CURATORIAL STATEMENT BY DR YANYUN CHEN
“But the nudes, they were my first love.”
Addiction. Obsession. Love.
An artist, a model, and a collector surround a painted nude. In an instant, a meaningful silence engulfs a passionate encounter. A locked gaze, a trigger pulled: a body collected.
As an artist who has been embarking on a research journey to understand why nudity in art would often incite offence, censorship, and restrictions in Southeast Asia—particularly in light of the vast history of nudes in the Western art canon—this exhibition has been an archaeological treasure trove. It is a privilege to be invited into the protective sanctuary of private art collections, where the love for art, figures and artists is revealed through the generous sharing of stories and works that you now see before you. Each nude is an entry point not only into an artist’s oeuvre, it is also a marker in a collector’s journey with art. Nudities, in all its plurality, serve as carriers for stories. This group exhibition is a glimpse into a world where bodies of art, and bodies in art are carried gently for posterity.
One does wonder, how does a visual artist begin to make sense of the nudes before her, through history, in the contemporary, and perhaps, in future? The role of the curator is fundamentally one of care. When collectors and artists alike treat a represented nude with reverence, love, and humour, one who serves as a guide for the exhibition is called to embody the same spirit. The exhibition considers the intricate and nuanced relationship between the act of representation and the act of collecting. Interweaved within the stories silently are gestures of care and carrying, where an art object has been lovingly acquired and generously offered for display.
Collecting Bodies : A short story about art and nudities in Asia assembles 31 artworks from 26 artists, housed in 10 private collections. These bodies hold many questions: how is the image of a body held; how have we held our bodies in their image, and how have we carried the bodies of others?
Nudity, pit against nudity, pit against nudity. The stakes are high.
On a body, nudity can be described as a material (colour, mark, surface, idea) and a medium, as— for application, transmitting, transporting, transferring—metaphorical. How the body is used as material and medium sculpts nudity’s existence as a word in language—in languages—which in turn changes the implications it has on the everyday living body. These consequences affect both language and its use, adds to and builds on the etymology of the word nudity, and affects relationships we have with our own bodies.
The nude is a way of thinking about our bodies borrowed from, and seen through, the lens of art—an invisible membrane hovering above our skin, suspended its strangeness, manifested through language. As a vessel for the seen naked body it encompasses, nudity is both a boundary of thinking about our body, and a fiction to be worn. Our understanding of nudity creates a gaze, which is then projected onto our skin; a fiction we wear: one recognises one’s body as nude. The image of nudity as another skin suggests that nudity is not a natural state, but something that can be applied. Thus, to be nude is to undergo a transformation: which is one of the definitions of not only artifice, but art itself. Perhaps, the term nude art is tautological: the movement from craft to art is always already an exposure, a stripping away, becoming nude. Thinking about nude, naked and bare reveals the process of the becoming art.
The borders between art and ourselves turn porous as we learn to appreciate the works. This is the sentiment I hope to leave behind: a small exercise in humility and humanity.
This exhibition is an attempt to stand in solidarity with the brave Asian artists who, in spite of everything, continue to persevere and persist with their craft and in their thoughts, to try to understand and appreciate, on their own terms, what it means to be human and to have a naked body, what it means to be human which is to have a naked body.
 Anwar, Ahmad Zakii. “A conversation between Ahmad Zakii Anwar and Valentine Willie”
Kota Sepi catalogue, Malaysia: Valentine Willie Fine Art, 2012.
Collecting Bodies :
A short story about art and nudities in Asia
CHAPTER ONE : BALI, DIASPORIC DREAMS
Cheong Soo Pieng
Three diasporas responding to Bali at three different points of history, each in their own way, laying claim to the bodies of the land, while being present to the land, and finding their way back again and again to this seat of inspiration.
Romanticised and idealised Balinese landscape and community life may perhaps inspire stylistic identification and cultural aspiration, yet there is a stark disregard for the voices and identities of the people who live, breath, and labour daily. Theo Meier could speak the language, name his models, and built life-long relationships with the land and the people; Pucuk Cemara’s heritage and ancestry traces back deeply in Balinese roots, even while having lived outside of Bali for most part of her life; while Cheong Soo Pieng and his fellow artists build illustrious careers as pioneer artists through affiliating with the Southeast Asian cultural identity only after a short art tour around Bali.
CHAPTER TWO : FOLK SPIRIT, RESIDING IN THE LAND
Drawing inspiration and engaging with local communities in an effort to present “folk spirit” has always been difficult: how does one claim to represent the stories of ethnic minorities, however similar or different they may be to the observer, particularly in light of political, economic and social disparities between the subject and the artist? It is a complicated relationship to represent an other, particularly when the intention is a good one: to present an other’s beauty, simplicity, and authenticity. While the intention might be one of elevating the rural, there is a risk of the works being seen as self-serving, romanticising, or patronising. Moreover, when art is intricately tied to politics such that the role of art is meant to serve an alleged larger cause, the function of art within politics takes over and the subject matter become subservient to the larger powers at play.
These works are celebrations of vision, ambition, and modernity. For Shi Hu, figures act as vessels for stylistic experimentation, they are not based on observation and their individual identities unknowable: the abstracted folk spirit is presented through a combination of craft arts aesthetics and painting experimentation. Figures enjoying their rustic everyday life lie at the heart of Gong’s subject matter, while Liu’s appreciation for ethnic minorities drove him to study and create portraits of individuals he had encountered on his travels. Three artists embodying a certain national spirit in three different ways, all flourishing and relishing within the local and national ambitions of their times. Their genuine love for their own personal artistic journeys and the models they encounter, run alongside the nationalistic sentiments of their time. These nudes are hopeful, thoughtful, exuberant.
CHAPTER THREE : PATRONAGE : “SOMETIMES WE JUST WANT BEAUTIFUL THINGS”
These paintings serve as examples of pockets of necessary respite in desperately challenging times, where art was made and celebrated for art’s sake, and these artists’ love of painting found fertile ground to flourish. They remind us that for a moment in time—in a small pocket of calm amidst war and political chaos—privilege, patronage, and recognition open a space for a blissful beauty to reside.
Federico Alcauz was awarded the Francisco Goya Award in 1958; the 2nd prize in Prix Vancell at the Forth Biennial of Terrassa in Barcelona in 1964; the Order of the French Genius in 1964; Decoration of Arts, Letters, and Sciences with rank of Chevalier from the French government in 1964; and the Philippine Republic Cultural Heritage Award in 1965. Nhek Dim had trained at the Phnom Penh School of Cambodian Arts from 1949 to 1954. He was among the first generation of students to be taught techniques of drawing and painting from life. He was commissioned by King Sihanouk to paint in watercolours a book of songs the King had composed and made paintings for an exhibition in the government complex Chamcar Mon, as well as the private living quarters of the Palace. Basuki Abdullah was fiery, passionate, eccentric, and internationally celebrated. Abdullah’s naturalistic approach and academic stylishness was favoured by both President Sukarno and Suharto.
CHAPTER FOUR : POWER AT PLAY
Nguyen Quoc Dzung
Nguyen Van Cuong
Four artists respond and tackle rapid urbanisation, censorship, and social horrors in their respective countries and histories, through the depiction, or lack thereof, of nudities.
Mangu Putra’s “Sisa Malam” was made in response to Indonesian’s government ban on pornography, a law in Indonesia which was dropped in 2005-06 (in response to censorship of Agus Suwage and photographer Davy Linggar’s “Pink Swing Park” at the CP Biennale exhibition in Jakarta in 2005) in the face of opposition. The bill was finally reintroduced on 30 October 2008 by the Indonesian legislative assembly as the Bill on Pornography (Law No. 44/2008).” Belonging to the first generation of Vietnamese avant-garde artists in the 1990s and considered one of the four pioneers of contemporary art in Vietnam, Nguyen Van Cuong reflected on the contradictory forces of an increasingly Westernised Vietnam, and the impact the socialist-oriented market economy has had on the marginalized local community. Contemporary Vietnamese painter Nguyen Quoc Dzung’s universe is built up with stories of transgender persons, cheap labour markets, social issues due to consumerism, a lack of privacy in domestic spaces, the precarity of immigrants, homelessness, and the vulnerable underclass. The 1954 Geneva Conference resulted in over a million people migrating from the North to the South of Vietnam in search of opportunities and peace in the bigger cities. Philippine artist Elmer Borlongan is known as a social-realist painter, with a background in comic and mural illustration. Rising to prominence in the 1980s, he joined the political art collective ABAY (roughly translated as The Nation’s Artists) mobilizing art against the Marcos government. He was one of the founding members of the Salingpusa group of activist artists and later of the artist collective Sanggawa, creating sociopolitical murals. This rare 2019 drawing falls under the category of a life drawing study.
CHAPTER FIVE : FEMININE POWER AND SELF DETERMINISM
Ni Jui Hung
Bagyi Aung Soe
Artists explore the feminine form through humour, personal mythologies, cosmologies, internal landscapes and self-determinism.
Shi Hu’s ink nudes are quick, gestural, and enigmatic. Catherine Kwai, author of Paintings by Shi Hu, aptly describes them as landscapes, adapting traditional Chinese ink painting techniques to depict a languid, casual attitude of his nude figures. Jian Yi-Hong’s humorous, surreal, and minimal nude figures reflect the trembling undercurrents of desire between a teen and an older man. Ni Jui Hung was invited by Home Hotel and HiKidult in 2020 to participate in the “13 Room Festival” with the theme of “Invisible Cities”. Ni’s was paired with a hotpot restaurant Chan Chi Spicy Hotpot. Hot Pot Bath with Water Fairies imagines travel-worn fairies settling into Chan Chi Spicy Hotpot to take a bath, sprinkling spicy bath powder into a hot pot soup. Ni humorously cast Japanese adult video performer Kaoru Kuroki as the fairy. Singaporean artist Vanessa Liem’s works are quiet and sensual, emerging from her wild mental-scapes, exploring the tender shadows of human condition. Referencing her own face and body, but not considered self-portraits, her characters embody multiple personalities, with the intention of expressing her experiences with anxiety and mental health, and escapism, disassociation. I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih’s works turned towards female subjectivity, bodies, sexuality, and desire. Sex was presented as part of daily life, and a celebration of the erotic. Bagyi Aung Soe’s works are born from intense meditation, synthesizing the sensorial world with mantra, mathematics, Buddhism, spiritual energies, personal visual language, and “life rhythm”. In Liu Hsin-Ying’s “Growing”, a large female figure stands, her body wavers as a pink cosmic river contained within the banks of her contours. This self-portrait works as a commentary on her pregnancy with her first child.
CHAPTER SIX : LARGE FIGURES AND MISSING HALVES
Ahmad Zakii Anwar
Nudity and passion are enlarged and larger than life.
Even when they are missing their other halves, for the search itself—the longing for halves of Aristophanes’ androgunos [ἀνδρόγυνος] —is the story of love and origin.
Leo Abaya’s canvas speaks to the lived reality of Filipinos, where Catholicism is predominant, and draws colliding visual associations between these cultural elements. Jimmy Ong’s “Left 1/2” is also missing its other half. An enormous guai shi—scholar’s rock—cut in half. Inspired by wrestlers on television, art historian Peter Lee describes Ong’s figures as a site of “tense stalemates”, masses of contortion, in motion and in stasis, engaged in locks and holds, attached, abandoned, co-dependent. Ahmad Zakii Anwar weaves fragile illusions on paper. His figurative charcoal drawings, and in this print, relishes in intimacy, where the process of drawing itself is the sensual and passionate journey of knowledge.
CHAPTER SEVEN : FABLES, MYTHS, SEX ON PAPER
The inclusion of late 18th Century and early 19th Century Japanese prints in this exhibition is meant as a counterpoint to the developments in drawing and painting of nude figures in Southeast Asia. The former has been widely received and accepted in our contemporary aesthetic consciousness and their historical importance elevated as a distinctly Japanese art form, technique, mode of storytelling and expression; with its influences-on, and exchanges-with, Western modern painting acknowledged and recorded. Yet, from the four artists featured in the exhibition, the question of audience is raised: prints before the 19th Century were mainly for domestic consumption, while prints made in the 20th Century were mostly for export. These works raise the questions: who do we depict these bodies for; and how shall our bodies be remembered in future?
For more info on the show, check out the Current Project.