As it is his disposition that is gleaned across his extensive body of work and broad sympathies as an initiator in communities and a catalyst of movements, Santiago Bose sites the New York train as a slate on which to inscribe the various texts that shape the global traffic of words and signs. Bose’s sojourn in New York was a moment of solidarity with artists like Jimmie Durham, Yong Soon-Min, Jessica Hagedorn, Mira Nair, Carlos Villa, among others. In this particular instance, Spanish words that reference the Latin American migration to the United States interact with esoteric incantations in what may well be a semblance of Latin, or some invention of an eccentric argot hatched in the trickster mind of the artist. The anecdotal image is disrupted by this convolution of texts, which are rendered in street-art mode, something like graffiti that oftentimes mark the end and the beginning of stations. But holding this everyday event in tension is the figure at the center, an apparition “all wild and glowing,” as a critic would say, standing its ground in transit, as the train hurtles and halts, surrounded by the words “fear,” “ignorance,” “silence” and “death.” It is at this pivot, this trembling feeling in the train as a rider clutches the hand rail for balance, that the scene loses its banality, and becomes a possible space of conflict, inequity, and even dispossession. The mixture of the media is a cognate of this condition: photography, painting, and writing are ways to evoke image and also to disfigure it in a copious country or city that is home, whatever the kind, to migrants and wayfarers like Bose.
In these four panels, Brenda Fajardo scans history not as a linear progression of events and characters. It is about a history of consciousness across moments in time and space. This history moves along the logic of certain conditions, with their own possibilities and constraints, enacted by agents who transform material into social life. It begins with the “transformation of consciousness” and ends with “metamorphosis of thinking,” therefore framing this history as a series of changes, of the chances of remaking that which has been deemed natural because it has hardened and thickened, unfortunately, as norm. This norm is subjected to keen critique by Fajardo as a relay of struggles, violence, death, and redemption. The specter that hovers, haunts, and inevitably prevails is a woman on horseback holding aloft banners about conversion and freedom and finally a sword to ordain what may well be a revolution of the mind, the will, and the entire body politic –or to vanquish at last the last vestiges of a patriarchal cosmos. The horse of the apocalypse bears traces of its Biblical origin, stalwarts of a radical catastrophe, but in these tableaux, it is the valiant woman who is in harness, trudging on the oppressed and even on corpses lying in the wake of wars. She heralds renewal in a form of a hopeful art that is folk in temper and temerity: mixed with the colonial, unimpressed by academic affectations, and childlike in its eagerness and earnestness to tell a story of a world in the throes.
Chang Fee Ming
The medium is watercolor and so the expectation for the picture is to be quaint or picturesque. And it is, only that it is also ominous. Chang Fee Ming sharply composes a scene of a woman on a wooden plank along the shore. The clouds that loom are dark and heavy, conveying an imminent storm. The view is from the foot of the figure, from the heel, so to speak, and so the eye of the viewer takes in a strong diagonal perspective to encompass the sea, the shore, and the woman. The latter is the dominant image, enhanced by the batik fabric that extends from the wearer’s body to the wooden thing on which she rests. The place is Terengganu in Northeast Malaysia, part of the repertoire of the artist’s material, referencing his village or hometown. Fee Ming has been fascinated with this locale as well as with regions like the Mekong. Equally central is the batik, the textile that takes up a significant part of the picture, the intricacy of the design and the rigorous depiction, mesmerizing viewers and distracting attention from the fact that the person is actually without a face, in fact, altogether truncated. The elements swarming the textile are deceiving however, because they turn the gaze away from what surfaces from the area of the wooden fixture, or better still, what crawls out of the woodwork and its vicinity. It can be claimed that these inscriptions relate to the current political climate in Malaysia: numbers corresponding to sums of money, a salient date, the threatening word “truth,” and a name of a besieged paper all point to brazen corruption and violation of freedom. This may well be what precipitates the storm in the horizon, giving credence to the axiom that, indeed, the devil is in the details – and the proverbial calm before all things falls apart.
The commitment of Ahmad Zakii is to the figure. But his mode of painstakingly rendering it tends to frustrate the zeal. In fact, it offers a counter commitment, commensurate with the devotion to the human form and its consummation in an artifice such as painting. And so: the faith of the artist is placed in both the density of the figure and the granular nature of charcoal. One coheres; the other dissipates. This is a portrait of an unnamed man, arms outstretched, head slightly bowed, and the lower limbs left undone. What strikes us is the calm monochrome that evenly evokes the subject, except that a band of colors, a spectrum it seems, cuts across the face, partly covering the eyes. Besides this chromatic slit, what piques interest is the cavity that is formed, for the man is hung from an unarticulated structure of either punishment or martyrdom. With Christian iconography in play, this may well be a Crucifixion scene; and it is this condition that creates the vacuum, as the chest muscles and lungs of the person exert so much pressure and expand. It is the interaction of light and dark around the body and across its exhausted surface that infuses the image with a sense of resignation and the elegance of sacrifice, a seductive physiognomy that is denied limb and inevitably, life: a nude man, crowned with delicate curls, waiting to expire.
In this visual story, a young girl on a horse forays into the woods, solitary but unafraid, reminding us of the words of the poet about fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. But this intrepid figure may well be both: fool and angel, at once rushing and treading. She holds a sword on which texts are written. A book unfolds, its texts and images of creation myths dangling from the horse and spilling onto the ground where torn illuminated manuscripts gather. Birds in flight mark the background in this work that reveals the artist’s strongest suit: a fulsome graphic rendering of narrative, a sense of whimsy, and a keen eye on the language of dreams, the intimations of its seemingly discrepant minutiae. The dream is a confluence of divergent sources, encoding in the woman traces of Joan of Arc and Gabriela Silang, conjuring quiet fortitude, the kind that propels the inspired to foray into a firestorm. In another moment of scanning, the scene of skirmish could be a carousel and not so much a battle. It could be a fantasy and not an account of a grisly war. It could also be of a utopian impulse, evoking that instant when struggles have finally achieved their designs. Whatever it is, the picture lives in enigma, a sensibility to be gleaned in the artist’s works in which there is much “loss and leaving,” the longing for meaning in a life of void, the constant search for the elusive vital energy that should finally animate fragile mortals wandering the labyrinths of either the cold city or the burning desire.