The right to not be seen: (Re)Imagining The Image exhibition counters the imperial gaze

SINGAPORE – Artist Suzann Victor, 61, was at an Australian opportunity shop last year when she stumbled on some postcards from colonial-era Java. The women in the photos were unsmiling, their glares almost defiant – at odds with the pliant nature of their staged poses.

The upshot of this encounter is Unequal Innocence (2020), the latest work in Victor’s Lens-Painting series to be shown in public. Colonial-era images of Asian girls and women have been assembled in a collage on a hand-painted circular canvas, covered by a veneer of overlapping circular magnifying lenses. As the viewer steps sideways, burnt gaps in the lenses offer glimpses of the faces underneath.

The idea, Victor says, is to “carve back the dignity of subjugated human subjects who were made to bare themselves before the all-seeing eye of the imperialist-wielded camera”.

“We all are entitled to the right to not be seen,” adds the Singapore-born artist.

Unequal Innocence can now be viewed at Gajah Gallery as part of the group show (Re)Imagining The Image: Contemporary Artists in Asia Converse with Photography. The exhibition runs till Oct 11 and features eight prominent artists.

One of them is Bali-based Mangu Putra, who is presenting two hyperrealist works, Vickers Carden (2014) and Mount Batur (2020). The former, a dark oil and acrylic on canvas piece, was inspired by a post-World War II photo of Indonesian soldiers in front of a Vickers-Carden-Loyd tank.

Other works are self-reflexive, if not self-deprecating. Tianjin-born artist Li Jin, for example, appears as a strange tourist in his ink on paper Impressions Of Bali (2017) series. Ashley Bickerton, conscious of his position as a western man living in Bali, has a mixed media on jute piece where a blue, alien-like man paints a woman bearing tropical flowers. Then there is West Java-born artist Octora, who has restaged various images of Balinese women with herself as the model.

Also on display are antique photos of South-east Asian people in the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the staged images, taken by Kassian Cephas, the first indigenous person from Indonesia to become a professional photographer, shows one Javanese woman delousing another. “One man’s death is another man’s bread,” reads an enigmatic Dutch inscription on the back of the photo.

The exhibition’s curator, Manila-based Nicole Soriano, muses: “What was the relationship between the photographer and the subject? What were the things she may not have consented to, and why was her gaze like that? It is very unsettling.”

Suzann Victor’s Unequal Innocence. PHOTO: COURTESY OF GAJAH GALLERY

Ms Soriano is excited by recent scholarship on photography, such as Zhuang Wubin’s 2016 survey of photography in South-east Asia. She also notes that there have a number of shows in recent years exploring the topic – such as the Singapore Art Museum’s Afterimage: Contemporary Photography from Southeast Asia (2014); and the National Gallery of Australia’s Garden of the East (2014) which looked at photography in Indonesia from the 1850s to 1940s.


Where: Gajah Gallery, 39 Keppel Road, 03-04, Tanjong Pagar Distripark

When: Daily till Oct 11, 11am to 7pm (weekdays), noon to 6pm (weekends and public holidays)

Admission: Free

Info: Gajah Gallery’s website. To view the virtual exhibition, visit this website.

She says that the challenges of curating a show like this one – for a commercial art gallery, no less – include navigating the ethical issues of photography.

“How do I look at these images and write about them, in a way that isn’t voyeuristic or exploitative? I really wrestled with that.”

The exhibition engages with colonial photography and seeks to undo the othering gaze, showing how photographs can be used to liberate.

She adds: “It’s an attempt, a process. It’s an ongoing engagement that continually needs to be questioned and reimagined.”

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