KataKatha: Artists’ Session

In November I participated as an audience member and observer of KataKatha: Southeast Asian Conversations on Culture and the Arts, a regional initiative by Maybank Kim Eng, supported by Maybank Foundation, conceptualised and curated in collaboration with PUSAKA. The following post covers three short talks presented by sculptor Agnes Arellano of the Philippines, photographer Geraldine Kang of Singapore, and multidisciplinary artist Nadiah Bamadhaj of Jogjakarta, Malaysia, and New Zealand, with moderation from Eddin Khoo of Pusaka. You can find out more about KataKatha and the participating figures here.

L-R: Geraldine Kang, Nadiah Bamadhaj, Agnes Arellano. Photo by Cheryl Hoffman, taken from KataKatha's Facebook
L-R: Geraldine Kang, Nadiah Bamadhaj, Agnes Arellano. Photo by Cheryl Hoffman, taken from KataKatha’s Facebook

I had chosen to attend this talk over Katakatha’s Session with Writers featuring Goenawan Mohamad and Avianti Armand (and historian Farish A. Noor had he not had to bow out due to health reasons) after much hand-wringing. The tipping point for me was that the talk would feature artists who were all women, which to me still feels like a rare thing. I’d like to look at the resonating echoes I noticed between the three artists explaining their work, as well as points brought up during the Q&A.

I didn’t know much about the artists prior to the talk, although I did know of Nadiah’s work, obliquely. Partially because some of it was wrapped up and stored away in my office at Rimbun Dahan, the private arts centre where I worked and where 15 years prior Nadiah had undergone a residency. She had a piece comprised of many squat tombstones that were now individually wrapped in newspaper distributed across five boxes — I walk through them every day to empty the dehumidifier’s water tank. But the work I really remember her for is one of her striking drawings of Medusa, a detailed illustration of the mythical figure done in varying shades of dark grey stopping me in my tracks when I was visiting Richard Koh Fine Arts’ Jalan Maarof space.

Her presentation for the talk was nearly a performance. She sat on the floor with her back to the timed slides, wrapped in a bright red shawl as her measured voice intoned explanations for the accumulation of her work and research, eyes watching the images change in the mirror of the studio we were in. For her exhibition Poised for Degradation, she explored another female mythical figure, Indonesia’s Nyi Blorong, a powerful half woman half snake who “provides wealth and status in exchange for the sacrifice of a family member.” Nadiah spoke of casting herself as this figure in her work, “the gendered dichotomous relationship between the upper and under worlds” with her husband being the tumbal (sacrifice) to her blorong. She showed the works she made as she and her partner tried to conceive, smaller illustrations evoking hantu tetek (literally breast ghost) and other mythical imagery from Indonesia, Malaysia and older narratives from across the region and the world. Her work also dealt with architecture, landscape, social structure, and political struggles, no less interesting or accomplished, but it was the way she mythologized the personal that resonated with me, and I saw it in the work of the other two artists as well.

Geraldine began her talk with a photograph projected of the artist herself in bed sandwiched between an older man and woman, a big book open in front of her with an enlarged image of naked breasts. Everyone in the photograph is topless or only wearing a bra. This was part of her earlier work, In The Raw. It featured her own family members posed in various states of mundane undress in a family home, tender scenes of familial intimacy that positioned Geraldine as the Child, naive, protected, vulnerable. The images were strikingly familiar on so many layers — the cartoon printed bedding, being bathed by an older family member, all the moments of conspiracy shared under blankets and in kitchen corners. But there was also an element of the surreal — a glowing light shining under the shiny tent of a telekung (Muslim prayer garment for women), bathwater tinged red as blood. In her talk she explained that the work came from a time of anxiety and restlessness, having graduated from university and having to contemplate her next steps out into the ‘real’ world, out from the known variables of her family home. In confronting this anxiety she captured her family and also mythologized them, imbuing them with an agelessness otherwise unachievable.

Many in the audience, myself included, wondered how Geraldine managed to get a typical (read: conservative, prudish, straight laced) Singaporean/Southeast Asian family to consent to lay themselves so (literally) bare in her photographs. In the Q&A she spoke of how she used nudity as a way to replace verbal intimacy and to explore quietness in families. In the process of taking the photographs, she didn’t vocalize questions to her family members, but rather gave them simple instructions which they undertook out of a sense of trust, even if that wasn’t accompanied by a complete knowledge of her project, her goals, her secret intents. I thought about the shorthands and shortcuts in the language of my own family, and the fill-in-the-blank mode of communication that occurs amongst people who live in each others’ pockets, who have blood instead of words, and how sometimes that can still produce results.

Agnes was last to present. She talked about her medium-to-large scale works of stone and plaster, what she calls ‘inscapes,’ where you view or experience a sculpture by going ‘into’ them and being surrounded by them. For her very first work, Temple of the Moon Goddess, she crafted a monument of sorts, full of phallic figures that lined a pathway to an antechamber which held a sarcophagus. Topping the sarcophagus was a figure of a woman lying face down on top of a man, in what looked like a passionate embrace. In her back Agnes had cut a window, so people could see to the real human bones within. The positioning of the man and woman, Agnes told us, was similar to the position her own parents were found in when they died in a house fire.

In each of the talks, the artists presented work which sprung from seeds that were deeply personal. Nadiah’s first solo exhibition was titled 1965 – Rebuilding Its Monuments and it looked at the violence and upheaval during Soeharto overthrowing Sukarno, which included her brother’s death, killed for his political activities in Timor Leste. Geraldine explored the roots of her anxieties within her family. Agnes turned to the concept of the mother goddess to explore gentler notions of worship and reverence and mourning, as well as more explicit and accepting explorations of sexuality, compared to her strict Catholic upbringing. All three artists had done work that touched on themes that are coded as personal and feminine, themes that are often dismissed because of this codification. Both Agnes and Nadiah looked at reproductive anxiety, Geraldine had touched on separation anxiety, all of them explored the family structure, female sexuality, and personal (be it familial, marital, romantic, or sexual) relationships.

From the journeys the artists’ described in their presentations, I saw a similarity in the trajectories of all three’s work, where they moved from mythologizing the personal to more explicitly politicizing it as well, more deeply exploring connections between the self and larger contexts. From what she shared, Agnes’s work had always been an amalgam of personal myth and larger historical and cultural narratives, looking at different interpretations and renditions of the Mother Goddess and female mythical figures. Nadiah spoke of her current project which looks at the issue of royal succession in the Jogjakarta province, where she has lived for a fair amount of time. Geraldine’s more recent work has moved away from internal structures to exploring landscapes and space — her series Under The Guise of Surface involved images of workers painting over “weather-worn or abandoned public structures,” a response to (among other things) Singapore’s graffiti laws.

The process of making this work got her into trouble with the authorities for ‘vandalism.’ She was asked if that made her wary about displaying the work — her response was that the context of being in public spaces painting objects had more danger attached to it than exhibiting the resulting photographs in a small artist run space. This reminded me of viewing Minstrel Kuik’s solo exhibition AFTER IMAGE: The One, The Many & The Unrepresentative, held in Penang’s tiny Run Amok gallery. The work was unabashedly political and yet in a space where we know the ‘wrong’ kind of attention won’t be paid, which is a consideration intrinsic to a climate like Malaysia’s currently where you constantly have to take small and large gambles when it comes to expressing yourself. With regard to space and context, Nadiah also touched on the significance of geography and urban culture on her arts practice. She exploded into exploring other genres once she moved to Jogjakarta where she was in closer proximity to art, where she could cycle or walk to all the galleries and studios in town, whereas she always felt more isolated in Kuala Lumpur, driving to galleries alone in her car, navigating our endless warren of highways. It made me think of places as vessels that shape the art that it inspires, as well as shape the limitations on the art that can be created (freely and openly) within it.

There were two questions in the Q&A that stuck out in my mind. Someone called Geraldine’s work more introspective, whereas they had found Nadiah’s and Agnes’s work more ‘monumental’ and ‘epic’ and asked her to explain this difference. Geraldine took this question very composedly but I was bristling. I found the differentiation vapid and the question (if it was even a question) unclear and condescending. Yes, Agnes literally built monuments while Nadiah drew them, but I considered all three artists’ work introspective, in that they took inspiration from their lives and branched out from there into their interests, concerns, environments, perceptions of others, and others’ perception of them. All the works presented dealt with universal themes — is the family not one of the most universal themes we have? I felt the real question was a demand for Geraldine to apologize or validate her own age, as if her relative youth undermined her experience or perspective.

The second question was “Is it necessary to have all-female arts spaces?” Nadiah thought that doing so was an act of female artists marginalizing themselves, essentially cordoning themselves off from the larger art scene, which Geraldine agreed with. Agnes spoke of her personal experience as a woman sculptor who works with heavy materials like stone. “We get more respect when we are seen as able or capable of doing the same as men,” she said, shrugging. I bristled not at their answers, which I both agreed and disagreed with, but more at the weighty realities connected to the question. Being a woman with awareness of their own power and position (whatever that may be) in any field seems to me like an exercise in delineation and being delineated. You want to be seen as equal (as you know you are), but the opportunities and access available to you compared to men is not equal. To ask for help or recognition of this disparity is to appear weak or out yourself as a troublemaker, but without real structural and systemic changes the gap will never be bridged.

But I hope not to be misunderstood as expecting these three amazing artists to grapple with these weighty realities in the span of two hours (or ever, if it isn’t their prerogative). During the talk, I connected with them on the basis of a shared gender yes (and the assumption of some shared experience) but I also connected with them more deeply on the basis of their work, the themes they explored and are exploring, and how they engaged with the world around them through the things they made. I’m inspired by them as creators, above all else (and I bristle, anxious and agitated, that this is something I need to say at all). ◈