Visit to: A beast, a god, and a line at Para Site, Hong Kong
Words by Sharon de Lyster, Photos by Sharon de Lyster and Para Site
An expansive travelling exhibition is woven through the connections and circulations of ideas and forms across a geography commonly called Asia-Pacific through the lens of contemporary artists, A beast, a god, and a line was organised by Para Site, Dhaka Art Summit, and Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. From 17th March to 20th May 2018, the exhibition showed at Para Site, Hong Kong's first exhibition-making institution of contemporary art and a crucial self-organised structure within the city’s civil society, founded in early 1996 during the uncertain period preceding its handover to Mainland China.
The stories in A beast, a god, and a line journey on routes going back to several historical eras, starting from the early Austronesian world that has woven a maritime universe surpassed in scale only by European colonialism and is taken as the speculative and approximate geographical perimeter of this exhibition.
The exhibition relies on a variety of languages and includes artists of various historical, cultural, and geographical backgrounds, many of them being among the most powerful voices who are today reinventing the significance of matter, objects, and forms, their genealogies and deep significance.
A leading line through the various aspects and works in the exhibition is drawn from the language of textiles, weaving together several of its historical traces and layers. Their inclusion in ethnographic narratives makes them a fertile battlefield for challenging the methods and the field itself of ethnography.
“Perhaps the most visible of the issues laid bare by the exhibition is the development and spread of politicised religion and its structures in the form of Salafi Islam, violent Buddhism, Hindu fascism, and revivalist Evangelical Christianity engulfing the region, as well as almost every context in the world today, as part of the crisis of Western modernity. Among these complexes of hate, several works deal with the growing Islamophobia as a global phenomenon with various local manifestations; many are informed by the contemporary waves of migration and refugee crises, which often follow ancient routes of circulation and exchange, and are commonly manipulated today as the pretext for the rising nationalist discourses; while other works explore the hybrid manifestations of the sacred in the new global vernacular languages of pop. Western hegemony (and contemporary art) are also challenged from a fundamentally different principle of unfinished processes of decolonisation and resurgent indigenous identities. A beast, a god, and a line includes explorations of systems of knowledge, visual worlds, as well as economic and ethical issues behind the representation of indigenous communities across South and Southeast Asia, often ignored by the narratives about exclusion and social polarisation in this region.” stated by curator Cosmin Costinas.
The Textile Atlas selected the following work to highlight some key themes.
Pablo Bartholomew – An Imagined DNA Map of the Chakma People, 2017 (on-going)
With a father hailing from Burma and mother who is of partial Bengali origin, Bartholomew traces in his newly commissioned project (a work in progress as part of a longer ongoing cross-border inquiry) the links between geographically fractured indigenous communities/ethnic minorities in Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh. Working within the Chakma community into which he is related from his mother’s side, he asked these artisans to use their traditional idioms on back-strap looms (carried on the body through periods of migration) to weave graphic cultural DNA patterns rendered through scientific testing. Our physical existence, after all is a woven pattern from the DNA of our ancestors. Through this project Bartholomew hopes to weaves together science, myth, legend and tradition, exploring a cross-border ethnic identity.
Sheela Gowda – Of Becoming, 2018
This new work inscribed in the artist’s long-standing explorations into the field of materiality and space offers nuanced and vibrant means of understanding the world. She is interested in the power that objects and forms carry in capturing aspects of reality, with its social and cultural narratives, that is otherwise unseen by and unspeakable through other languages of representation and analysis. The gamcha shown in this piece is the ubiquitous towel cloth in Bangladesh and thought out South Asia.
Zamthingla Ruivah – Luingamia Kashan, 1990 – ongoing
Zamthingla Ruivah created the Luingamia Kashan in memory of Ms. Luingamia of Ngainga village, who was shot dead while resisting rape by two officers of the Indian army on 24 January 1986. Using motifs from the weaving traditions of the Tangkhul, Ruivah wove a kashan (a traditional garment) that pays tribute to Luingamia, and the spirit of a community ravaged by state violence. Nagaland has been under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act since 1958, when Naga separatist groups attempted to secede from India; since then it has been abused by security personnel to shield themselves from prosecution for crimes committed against the populace. Today, many members of the Tangkhul community wear the Luingamia Kashan as a symbol of solidarity.
Chiara Vigo – Byssus/ sea silk 1987-2009
Byssus, or sea silk, are long, very strong thin filaments extracted from the foot of large saltwater clams. Chiara Vigo is thought to be the last person left who can harvest and spin sea silk, an ancient art on the European island of Sardinia. From designs that tell stories from the Christian religion to referencing the female bodies, each of her work has taken years to complete the slow process of handling this the sea silk.
Cian Dayrit – Feudal Fields, 2018; Mapa de la Isla de Buglas, 2017
Taking as the point of departure the 2004 Hacienda Luisita Massacre in the Philippines, when protesting farmers and workers on the sugar estate were killed by agents of the Cojuangco family, these tapestry maps look into the role of sugar production from the country’s colonial past through to the neo-colonial and neoliberal present. The work also considers the country’s part in the global market as a producer of raw material and consumer of excess goods including culture and education. In the format of a fabric map, which functioned historically as nomadic murals brought from one colonised state to another by warrior-kings, the work addresses feudalism and landlessness by pointing out ownership via imperialist interests and bureaucratic capitalist landlords.
Ines Doujak – Loomshuttles, Warpaths, 2010-2018
The work started as a collection of 48 Andean textiles, tools, and accessories, and developed into an eccentric archive. The world of indigenous Americas, in which textile culture reached exceptional levels of sophistication and significance, was battered and distorted by the European invasions of the early 16th century. It survived, but the impact of those invasions remain as dirty footprints marring the production and trade of these objects in the ‘globalised’ world. The archive traces workers’ fights against exploitation through time and across geographies. It looks at how types of cloth, dyes, and colour are tied up with the history of colonialism, revealing both their beauty and their ugliness. To stay grounded, the modern figure of the ‘Investigator’ travelled the Andean region, and with the belief that these items of the collection can talk, created posters in response to them, inviting those both close to and far away from the Andes, to communicate with each other.
Rashid Choudhury – Untitled tapestries, year unknown
After Choudhury established the first single-loom tapestry factory in Chittagong late in his career, he referenced folk narratives from Bengal in his works, drawing equally from Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic sources. While he references Islamic calligraphy in this work, rendering the name of god, we see none of the geometric abstraction typically associated with it; instead Choudhury creates a vibrant image that seems to reference ecstatic Sufi and Fakiri forms of devotion.
Than Sok – Srie Bun, 2016
Five Buddhist clerical garments hang on the wall at the same height. The different colours belong to two sects within Cambodia’s Theravada Buddhist system and signify ranks within each sect: three orange colours of Maha Nikaya and darker maroon and ochre colours of Thammayut. For the Buddhist monk, wearing robes is believed to delineate a merit field comparable to the fertile rice field, where seeds are sown for reaping. The words ‘veal srie’ in Khmer language means ‘rice field’, and ‘bun’ refers to ‘merit-making’, which, as the artist notes, is increasingly synonymous with ‘monetary’ and ‘this-world offerings’. The robe’s rectilinear form and seams imitate those of the rice field: paddies framed by levees. In Srie Bun, the artist has carefully cut away measured fields of fabric, revealing deliberate holes. His gesture questions the robe’s symbolic power stop mortal male bodies, and if peace can be advanced when hierarchical motions of sect and rank remain at the moral core of society.