from Southeast Asia, a region recognized for the sheer multiplicity of cultures, religions and histories it encompasses. The exhibition also showed, with an educated choice of artworks, that local tradition is a core feature for Southeast-Asian artists when connecting with the global art world, and that their shared histories of struggle and reflection on society harken back to the past as much as they project into the future.

Alessandra Alliata Nobili is a Milan-based writer who regularly contributes to Italian and international art publications.