What role can art play in today’s turbulent times?

Asia Society’s new exhibition, After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History, turns for answers to the artists of three countries—Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar—that have weathered times of great sociopolitical upheaval.

“We thought it would be productive to look to those who have already gone through the kinds of events we are going through now,” said Boon Hui Tan, director of the Asia Society Museum in New York City, at a panel discussion on September 12. The panel included three of the exhibition’s featured artists.

One member of the panel, FX Harsano, an Indonesian of Chinese descent whose work often challenged the brutal Suharto dictatorship that held power in the country for more than 30 years, spoke about his art as a channel for finding his own identity. The Chinese minority in Indonesia has been subject to harsh discrimination, violence, and a forced assimilation that has buried their history.

In Writing in the Rain, Harsano traces the characters of his Chinese name as water washes them away. At 68 years old, it is a name he only recently learned due to policies that forced assimilation on Chinese Indonesians and prevented them from learning about their heritage.

Like Harsano, fellow panelist Nge Lay, who began creating art while Myanmar was under military dictatorship, uses her work to process societal suffering as well as her own pain. A self-taught camerawoman whom Hui Tan credits with “building the contemporary art scene in Myanmar from scratch,” she is virtually unknown within her own country because of the old dictatorship’s neglect of nontraditional art education and a general suspicion of artists.

Nge Lay’s self-portrait series Observing of Self Being Dead is a contemplation of death that is a reaction to both personal health issues and the bloody quashing of demonstrations she witnessed as a child.

For the third panelist, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, the economic changes he’s seen in his home country of Vietnam have altered Vietnamese social life and its longstanding moral principles at an alarmingly quick rate. A child refugee who returned to Vietnam as an adult, he is one-third of the artist collective The Propeller Group, whose multimedia work reckons with their nation’s war-torn history as well as its rapidly developing future.

A still from The Propeller Group’s video The Dream. A Honda Dream motorbike, long considered to be a status symbol in Vietnam, is left on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. By morning, it has been picked clean by thieves.

“Context allows you material to work with, whether it be social or political,” said Nguyen, adding that he’s always been drawn to artists who are driven by a concern. Then again, he said, those contexts can also be the very things that prohibit artists from pursuing it.

After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History is on view through January 21, 2018, at Asia Society, 725 Park Ave., in New York City. Admission is $12.00; $10.00 for seniors and $7.00 for students with ID; free for members and persons under 16. Free on Friday from 6 pm–9 p.m.

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