The Geography of Belonging: Language, Memory and Otherness

Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani

Defined as ‘the official right to belong to a particular country’, how is nationality ascribed? Is nationality a tangible concept and, if so, how can it be represented? How does a flag, a map or an icon of political hegemony symbolise one’s own nationality? Or are heirlooms, traditions and cultural identity similarly significant expressions of the nation?

In the year-long preparation for A Life Beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging), the featured artists and I engaged in ongoing conversations, sharing ideas, interrogating possibilities, and complicating the already challenging question of national identity in relation to each subjective experience living and/or belonging to Southeast Asia. Those conversations became the cornerstone in the making and framing of this exhibition. Through a Zoom meeting with artist Citra Sasmita, for instance, the question emerges of how cultural identity may not necessarily be associated with national belonging. Balinese by birth, her works highlight the points of contact and divergence of Hindu and Muslim cultures and how being Balinese provides a fertile ground in evaluating how religion may be incorporated in one’s understanding of nationhood. Similarly, conversing with artist Pathompon Tesprateep, and his focus on subnational religious conflicts in Thailand’s Deep South, brings to the fore the importance of cultural reflexivity in terms of one’s own identity in the face of national struggles. Geographical concerns in defining national belonging (or international hybridity) were highlighted in my conversations with artist Boedi Widjaja who describes questions of belonging as “elusive”.[1] Born in Indonesia, a recurrent geopolitical referent in his practice, and migrated at a young age to Singapore, he considers it more productive to locate his practice in the hybridity that resides in the interspace between cultures. Engaging with artist Norberto Roldan, another aspect of national belonging emerges, that of community-based belonging and traditions, in particular, of the indigenous people of the Visayas region, who despite having received “various forms of foreign aggression”, capitulated to the centralised state narratives of power, which had feared their revolutionary action against the nation. Also on the role of traditions, Oxford-based Malaysian artist Haffendi Anuar discussed with me his gesture of assembling, almost architecturally, traditional clothing, specifically the kain pelikat, and textiles that are associated with Malaysian male identity, as a way to reconstruct new meanings of belonging. Then, there were my conversations with Vietnamese artist Hà Ninh Pham, who forgoes the question of national belonging altogether, instead developing through his drawings and practice the representation of an imaginary land, beyond geography. For Lao artist Bounpaul Phothyzan, the perception of identity, on the other hand, is clearly a very much nation-specific affair, overlapping with the memory of a war still too current to be forgotten.

In merely the briefest mentions of some of our enriching encounters, what clearly surfaced at the time of developing this project was that one way to productively discuss national belonging in the context of Southeast Asia was to consider the conceptions of identity and belonging beyond straightforward geographical perspectives, but from the artists’ subjectivities, premised in their personal observations on the meaning of nationality—as an individual or as a community.

As the title implies, the exhibition is inspired by leading Southeast Asianist Benedict Anderson’s book A Life Beyond Boundaries in which he reflects on nationalism departing from his own cosmopolitan and comparative outlook of life.[2]In the book he discusses how he came to theorise the nation as an “imagined community”, incidental to symbols and cultural conceptions such as language, memory and otherness that foreground the very production of national imagining, or nationhood.[3] Departing from this understanding of nationhood based on cultural specifications, the exhibition examines the way in which the artists question, or negotiate, their own national identity by incorporating, dismantling or rejecting its symbols and connotations. To do so A Life Beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging) embraces a comparative approach to Southeast Asia, fostered by Anderson in his life and field work—“Everything I noticed in Siam led me to ask new questions about Indonesia… How to compare them, and within what frameworks?”[4]—in which diverse practices and concerns are examined in parallel within each country. In this way, the works in the exhibition, existing and newly commissioned, come to conjure a non-cartographic geography of belonging, which eschews singular national trajectories, instead fostering regionality. While some stem from familiar icons or materials, such as traditional textiles, symbols and techniques, other works draw inspiration from personal or communal concerns of national belonging—a concept that, at present, is further challenged by the pandemic-induced policing of national borders and by military repressions that, at specific locations in Southeast Asia, are gravely mining democracy.

What follows is a close inspection of how the artists in their practices challenge or respond to some of the cultural conceptions discussed earlier in relation to Anderson—such as language, memory and otherness—that have brought us to define nationhood. It is only due to space constraint that not all the works are reflected below, while acknowledging the unique and essential component that each artwork brings to the narrative of the exhibition.

Boedi Widjaja, 'A cry a voice and a word that shall echo,' 2021. Dye-sublimation print on fabric. Mark Salvatus, 'Weakest Links,' 2011. Metal key chains. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.
Boedi Widjaja, ‘A cry a voice and a word that shall echo,’ 2021. Dye-sublimation print on fabric. Mark Salvatus, ‘Weakest Links,’ 2011. Metal key chains. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.

 

Mapping Language

Upon entering the gallery, a large mixed-media installation by Boedi Widjaja occupies the space. Titled A cry a voice and a word that shall echo, the work is composed of ten textiles. The way they hang from the ceiling is evocative of flags but, in fact, there are no obvious national colours, or words to speak of. Nonetheless, their presence is astounding, their texture is intriguing—but what are they? Questioning the notion of the flag as a recognisable national language, Widjajadismantles its structure by peeling off visible referential layers while adding on deconstructed text that belies national implications.

Firmly grounded in history, the installation re-examines the seminal 1955 Bandung Conference. Endorsed by 29 countries from Asia and Africa, the objective of the conference was to promote Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation and to oppose colonialism. Fostering ‘internationalism’[5] among developing countries, the conference proposed ten principles to counterbalance the crisis of the Cold War and to reassert national allegiances. The 1955 Bandung Conference preceded the founding of the forum of 120 nations known as the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 in Belgrade.

The installation A cry a voice and a word that shall echo takes as its point of departure precisely the colours of the flags of these 120 countries, combined and reconfigured as a stream in an imaginary geography of belonging. In doing so, the artist encodes the artwork title, a line from President Soekarno’s opening speech at the Bandung Conference, and the Conference’s ten principles into the flag graphics “by transposing the Morse Code sounds to colours of differing wavelengths that were sampled from the 120 national flags”.[6] Geographically, the flags do not speak specifically of any of the 120 countries, yet they speak of all of them—at once and in unison.

But, of course, it is not surprising to see language and geography running alongside. As Anderson reminds us, language was instrumental to the earliest formations of nationalism as it was to the definition of newly conquered geographies.

The floor installation Weakest Link by Mark Salvatus, installed near Widjaja’s piece, engages with language and geography to construct or deconstruct one’s own identity, thus in Weakest Link geographical formation leads to fluidity against the confinement within boundaries—“a game we always play”.[7] The work is made of fine chains linked together by keyrings, “something portable”[8] that we all at some point carry along, to vaguely delineate the perimeter of an imagined geographical map. Further to that the public is invited to tug and pull the chains and by so doing alter the morphology of the map which, for its pliable nature, easily arranges into new configurations. Playing with the idea of nationality, and at the same time flirting with the notion of belonging, Weakest Link speaks of the movement of people and the migration of culture and language. In this sense the floor installation converses on cue with Widjaja’s piece. Both works mutually dismantle the very symbol they refer to, the flag and the map respectively, proposing instead to rearrange by hand, literally in Salvatus’ work, “the grammar”[9] of colonial power. In fact, as Anderson suggests, by feeding the community imagination of belonging, the map underscores its role as institution of power that conjures the representation and memory of the homeland.[10]

Citra Sasmita, 'Timur Merah Project VI,Tidings of The Heavens,' 2021. Acrylic on Kamasan traditional canvas. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.
Citra Sasmita, ‘Timur Merah Project VI,Tidings of The Heavens,’ 2021. Acrylic on Kamasan traditional canvas. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.

 

Vuth Lyno, 'Sala Samnak,' 2020. Neon light installation. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.
Vuth Lyno, ‘Sala Samnak,’ 2020. Neon light installation. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.

 

Building Memory

Evoking her homeland Vietnam, thousands of kilometres away, the work 035A.DC by multidisciplinary artist Ly Hoàng Ly ventures into identity and belonging through memory. Initiated while the artist was residing in Chicago in 2011, this ongoing and composite body of works stems from the artist’s urge to anchor the concept of identity, elusive in itself, into something tangible.

The work title refers to one of the first refugee boats that left Vietnam. Accidentally coming across its image online, the artist decided to retain the hardly visible number engraved on the boat, embodying a loss of identity, as the title of her ongoing series. 035A.DC has occupied Ly’s art practice through various stages of her life, birthing a large number of works. In particular, the works selected for A Life Beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging) are the video Perpetual Ephemeral: A study of pho and the photography works Ash.

In Perpetual Ephemeral, the artist performs the domestic routine of cutting and simmering beef bones to prepare phở, the Vietnamese national dish. Similar to Marcel Proust’s evocative ‘episode of the madeleine’ in À la recherche du temps perdu,[11] Ly’s endeavouring to re-create and savour the phở broth is significant, I would argue, in unlocking past recollections of belonging. In Proust’s book and in Ly’s work the main theme is identity through memory. But if for Proust that memory, triggered by a bite of the soft madeleine, was unexpected, in Ly’s work memory is sought after as a way to unleash the emotions that emerge from the search for identity—hers and of her own country. The same journey is taken across the photographs in the exhibition, which reproduce the bronze sculptures that were cast from the bones used in the simmering broth—a study and a journey into the meaning of phở.

Vuth Lyno’s mixed-media installation Sala Samnak, similarly, evaluates nationhood through memories of local traditions to discuss community belonging in relation and in opposition to state narratives. Sala Samnak or ‘rest house’ (សាលាសំណាក់ in Khmer, literally, ‘house with fire’) is an old-style house seen throughout Cambodia. It was very popular in the pre-Angkorian period, especially during the reign of Jayavarman VII (1122–1218). Rest houses were built along main roads and nearby villages and were conceived as communal spaces in which to rest and gather, to share conversations with people in the community or passersby. As such they are still used to some extent in Cambodia today.

In the installation, Vuth adopts the outline of Sala Samnak creating a geometrical form that resembles a shelter or hut. The outline, however, is not made of solid matter but light in the form of blue neon tubes that, attached together, constitute the skeleton of this otherwise sturdy architectural structure. ‘Light’ in terms of luminescence and weight, the work is suspended from the ceiling, evoking an otherworldly dimension of the Sala as a vision that emerges from past traditions in which cultural belonging is rooted. In departing from and abstracting traditional forms of domestic and communal use, the notion of belonging gravitates on the conception of home as movable yet irreplaceable, a locale from which we come from and yearn to return.

 

Montien Boonma, 'La Métamorphose,' 1988. Photograph, sickle, rice sack, water buffalo’s horn. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.
Montien Boonma, ‘La Métamorphose,’ 1988. Photograph, sickle, rice sack, water buffalo’s horn. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.

Ly Hoang Ly, 'Ash#1,' 2017-2021. Fine-Art Archival pigment print on ILFORD GALERIE Gold Fibre Pearl paper. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.
Ly Hoang Ly, ‘Ash#1,’ 2017-2021. Fine-Art Archival pigment print on ILFORD GALERIE Gold Fibre Pearl paper. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.

 

Otherness

In the ongoing Timur Merah (East is Red) project, artist Citra Sasmita traces Balinese historical narratives, traditionally male-centred heroism and bravery, through literary sources and images of mythology to reconstruct marginalised, female-focused journeys of life. Furthermore, the artist adopts the traditional Kamasan painting technique, typical of Bali and historically executed by men, to create large installations and works that reframe the patriarchal Balinese culture by adding ubiquitous and inspiring female figures representing life and nature.

Specifically for the exhibition, the artist focuses on the representations of the under-, middle- and upperworlds in Balinese beliefs. To do so she incorporates narratives of the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata by taking inspiration from the famous Kamasan frescos in the Kerta Gosa Palace in Bali, which tell the story of Bima in Heaven and Hell. Built in the 17th century, the palace was the residence of the high king of Bali. Part of the palace was a court of justice, in which the citizens were judged and sentenced. In the works, Sasmita adapts the geometrical forms and shapes of the murals, replacing the characters of the paintings with female figures as symbols of nature and human anatomy, to address cultural identity from the perspective of social marginalisation.

However, there is a “useful feeling of being marginal” as Anderson reminds us. “One can read it negatively as indicating a life without root, without identity. But one can also read it positively,”[12] he continues, discussing his experience of marginality across multiple cultures from Ireland to England, from the United States to Southeast Asia.

Third-generation Chinese immigrant to Myanmar, artist Soe Yu Nwe in her practice addresses her own condition of marginality and the challenges to conform to preconceived cultural categories. In her work she takes inspirations from ethnic Chinese and local Burmese cultural beliefs such as animism and folklores along with Buddhist mythologies as a way to reflect, similarly to Sasmita, on the restrictive patriarchal Burmese society. Her multicultural upbringing in Yangon and the United States, and her family heritage have informed her practice in the way she delves into the notion of identity as fluid and problematic.

In her drawings and ceramic works, she deconstructs the image of the self into various symbols, for instance, her recurrent representation of the snake, or Naga, in Buddhist mythology to reference her sense of repression and alienation. These concerns of belonging and unbelonging to the nation are, of course, heightened in current times. Since the military coup on 1 February 2021, she has through her works been responding to the national violence that is mining democracy and opening the very possibility of cultural redefinition.

I have been involved in many conversations with Soe Yu Nwe to devise the best way to collaborate under such challenging circumstances. With reference to the ongoing protests, she created the drawings featured in the exhibition that challenge suppression and freedom of speech. Through the works she relates to familiar symbols such as the three-finger salute, commonly identified with youth demonstration for democracy and justice, and also to Burmese national icons: the flower Paduak and the peacock. The Paduak blooms in April during Thingyan (the Burmese New Year), which was not celebrated this year under severe military control. The peacock (dương in Burmese) is one of the national animals of Burma, strongly associated with anti-colonial nationalist movements. I am very grateful to Soe Yu Nwe and to all that enabled her works to be featured in the exhibition, and thus for her voice to be heard across nations, at this time when nationhood is increasingly at peril.

Irawan Ahmett & Tita Salina, 'When You Arrive You'll Regret,' 2020. Single channel video. Image courtesy JWD art Space.
Irawan Ahmett & Tita Salina, ‘When You Arrive You’ll Regret,’ 2020. Single channel video. Image courtesy JWD art Space.

 

Soe Yu New, 'Pink Serpent & Budding Serpent,' 2018. Glazed ceramics, underglazes, oxides, gold and mother of pearl luster. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.
Soe Yu New, ‘Pink Serpent & Budding Serpent,’ 2018. Glazed ceramics, underglazes, oxides, gold and mother of pearl luster. Image courtesy JWD Art Space.

 

As I conclude this essay, with the understanding that official national representation is nothing more than a construct, or a “birdcage”, as artists Tita Salina and Irwan Ahmett expound in their video interview for this exhibition, that is effective in organising many different identities and social representations to a de-facto “colonialist mentality with a different packaging”,[13] the fundamental question arises: who is the nation?

Researching and discussing with the son of late Thai artist Montien Boonma, it emerges how subtle and reflexive the gesture of challenging national narratives of belonging can be. Concerned with inclinations of “transnational disquiet”[14]and the rapid industrialisation of the late 1980s, Ajarn Montien’s practice emerged during those years in response to his compulsion to talk about the people of Thailand and their lives often through unorthodox mediums and materials, such as soil, herbs and readymade farming tools. In A Life Beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging), alongside selected archival material on his trailblazing exhibitions Story from the Farm (1989) and Thai Thai (1991), we are honoured to feature the mixed-media work La Metamorphose (1989). Breaking the ground on concepts of national representation, in this work and series the artist seems to place the question—who is the nation?—in the hands (quite literally) of the farmers. Their voices, their lives, and their tools might give us the answer.

I am grateful to the artists for their insight and inspiration throughout our collaboration. This paper was written for the exhibition catalogue A Life Beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging) at JWD Art Space, Bangkok, June – October 2021.

[1] Boedi Widjaja, video interview as part of the documentation produced for the exhibition, https://www.jwd-artspace.com/en/.

[2] Benedict Anderson, A Life Beyond Boundaries (London: Verso Publishing, 2016). Written in 2009 after publishing his works on geopolitics and nationalism, in this book Anderson shares his life. His story is interspersed with insight into global historical development that had provided vantage points in his career as a historian and political theorist, from his fieldwork in Indonesia as a student to his founding of the department of Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University.

[3] For further reading on nationalism, see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso Publishing, first edition 1983, latest edition 2006).

[4] Anderson, A Life Beyond Boundaries, 95–96.

[5] Joan Kee, “Field and Stream: The Terrain of Contemporary Asian Art,” The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 2012), 66.

[6] Boedi Widjaja, artist’s statement, A Life Beyond Boundary (The Geography of Belonging) (Bangkok: JWD Art Space, 2021).

[7] Mark Salvatus, video interview as part of the documentation produced for the exhibition, https://www.jwd-artspace.com/en/.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Benedict Anderson, “Census, Map, Museum,” in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 167–190.

[10] Ibid. For Anderson, the census, map and museum are “three institutions of power which, although invented before the mid nineteenth century, changed their form and function as the colonized zones entered the age of mechanical reproduction”.

[11] Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), published in France from 1913 to 1927, is told as the author’s life story and revolves around the theme of involuntary memory. It is his most prominent work and a great influence on twentieth-century literature.

[12] Anderson, A Life Beyond Boundaries, 25.

[13] Tita Salina and Irwan Ahmett, video interview as part of the documentation produced for the exhibition, https://www.jwd-artspace.com/en/.

[14] Kong Rithdee, “Montien Boonma, gone but never forgotten,” Bangkok Post, December 23, 2020,

https://www.bangkokpost.com/life/arts-and-entertainment/2039811/montien-boonma-gone-but-never-forgotten.