Written for Issue 00 of Topical Ointment. Find the original article at: http://www.topicalointment.com.au
‘Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ ANU’
8 – 30 May 2015
The ANU School of Art Gallery
It has been 18 years since the ANU has held an exhibition dedicated to Asian art, and in the wake of the recent executions in Indonesia, there has never been a more appropriate time to remember Australia’s positive connections with our Southeast Asian neighbors. Entering the throng of patrons at the opening of ‘Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ANU’ I was warmly reminded of the rich multicultural community we enjoy in this country. The ANU has a long and prosperous history of collaboration with major Southeast Asian institutions, scholars and artists, and the current exhibition acts as a showcase of the rich collection of work accumulated as a result of these connections.
‘Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ANU’ is curated by David Williams and Caroline Turner for the ANU School of Art Gallery and will be open from the 8th to the 30th of May. Artists from nine nationalities are represented, including names like Malaysia’s Redza Piyadasa, Latiff Mohiddin and Wong Hoy Cheong, Indonesia's Affandi and Dadang Christanto, and Cambodia’s Bun Heang Ung. The work varies greatly in medium, theme, and style, the traditional is interplayed with the contemporary, and the political is coupled with the highly intimate. The main connecting thread in the lush array of work is undoubtedly in the use of colour. The saturated colours of Southeast Asia seep into the very fibers of many of the works, tempting their Australian audience with a warm exotic light unknown in this land lit predominantly by the dry and harsh. Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa’s mixed media collages burst off the walls with their rich bouquets of shapes and colours. His deceptively simple family portraits entice the viewer in with their rainbow of rich hues that leak into the very skin of his subjects. Yet in the deep inky blues that frame these bright colours, or the clenched fist in Two Malay Women (1989) there is a hint of a darker layer meaning lurking beneath.
All 87 contemporary works seem to tie themselves in some way to the traditional. These ties can be used as a celebration, subversion, or deconstruction of the traditional. Indonesian artist Affandi’s brightly coloured Untitled [Flowers], (1964) continues the linking thread of colour through the exhibition. Affandi, working with his fingers and painting straight from the tube, creates highly emotional and tactile works that connect with the spirituality and traditions of Indonesian culture. There is none of the carefully layered shapes of Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa’s mixed media collages, but a joyful, chaotic immediacy that jumps out upon passing viewers. In a conversation with Art Historian Astri Wright in 1987 the artist confirms this joy: ‘...when I paint I am completely happy. When I paint the only things that exist are God, the subject and myself.’
‘Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ANU’ was based off the private collection of art collector and Australian diplomat, Neil Manton, and supported by the ANU’s own collection. During his time in DFAT, Neil Manton established many strong cultural connections with Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries. The exhibition also coincides with the 60th anniversary of Malayan and Australian diplomatic relations and was opened by H.E. Dato' Zainal Abidin Ahmad, the High Commissioner of Malaysia. His Excellency welcomed the break from relatively dry political engagements and stressed the importance of the visual arts as a means of creating constructive and positive connections between Australia and Southeast Asia.
What makes international connections within the visual arts unique is that the arts has the capacity to slide underneath the hard political crust of a country into the hearts and minds of its people. Through art we can begin to see these countries from the inside out, we can empathize with their perspectives on a social, political and personal level. The perception of single unified nation is unraveled to reveal a collection of individuals with unique experiences, thoughts and dreams. Often it is forgotten that it is not only important to connect with the decision makers of a country, but also with the very people that make up the body of a nation. Thankfully it appears this often forgotten connection has been remembered and celebrated in ‘Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ ANU’.
 Caroline Turner extract from Turner, ‘Affandi in Bali’ in Crossing Boundaries: Bali: A Window to Twentieth Century Indonesian Art, Asia Society AustralAsia Centre, 2002, pp. 41–44.
 Astri Wright, Soul, Spirit and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 111.