In June 2014, QAGOMA Director Chris Saines and I embarked on a three-country tour of mainland South-East Asia, landing first in a hot and wet Phnom Penh. We received a very warm welcome from the small but tight-knit art community, the members of which accompanied us to openings, talks, performances, dinners, tours of iconic local architect Vann Molyvann’s buildings, and to view private collections. We were able to meet some of the country’s most highly respected practitioners, including APT6 artist Sopheap Pich at his studio, perched on the Mekong River. Cambodia’s recent violent past permeates so much of everyday life and has a strong presence in the practice of many of the country’s artists, while the absence of a senior generation is a painful reminder of the genocide of the late 1970s.
Younger Cambodian artists are beginning to gain significant international reputations, driven to create by complex political, social and environmental issues, such as the forced removal of Phnom Penh citizens from their homes for controversial development projects. Touring the lush gardens and collections of the national museum with its director was a special treat, which included taking in some of the grand masterpieces of the Angkor period.
Bypassing Bangkok due to the recent military coup, we headed instead to Thailand’s cultural capital of Chiang Mai. The APT’s strong legacy in Thailand meant that we were greeted like old friends — we were toured through the 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit by founder Kamin Lertchaiprasert, visited the market and comic stands where Navin Rawanchaikul grew up, and drove out to the country property of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. Although a brief visit, these internationally respected artists, who each exhibited in APTs in the 1990s, offered us invaluable insights and introductions to exciting young artists, ensuring that our time in Thailand was very productive.
A new frontier for APT research travel took us to Yangon, Myanmar. Much has changed in a very short time in Myanmar, and artists are experiencing a new-found freedom of expression. Very poor infrastructure and an unfamiliar audience, however, mean that artists have to be highly resourceful. Performance is one of the few art forms that endured the long period of military dictatorship, providing an inexpensive and untraceable platform for artists and it continues as a key component of most artists’ practice. Under the shadow of the monumental Shwedagon Pagoda, we crawled along in Yangon’s traffic (a fairly new characteristic of the city) to visit artists who were often working in very modest surroundings and using innovative modes of production — from land art and performance to found object sculpture, photography and documentary filmmaking. We were also lucky enough to meet some of the country’s pioneering artists, who forged careers during the most restrictive times and who are now mentoring the new wave. Some of the established artists, such as APT6 exhibitors Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu, are taking contemporary art out of the city and sharing it with people across the countryside. Among some of Yangon’s longer‑standing galleries, housed mainly in dilapidated colonial buildings, custom-designed gallery spaces are beginning to emerge. On our last evening at one of these new spaces on the Yangon River, a performance event by ten female artists seemed a fitting way to end what was an inspiring journey through some of the most exciting art centres in South-East Asia.
Tarun Nagesh is Associate Curator, Asian Art, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.