In the seventies, I attended my first Gay and (some) Lesbian themed exhibit at the Leslie Lohman Gallery in New York City. It was a gallery the size of a one bedroom and the works, in oil, pastel, mixed media and photographs were of the period: audacious, rebellious, lots of muscled bodies, elongated penises and in your face vaginas. Years of repression, stigma and being cast as criminals led to the creation of art that declared, baldly, forbidden erotic fantasies.
It’s about a half-century later and there is currently a massive Bangkok exhibit entitled Spectrosynthesis II. After its first show in Taipei in 2017, this exhibit continues to explore past the notions of rebellion, with artists from Southeast Asia as well as China and India.
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Here, on canvas, photo paper, videos and installations are gay-themed concepts and, in an Asian context, issues of love and sustaining it, in wry and witty representations, and works well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing enough to hang in the living room — as opposed to the subversive and erotic images of the past which were designated to shock and were consigned to the bedroom.
On the wide rampway of the top floors of the ultra-modern Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center (BACC) ascending to the two sumptuous halls of the exhibition, the iconic rainbow colors on oil, entitled “Celebrated Phenomenal Of Colors,” by Angkrit Ajchariyasophon rises along on the wall in this Guggenheim-esque ramp. My chest heaves; “We’ve arrived,” I thought.
The large and sweeping works of 59 artists from 15 countries are arranged by sub-themes such as The Backdrop of Beliefs, Normality, Real and Illusory, and Perspective Through Generations. As a historian, I gravitated toward the section Perspective Through Generations to gaze at Lionel Wendt’s vintage silver prints of sensual male torsos and genitals swathed loosely in loincloth.
Born at the turn of the century, and schooled abroad before returning to his native Sri Lanka, Wendt excelled in photography. His subject matter would be the lush and moody scenes of his island as well as the natives posed classically or in occupation with homoerotic tones.
These unabashed images defying British “sodomy and obscenity laws” in the former colony reminds us that homosexuality and the other facets of LGBTQ culture existed healthily way back, centuries ago, before the colonial powers appeared, where cross-dressing shamans and berdache were documented in parts of Southeast Asia. Later, many instances of men caught committing same-sex love—called the sin of sodomy by religious prudes—in Spanish colonized Philippines were promptly burned at stake or crucified.
Aside from painters, sculptors, and photographers like Wendt asserting their same-sex interests, there were many others in the past century in Southeast Asia—artists, musicians, dancers, writers, architects, even monarchs and politicians—known or rumored to be gay and, as aesthetes, added significantly to a country’s artistic connoisseurship.
Another nostalgic photographic work is that of Danh Vo from Vietnam. Having inherited the photographic archive of the anthropologist Dr. Joseph M. Carrier spanning a decade (1963-1973) Danh Vo selected images turning them into photogravures revealing Vietnamese men of the period engaging in seemingly affectionate moments, holding hands for example, an action prevalent in the region at the time and, sadly, less so these days.
In the contemporary realm, Naraphat Sakarthornsap, somewhat bothered by being asked his gender identity went on a city-search to photograph various Chaba (Hibiscus) blossoms. This flower type has both male and female stigmas in each blossom. He photographed quite a variety of the same and questions why people don’t name them as gay or “tranny” blossoms.
Another work by the same artist revolves around naked bodies with flowers in the background or in the foreground to partially conceal. These works refer to his coming out period and the hurt from the unkind gossip that followed. As a salve, he returned to his childhood friends who supported him and agreed to be his naked models in these photographs. Shorn of clothes, both friends and himself bared their souls that proved therapeutic for the artist.
Subversion and dominance
Cosmopolitan Singapore is so oddly stuck with ancient English homophobic laws, yet all over the garden city, buffed hunks stroll about, some holding hands, scenes straight out of Greenwich Village in New York. Khairullah Rahim from that city state decided to rally around a banned children’s book about a gay penguin family adopting a baby penguin. On acrylic, entitled “One Sweet Day,” he paints a loving visual tribute to the gay penguin family thus subverting that silly book ban.
Photographic portraits have an authenticity to them and Piyarat Piyapongwiwat’s series affirms that. The same sex couples pose and look straight at the camera. The women couples project serenity and affection. While the male couples seem reticent, even somber. In one of two photographs with foreign male partners, one keeps his distance from the other, the picture hanging behind them showing a naked Asian man, covering himself and vulnerable. The other image is that of a foreigner seated on an arm of a chair, while his own arm straddles the chair’s back, as if claiming his seated male partner. Both photos suggest the foreigner’s dominance, the unequal relations, not an uncommon scene in Bangkok life.
The wall text description of Jimmy Ong’s charcoal entitled “Heart Daughters” alludes to an estrangement he had with his parents in Singapore. He and his mother were reunited after 10 long years, and only after his father’s passing. This estrangement of LGBTQs with religious and conservative parents is a sad and oft-repeated story. However, as an artist, it gave Ong the opportunity to re-examine and expand same-sex relations in its own familial terms. This particular work portrays a lesbian couple with child rendered in the vigorous charcoal style, imbuing the image with movement and vitality.
Likewise, Jef Carnay’s two works, “Tambien Una Familia: Mater” and “Tambian Una Familia: Pater,” excises the traditional Joseph and Mary presence from every Catholic Philippine iconography of the Holy Family, replacing them with same-sex parents for a tension filled viewing. Yet, such portrayals actually recognize, for the first time, gay uncles or lesbians and their lovers caring for children left behind by their heterosexual siblings gone abroad for overseas work like many million other Filipinos.
During the coming out of baby boomers and pre-gay marriage years, the 1971 movie Death In Venice resonated with many. It’s the early 20th century and there’s Tadzio, a handsome pre-teen boy frolicking on the beach of Venice watched over by his wealthy mother and nanny. There’s Gustav Von Aschenbach a brooding writer with a mid-life crisis also on holiday on the same beach totally enamored with the young man stripped half naked from his navy suit, glowing in the sun. Von Aschenbach becomes obsessed and follows Tadzio discreetly at a distance, in the narrow Venetian walkways. While Tadzio, discerning the older man’s presence, lags slowly behind to afford him a glimpse of his.
Singaporean artist Ming Wong deftly applies the Luchino Visconti classic to his own video, entitled “Life and Death in Venice,” and recreates the street scenes of Tadzio slowly dallying and luring Von Aschenbach who is stealthily behind, sickly and weakened. Ming Wong plays both the young man and the old writer in a reflective study of the flirtations of youth and the unrequited desires of an aging man.
This video work resonated much in me, having first seen the movie in my early 20s and now in my late 60s, seeing a replay by an Asian face of an intimate and sad moment. I used to be Tadzio, once beckoning multiple desires. Now, in my senior years, despite the privilege of getting a seat or allowed to queue ahead, I shuffle anonymously in society, no more furtive glances my way.
Religion and the State are obstructions to or hinder LGBTQ growth and fulfillment. Assert ourselves more vigorously than ever and we invite ridicule, opprobrium, or in some states, stoning and hanging.
The Al Fatah transgender Islamic school in Yogyakarta was closed down in 2016 under pressure from the local government. Fortunately, a month before, Yoppy Pieter from Indonesia had visited the school to document its members and the resulting photos appear in his lightboxes entitled “Over The Black Rainbow.” The images compassionately reveal endearing faces and languid bodies. It’s ironic since transgenders have long been a part of Southeast Asian society prior to the arrival of European colonizers and Muslim priests.
China, another society with a long same-sex history, had gone through a period of denial (“We have no homosexuals in China,” an ’80s government pronouncement) to a bustling gay scene today in all its major cities.
In the provinces though, homophobia still reigns and so Xiyadie has portrayed the evolution of his life through a series of paper cuttings, from a painful life endured in the provinces, to a forced heterosexual marriage, and finally to “an embrace of desire in a same-relationship after affirming his true identity and achieving liberation.” Xiyadie’s work entitled “Joy” part of the series on his life’s evolution exudes a magnificent and exuberant moment for two same-sex figures, their fingers extending to become bright flowers and animals and framing the delightful scene.
Christina Quisumbing Ramilo has, in her other works, long delighted me visually and intellectually. There’s subtlety in her pieces, nevertheless, one gleans a precision and an artisanship in her woodworks and found objects. Ling ponders old wood frames (“Recalibrate”), and a measuring stick and compass, (“Orbit”) and in putting them together, she renders them new lives aesthetically. One could infer that this transformation of mundane objects is similar to a coming out.
This second major exhibition with much of the works from the Sunpride Foundation Collection is a formidable and assiduous feat of gathering such diverse themes in an already diverse LGBTQ grouping.
I recall, years back, a series of photographs I took of two men posed by the ocean in various moments of tension—attraction, flirtation, guilt, and estrangement—following then the usual sad narrative and fate of gay affection.
Oh, we’ve come a long way.
Spectrosynthesis II, Exposure of Tolerance, LGBTQ in Southeast Asia, is currently on exhibit at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center through March 1, 2020. Aside from Jef Carnay and Christina Quisumbing Ramilo mentioned in this review, other Philippine artists include Cindy Aquino, David Medalla, and Maria Taniguchi. For more information, visit their Facebook page.