Photoquai is a festival hosted by musée du quai Branly, Paris, focusing on non-Western photographies. In this edition, there is a special section on photography from Southeast Asia. I believe this is the first showcase of Southeast Asian contemporary photography in Paris that is created with the assistance of local curators. As the correspondent curator, I have recommended around 30 photographers to artistic director Francoise Huguier. In the end, five of them have been selected in this edition.
Isarn Boy Soi 4 (2008) / Maitree Siriboon (Thailand) / Photographed by Tim Brightmore (UK)
Isarn, Northeast Thailand, is home to one-third of the Thai citizens. However, due to her poverty and the dominance of Central Thai culture in the construct of Thai identity, the Isarn peoples are often subjected to stereotypes. To the rest of Thailand, they have funny nicknames, work in low-class jobs and eat smelly food. These stereotypes are often used as comic relief in popular culture. In fact, quite a few Isarn comedians have become household names by toying with these stereotypes. Ironically, Isarn is also seen by the urbanites as the last bastion of real “Thai” culture, even though the region’s identity is predominantly Lao. Historian Maurizio Peleggi calls it “social nostalgia”, which assumes Isarn as an unchanging cultural entity and colours even the work of Maitree Siriboon.
Born in Ubon Ratchatani, Isarn, Siriboon’s relation with the region is one of ambivalence. When he first arrived in Bangkok as a 16-year-old, he thought people kept staring at him because he was an uncouth Isarn boy. He felt exposed, which is why he often appears naked in his work. Art education eventually changed his life. Today, he feels “contemporary” and confident, which is apparently not a trait common among Isarn peoples, says Siriboon.
In Isarn Boy Soi 4, he references one of the things that Isarn men are usually associated with: as “money boys” who converge at Silom Soi 4, a nightlife strip popular with Bangkok’s gay community, looking for sugar daddies among foreign men. It is also a place where Siriboon feels completely at home, perhaps more so now than his Isarn village, which is why he is seen in this work with his angel wings.
In this sense, the work warns against the tendency of casting a moral judgment on the “money boys”. If he has not become an artist, adds Siriboon, he would have ended up working there too.
Indonesian Uniform (2009) / Jim Allen Abel (Indonesia)
Founded in Yogyakarta, Central Java, in 2002, Mes 56 is the first collective in Indonesia to focus on contemporary photography. The need to subvert the idea of perfection in “classical portraiture” is one of the recurring themes favoured by Mes 56 members.
But the work of Jim Allen Abel in Indonesian Uniform sets itself apart by examining the connotations of power associated with these uniforms through a series of self-portraits in which his face is masked. This “erasure” is necessary because Abel noticed that a person’s identity becomes irrelevant once he or she dons a uniform—even when the uniform symbolizes dominance.
“When we see a cop, even though we see his name on the uniform, we tend to call him Pak Polisi (Mr. Policeman), as though the person has ceased to exist,” adds Abel. It is as though the power of the uniform has subsumed the person’s very source of identity.
The choice of the “mask” is related to his perceptions of the people who wear these uniforms. In Taekwondo, for instance, he pokes fun at the practitioners’ obsession with their belt colour as a symbol of expertise by masking out his face with these belts. In Pramuka, he juxtaposes the classic scout uniform with shiny ornaments that seem out-of-place. Like other Mes 56 photographers, Abel is partly driven by play and boredom.
Survivors (2008 – ) / Charles Lim (Singapore)
In Survivors (2008 – ), Charles Lim speaks of our false sense of security derived from the daily routine of work and rest. In the constant need to conform to societal expectations, people have concealed their identity to fit into different circumstances. The masks that the characters don in Survivors seem to suggest a façade for something undesirable. But Lim wonders if it is our sense of being that has actually been suppressed.
As such, when the opportunity presents itself for people to free themselves, they find themselves immobilized, like the characters seen in one of the photographs, unable and unwilling to find their ways out of the lift. The decision to dress the characters in pyjamas points to the idea of sleepwalking through life, something that Lim aims to caution.
The imageries are played by two of Lim’s friends and constructed on Photoshop.
Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily (2007 – ) / Minstrel Kuik (Malaysia)
Due to the racial quota that privileges Malay students at local universities, Minstrel Kuik joined the waves of Chinese students that Malaysia “exports” to Singapore and Taiwan annually. She did a painting degree in Taiwan before moving to France, where she had to do a painting diploma again before she could enrol in the National Superior School of Photography in Arles. Today, Kuik speaks Mandarin in a Taiwanese accent and Teochew, her ancestral dialect. Her French is better than her Malay or English. Clearly, her creolized tongue is a result of political and personal circumstances.
And she relates her creolized culture to the fact that she feels no affinity to a certain photographic tradition. In her projects, including Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily, which she started after moving back to Malaysia at the end of 2006, Kuik incorporates multiple approaches and places great emphasis on the editing process, which is organic and deliberate.
Some of her images are diary-like, offering signposts to her personal life, while others are more “constructed”. A snapshot of her arm caressing a row of mandarin oranges, symbolic of Chinese culture and yet harvested in temperate climate, speaks of the truncated experiences of the Malaysian Chinese.
The distance that Kuik had by being away from home is echoed in the distance that she gains by constantly producing work. It takes her away from the numbing schedule of being a daughter, a teacher and a lover to be with photography.
Nostalgia (2007 – 2011) / Tan Chee Hon (Malaysia)
It is tempting to imagine Tan Chee Hon as an awkward, struggling artist at odds with KL and her artistic communities. But he has no interest in that kind of romanticism. Walking in the city and taking pictures in the morning has become part of his routine. Over the years, he has become one of the most consummate diarists of KL, even though it is never his intention to create a portrayal of his adopted hometown.
“I don’t shoot with big topics in mind. I just shoot. And then I classify the photos into different themes,” Tan elaborates. “KL is a strange and funny place. Little ‘accidents’ happen everyday. Things change fairly quickly. If you miss something today, it will be gone by next week. Somehow, I feel responsible to document these things. Maybe it’s not very meaningful to people. But it is something that keeps me shooting.”
Nostalgia features a series of images shot mainly in KL with an old Yashica Mat-124G. The lens has fogged but the focusing still works. He did C41 processing for his slides and negatives, thereby creating these imperfect photographs, which matched his artistic vision. The process is important, adds Tan, because it destroys the ‘reality’ of his images, making them hyper-real. The work registers how he views, feels and thinks of his environment.