The title of the exhibition originates in the phrase “after darkness comes the light” from the writings of Raden Adjeng Kartini, the daughter of the Regent of Jepara in Java and an icon and champion of women’s emancipation in Indonesia. The words of Kartini echo the desire of artists to find light after days of darkness, and their struggle to give a voice to the disenfranchised and those on the margins of society.
At a time of social and political tension, how should art and artists respond to the challenges of the moment? Does art have the power to change the world or does the world shape the evolution of art? After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History considers these questions through the work of seven contemporary artists and one artist group from Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, whose lives and artistic practices have intersected with defining periods of socio-political transition in their respective societies. Indonesian artists FX Harsono and Tintin Wulia have each created powerful work following the turmoil and intermittent violence that erupted in Indonesia during the 1998 Reformasi period, the country’s politically motivated transition to a democratic government. Their practices before and after this period illustrate the complex ways in which artists participated in this transition and were also changed by it.
While Harsono and Wulia drew power from their position as insiders, the artists from Vietnam featured in the exhibition may be seen as part of the legacy of the American-Vietnam War. Dinh Q. Lê and Tuan Andrew Nguyen of The Propeller Group collective came to the United States as refugees in their youth and returned to Vietnam in recent years, not only to focus on their own practices but also to rediscover their cultural roots. In the process, they have played pivotal roles in helping to rebuild the cultural infrastructure of Vietnam.
From Myanmar, Htein Lin and Nge Lay’s intense and personal work reflects not only their responses to the dramatic transformation within the country as it undergoes reform and political transition but also their powerful attachment to and regard for their society and kin. Alongside these established artists, the exhibition includes work by two emerging artists. Angki Purbandono and Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, from Indonesia and Vietnam respectively, became active long after the moment of political transition in their home countries. While removed from the more direct experience of their elder counterparts, the work of these two artists continues the long tradition of socially engaged art that marks much contemporary art from the Southeast Asian region.