RELIGIOUS & META-RELIGIOUS ART IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
curated by Tony Twigg
Until 15 November 2014
Each year since 1951the Blake Prize for religious art has been offered. Like the more famous Archibald Prize for portraiture it encourages artists to lend their skills to a higher calling. This year SLOT is responding to the Blake Prize with an exhibition of religious and meta-religious art.
My own interest in religious art began in Manila while watching the annual Black Nazarene procession - when an ancient figure of Christ is paraded in the street through such frenzy that each year several people are crushed to death. After the figure of Christ passed I was surprised to see another making its way through the crown, then another, and another. Patiently it was explained to me that it is the image that is sacred not the object, and while there are many objects, there is only one image.
This idea inverts our usual understanding of art where worthiness is measured by an object's artistic merit or monetary value irrespective of its subject matter.
In our exhibition that contrasts religious and secular art, colonialism emerges as a common concern. That religious art was employed as an instrument of colonization in South East Asia is demonstrated by the banner of Thanh Teresa that was made for a Saigon (Ho Chi Min City) church in 1952, while the Viet Minh were fighting for Vietnam's independence from France. The banner opulently celebrates the French Saint Therese of the child of Jesus, a nun surrounded here by Vietnamese symbols of good luck and firmly amalgamated with the Fleur-de-lis, a symbol that has united the Holy Trinity and the French nation since the Middle Ages.
In the Philippines, where colonialism was more successful, veneration of religious images has morphed into a personal identification with religious figures. The Virgin Mary has become the Filipina mother and the Santo Nino, the child Christ, has become the Filipino child, both possessed by the Church physically and meta-physically in an endlessly repeating cycle.
In contrast to this arcane art predicated on a single absolute truth, SLOT offers meta-religious art - an unholy hegemony of Nationalism, leftist politics and abstraction - in essence Modernism.
And while it might be tempting to identify Modernism as a religion, it would entail ignoring a central ideal - the single word shouted by Indonesia's Joko Widodo at the conclusion of his inauguration speech, "MERDEKA" - or Freedom - it is an elusive thing in South East Asia, yet its presence and its absence ask the central question - what we are to become?
- Tony Twigg