Who is Southeast Asia made of?
We must beg this question of who instead of what, because decades after Southeast Asian countries’ colonial histories the search for a shared identity persists. In 1967 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded as a means of establishing mutual cooperation within the region and since then, it has grown from five post-war countries to ten independent member states. One Vision, One Identity, One Community; the ASEAN motto implies seeing, recognising, and belonging.
Fifteen participants from different ASEAN countries — Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam — and the UK engaged in participatory photography to reflect on what it means to be Southeast Asian and an ASEAN member citizen in today’s world. The main challenge was to reflect on the various ways we might see, recognise, and belong to ‘ASEAN-ness’ using images of everyday life, nostalgia, and places — almost stripping the grand narrative of geopolitics down to what we can imagine with our very eyes and, by extension, what can be observed by our camera phones.
The view of a nameless street from one’s window; intertwining clotheslines stretched out from the kitchen back door; a cupboard overflowing with chopsticks, spoons, pots and pans; a handful of souvenirs and trinkets tucked away for several years; and memories of travel adventures and childhood games. The similarities are uncanny yet familiar to our imaginative eyes; the differences only reveal themselves when we speak of them.
While we remain indoors for still an uncertain period of time, we invite you to visit Southeast Asia by imagining with us. Choose any country, any destination, any place. Only, you will need more than your own eyes and senses to explore. This is why we are offering you ours.
MADE IN ASEAN transforms our collective act of imagining into image-making. As the regional integration project ASEAN Vision 2020 was envisioned to launch this year, our curatorial project offers the public an alternative means of reflecting on the ASEAN’s identity-building efforts in the last fifty years. Who makes the ASEAN? Who makes of the ASEAN? What do we make of the ASEAN? We can only imagine, for now. (Read in available languages here.)
This curatorial project presents an assemblage of photographs taken from various locations in Southeast Asia. Reminiscent of the online crowdsourcing of photographs started in 2011 by students in Thailand (eventually made recurrent by the ASEAN Youth Organization’s annual photography contests), MADE IN ASEAN is a challenge to view our imagination of Southeast Asia as a construct, a model, or a product. In other words, the choice to make is in our hands. The exhibition focuses on images that are typically excluded by the visual rhetoric of touristic snapshots and travel selfies, and yet left embedded in camera phones if not deleted. Hence, these images are not necessarily unseen and untaken. But for images as yet unphotographed due to the so-called ‘unmaking’ of the year 2020, this exhibition also opens a space for make-believe.
Curator Kristian Jeff Agustin’s Mesa sa Kwarto is literally a desk in his room which serves as his only workspace while observing the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown in the Manila, Philippines since March 2020. He makes do with this mesa (desk) in his kwarto (room) to offer an expandable exhibition space with other participants upon entering a Zoom Gallery.
In Anonymised Skies, co-curator Martin Vidanes (Philippines) invites residents and visitors of Southeast Asian nations to locate their specific co-ordinates while taking pictures of the sky. A panoramic glimpse of the big picture is thus almost made visible: that despite the borders, rifts, and seas within the geopolitics of the region, when looking up at the same sky, we are made one.
Co-curators Kerrine Goh and Andy Chan (Singapore) transform images into intersections in Crossworld Puzzle. The popular word game is remade into a visual play to trigger what we make of various photographs taken from places across Southeast Asia—snapshots of crowds, cuisines, cities, shops, and, souvenirs. Look at the clues scattered here and there; solve them pic by pic.
MADE IN ASEAN runs from 15 November to 15 December 2020, bookended by the 37th ASEAN Summit1 hosted virtually in Ha Noi from (with Viet Nam as ASEAN Chair for 2020) and the 23rd anniversary of the ASEAN-wide adoption of the ASEAN Vision 20202 statement in 1997. The online exhibition builds on the year-long participatory photography project led and curated by Kristian Jeff Agustin (Philippines), a PhD candidate at Manchester School of Art.