What is the Real Meaning of Diversity?
Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Through the Eyes of May J.

SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now, an exhibition held from July 5 to October 23 at both the National Art Center, Tokyo and the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, gathered 86 group and individual artists active in the nations of ASEAN, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. It has been the largest exhibition ever to present the art scene of Southeast Asia, garnering attention from inside and outside Japan. The works presented embodied direct messages on politics, history, and ethnicity that gave a sense of Southeast Asia's uniqueness of expression, a voice not found in Japanese and Western contemporary art.

We visited the exhibition with singer May J., who herself comes from a richly diverse background with a Japanese father, Iranian mother, and family roots reaching as far as Russia and Turkey. During our visit May J. shared her impressions and thoughts of what we saw.

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Felix Bacolor   Stormy Weather   2009/2017 (at Mori Art Museum)

Changing one's viewpoint to see the world from Southeast Asia

We started by visiting the National Art Center, Tokyo, where five of the nine sections comprising SUNSHOWER were on display.

May J.: I might not be an art expert, but I try to keep tabs on popular exhibitions and visit them in my off time. The last time I came to the National Art Center, Tokyo was to see the Salvador Dali exhibition in 2016. I believe both music and art are mediums for expressing your message, which makes both quite fascinating, but I have heard that many of the works at this exhibition differ from your typical paintings and sculptures. Contemporary art can often be really complex, so I wonder if I will be able to understand it.

To be sure, many of the works brought together for SUNSHOWER were installations that creatively used space, echoed traditional and ethnic arts and crafts, or evoked unexpected scenery like karaoke bars and street stalls. So, it was no surprise that this collection of Southeast Asian cultural diversity seemed to bewilder May J., but fortunately Naoki Yoneda, one of the museum's curators, guided us through the exhibition. As a member of a team of 14 curators from the National Art Center, Tokyo, Mori Art Museum, and across Southeast Asia, Yoneda carried out painstaking research for SUNSHOWER since 2015.

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Curator Naoki Yoneda guides May J. at The National Art Center, Tokyo.

Yoneda:The title of the first section is "Fluid World." There are many countries throughout ASEAN where civil wars and conflict had been ongoing until recently. There is also much greater diversity in ethnicity and culture compared to Japan. As such, many of the works represent the artist's attempt to find their own identity. There are also artists from former colonial countries who have chosen the identity of the country itself as the subject for their work. Here, as a gateway to this exhibition introducing Southeast Asia, we have put together works inspired by maps.

This work, Fluid World by Yee I-Lann from Malaysia's Sabah State on Borneo, is a world map created using the traditional batik technique of wax-resist dyeing from the region. What's interesting about this map is that most of the surface is covered in a white, cloud-like pattern.

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Yee I-Lann    Fluid World (from the series "Orang Besar")    2010 (at The National Art Center, Tokyo)

May J.: What does that mean?

Yoneda: As you can see, Southeast Asia is at the center of the area seen most clearly. Numerous ethnic groups have traveled and relocated throughout the countries in this region, and sea routes were often used for that purpose. Do you see how there is an emphasis on the fact that the seas of Southeast Asia served as routes for the vigorous migration of peoples?

May J.: You're right, I see it. Japan has limited contact with people who migrated from other cultural regions, so it is easy to forget, but there are actually many different ethnic groups living here. For example, I myself have roots in Iran. Showing the world from a different perspective helps the viewer to discover new things.

The next section was called "Passion and Revolution." There is a deeply rooted sense of revolution, and the passion it ignites, in the nations of Southeast Asia that gained independence from colonial powers following World War II and subsequently experienced civil war, ethnic conflict, or dictatorship by military regimes.
Here, May J.'s attention was captured by nine canvasses featuring the finger alphabet.

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FX Harsono   Voice Without a Voice / Sign   1993-94
Silkscreen on canvas, wood stool and stamp
Canvas: 143.5 × 95.5 cm, wood stool: 23 × 38 × 32 cm (each, set of 9)
Collection: Fukuoka Asian Art Museum

Yoneda: This is Voice Without a Voice / Sign by FX Harsono from East Java, Indonesia. These letters of the finger alphabet spell demokrasi, the Indonesian word for democracy. The final letter "i" is tied up with a rope as a message from the artist that democracy has yet to be fully realized in Indonesia. But it also represents the belief that democracy will one day be achieved.

In front of each drawing, there was paper and a stamp of each letter.

May J.: This is like a stamp relay, but what does it mean? Ah! If you use all nine stamps in sequence, it will spell demokrasi.

Yoneda: Correct. Each viewer can obtain democracy for themselves (laughs).

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FX Harsono   Voice Without a Voice / Sign   1993-1994 (at The National Art Center, Tokyo)
The nine stamps in sequence spell DEMOKRASI.

Can a treasure hunt also be art?

Passing through the ample "Archive" collection of works from the Southeast Asian art scene of the 1980s and beyond, one could begin to hear loud chanting.

May J.: This sounds like what I heard on the PA system at a Hindu temple I visited in Indonesia.

The source of this sound was Necessity Shop by Anggun Priambodo (2010/ 2017), an art installation featuring a street stall with an assortment of ostensibly useless junk, which could even be purchased by the viewer. The sound was emanating from a mysterious machine displayed among the items for sale.

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Anggun Priambodo   Necessity Shop   2010/2017
Wood, consumer items and video
Installation view: SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now, The National Art Center, Tokyo, 2017
Photo: Norihiro Ueno
Photo courtesy: The National Art Center, Tokyo

In the adjacent space was Golden Ghost (Why I'm Not Where You Are) by Surasi Kusolwong (2017), in which piles of string weighing a massive five tons covered the entire floor, among which nine golden necklaces were hidden.

Yoneda: If a visitor finds one of the necklaces, they may take it home with them. They are apparently quite expensive, you know.

May J.: It's like a treasure hunt! I'll try and find one!

With those words May J. stepped into the piles of string. Finding a necklace turned out to be a more difficult task than expected.

May J.: This is certainly an interesting experience, but what was the intent of the artist?

Yoneda: Kusolwong references the consumer culture of modern society when creating his works. In this case, he sees desire represented in the way the visitors try hard to find the expensive necklaces in the piles of string. In that sense, there is a certain aspect of irony in the work.

May J.: It seems I too fell for the author's trap. It was fun, but I'm also a bit embarrassed.

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Surasi Kusolwong   Golden Ghost (Why I'm Not Where You Are)   2017 (at The National Art Center, Tokyo)
"It's like a treasure hunt!" exclaimed May J. as she searched for a necklace.

The identity of the generation born in the 80s

Next, we visited the second half of the exhibition at the Mori Art Museum. Hirokazu Tokuyama, Associate Curator at the museum, took over as guide.

Tokuyama: In contrast with the works displayed at the National Art Center, Tokyo most of which were by artists active since before the 1980s, the exhibition at the Mori Art Museum features younger artists in their 30s and 40s. Among them is Korakrit Arunanondchai, a Thai artist whose work gives a particularly clear sense of the contemporary. Born in 1986, he creates video artworks that can almost be called music videos. The hip hop that he writes, composes, and performs speaks of himself as a hybrid outcome of numerous cultural influences, such as pop culture and the challenges faced by Thailand, and of his generation.

May J.: He is more like a singer or pop star than simply an artist, I think. But his work is more than just the video. Cushions have been laid out and there is a sort of stage.

Tokuyama: The denim used in the cushions is sort of a uniform for Arunanondchai and his friends. His community of friends is often the subject of his works, and he creates his installations so that anyone can relax in the exhibit space and perform on the spot if they want to. This sense of sharing is probably familiar for younger generations in Japan as well.

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Korakrit Arunanondchai   Painting with history in a room filled with people with funny names 3   2015 (at Mori Art Museum)
Our navigator through the Mori Art Museum was Hirokazu Tokuyama, an Associate Curator at the museum.

The same approach of rethinking history and tradition through youthful sensibilities could also be seen in Helios (2017) by Albert Yonathan. For this work, approximately 2,000 copies of objects representing flowers and angels covered the wall.

May J.: The way the pattern repeats makes me dizzy! And all of these objects are pieces of pottery, right? They weren't all done by hand, were they?

Tokuyama: In fact, they were. The symbols of the flower and angel appear in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, but this decorative form is characteristic of Islamic culture. This hybrid combination of Eastern and Western culture can be seen throughout Southeast Asia, and Yonathan himself is highly conscious of this as an artist.

According to Tokuyama, Yonathan grew up in a strict Christian household, but chose to become areligious as a high school student. However, he continues to explore the culture and beliefs that form his background within his artwork in pursuit of his own identity. Thus, the question of identity sensed in the National Art Center, Tokyo could be found here as well.

Tokuyama: As you can see from his daily meticulous handwork, he is a very diligent person. However, in terms of appearance, he covers his body in tattoos and his favorite music is death metal (laughs). That surprising gap itself gives a sense of the atmosphere of Southeast Asia to me.

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Albert Yonathan   Helios   2017 (at Mori Art Museum)
May J. was fascinated by the detailed handwork of the 2,000 ceramic objects depicting flowers and angels.

Empathy through difference

As we reached the end of this exhibition spread across two museums, the final work we viewed was Stormy Weather (2009, 2017) by Felix Bacolor from the Philippines.

May J.: Wow, it's so beautiful!

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Felix Bacolor    Stormy Weather   2009/2017 (at Mori Art Museum)

This installation featuring colorful wind chimes hung from the ceiling was certainly visually pleasing, but the comforting sound of the ringing chimes themselves left an even greater impression. Though the chimes were quite inexpensive, one would hesitate to put a price on the precious and sublime experience of viewing them and listening to them as a form of art.

Tokuyama: This work represents the exhibition as a whole and is not assigned to any of the nine sections. A "sunshower" is the weather phenomenon of rain falling on a sunny day that often occurs in tropical regions. Storms rise up frequently in the Philippines, so wind chimes are hung from the eaves of homes so that the ringing will warn of coming storms. The future awaiting the rapidly growing nations of Southeast Asia might be a dangerous storm, or it may be a gentle wind that brings happiness to all, and we have embodied this duality in this artwork.

May J.: I myself was born and raised with a dual background, so I understand the feeling well. At the same time, I am constantly examining my own identity, so I have a strong sense of empathy with the way Arunanondchai and Yonathan express themselves.

Not only Southeast Asia, but many other countries throughout the world are hybrid societies where numerous ethnic groups live and mix together. The diversity of that environment is a major theme for expressing one's own identity. This appears to be a major motivation for May J. who has poured this drive into her music.

May J.: My mother comes from a foreign country, and I grew up with an awareness of different cultures in the Near and Middle East and in the English-speaking world, so I have no bias against differences in language or religion. This has had a very positive influence on my musical activities, in which I use both Japanese and English. I can empathize with the awareness of discovering oneself among the differences that exist as a given, an awareness shared by the works of this exhibition.

This visit to the SUNSHOWER exhibition was a special experience for May J. As our last question to her, we asked whether there was anything she saw in common between art and music.

May J.: Of course! Both music and art are incredibly free. They are worlds where you can express yourself in any manner. You can instill political statements, personal hopes, anger at bigotry, or a prayer for how you want the world to change.

I performed a live concert in Indonesia about seven years ago, and my memory of that experience is still strong today. There were many women wearing hijab in Jakarta, which gave me the impression that it was a conservative area. But in contrast, the live performance was extremely free. Men and women mixed together as they moved along to my music which they were likely hearing for the first time. There was great energy. Music goes beyond words to speak to the heart. I believe that art is the same. As I searched for the necklace among the piles of thread, I became part of the art, and this approach gives rise to communication between the viewers in addition to with the artist. That is truly wonderful!

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Albert Yonathan   Helios   2017 (at Mori Art Museum)

Interview, text: Taisuke Shimanuki
Photographer for May J.: Kenichi Aikawa

diversity-may-j-asean-art_13.jpg May J.
May J. is a multi-lingual artist with diverse background including roots in Japan, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Spain, and the UK. She studied dance, piano, and opera from an early age, and can compose music, write lyrics, and sing on the piano. Her impressive singing skills and clear, delicate voice, combined with her optimistic and positive messages, evoke empathy and support from a wide range of age groups. She made her big debut on July 12, 2006 with the release of the mini album All My Girls. She sang the main theme for the Japanese version of the Disney film Frozen, released in 2014, a major record-breaking hit that became a social phenomenon. She also appeared for the first time in the 65th NHK Red and White Year-end Song Festival in the same year. She held her first solo performance at the Nippon Budokan in January 2015. She performed as the opening act for the opening ceremony of the National Cherry Blossom Festival hosted by the Japan Foundation in March 2017.
Her eighth album, Futuristic, was released on October 25, 2017.
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