A review of the exhibition ‘Rituals and Rebirths’ curated by Peruke Projects in partnership with A.I. Gallery.
By Nur Adeebah Haini
A collaboration between two initiatives championing Southeast Asian art outside of the region, Rituals and Rebirths was a provocative and compelling exhibition that took place at London’s Cromwell Place in May of this year. Curated by Peruke Projects in partnership with A.I. Gallery, it featured three diverse Southeast Asian artists, each one exploring their individual diasporic experiences. From film installations to performances, the exhibition guided the viewer through encounters of ceremonies, renewal, otherness, and displacement.
The works of Filipino-Danish artist, Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen, were the first to welcome the spectator. A basket full of lemons sat on a column, in between two photographs created in 2020 titled Hybrid Rituals #1 and Hybrid Rituals #2: Hybrid Alt er kun til låns (Danish for Everything is for loan), all of which are part of a series called 23.5o. The lemons were scribbled with phrases such as ‘invisible purity’, ‘feast is limited’, ‘superficial relationship’, etc. These lemons were in fact a part of Rasmussen’s performance titled Today is your at the exhibition space where Rasmussen handed out lemons to the audience one by one. She then slowly moved to the streets of London, where the same act was repeated, walking around South Kensington and interreacting with passersby. This interactive piece is a continuous one: to accept a lemon, is to continue the story it began with. Perhaps the phrases were prompts for us to think or create a narrative of our own. What is clear is that Rasmussen explored both notions of rebirth and ritual through the act of giving and receiving these lemons. The fruits are a metaphor for the cycle of life, as well as health and renewal, bringing a bright and hopeful primer to the exhibition.
The energy rapidly turned sombre on the other side of the exhibition space. A woven mat, a pair of scissors and a long, braid of hair were placed inside a clear, acrylic box and underneath the hair were pieces of paper that read:
“You’re the virus!”
“This pandemic ruins everything because of you people!”
“Are you first in your family to be educated?”
“That smells funny…what are you eating?”
“Do you understand English?”
“How to spell your name? Can we just use your initials?”
These artefacts and excerpts were from Quynh Lâm’s performance, The Price of Humanity (2022). This powerful and emotional piece was a response to her experiences of living in the diaspora during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Vietnamese artist was working in the United States, Europe, and Thailand during these years. Lâm grew her hair for the whole duration of the pandemic, and then cut it off in her performance. The message here is that with each passing year living in the diaspora, the amount of hate crime she experienced grew exponentially, as did her hair. As a form of release and confrontation, both emotionally and physically, Lâm cut it off as a ritual. This ceremony offered a renewal as hair will, quite literally, grow again.
The point of the ritual is also to present the trauma of othering, which is why the hair is kept on display in the box, reminding us of the heaviness and burden of the discrimination against Asian diasporas.
The theme of othering continued in the adjacent gallery space. At the centre of the room stood an impressive, red-sequined figure. It was not, however, any regular bejewelled garment. It was the incredible work of Anida Yoeu Ali’s The Red Chador (2019). Ali is a first-generation Muslim-Khmer, born in Cambodia and raised in Chicago. It was not until three decades after she left her home country that Ali returned to Cambodia to continue her artmaking. The Red Chador, in this instance, serves as an installation piece. A religious garment worn by Muslim women in certain Muslim communities, the glistening Chador dominated the space with its presence,. For the past two decades, many Muslims have become victims to hate crimes and discrimination, from France’s niqab ban to more subtle forms of separation such as racial profiling at airports. Ali takes an almost humorous and provocative approach in her piece as she decorated the commonly plain chador, with bright, ruby red sequins. Next to the garment, is a nine-minute film called The Red Chador: Genesis I (2020). The film began with Ali, dressed in the sparkly chador whilst emerging from the ocean at the beach in Waikiki, Honolulu. It also showed past iterations of her walking around public spaces across the globe in the chador, sometimes standing with a sign that says, ‘BAN ME’, a dig at Donald Trump’s notorious Muslim ban.
Ali’s intention here is to challenge the public to confront Otherness. Due to a rise in Islamophobia, many have formed a misconception of Muslims due to the misrepresentation, or even silencing of Muslims in media. In this instance, Ali is forcing the public to look at her. What was once banned or silenced is now made hyper visible to the public. What will you do when you see her? Do you fear her? Do you even notice her? Would you care at all? What makes this piece central to the theme of rebirth, is what happened to The Chador in 2018. The work was initially created in 2015, however, an incident occurred during her transit from Palestine to the US as The Chador mysteriously disappeared. Ali formed a strong bond with the garment, and it became an extension of her identity. Losing it thus felt like a loss itself- a death. It felt natural to give The Chador a memorial and so, Ali initiated a memorial, which was a hybrid of both Buddhist and Muslim traditions. It was not until 2019 that The Red Chador began to make its appearance again. Almost like a religious resurrection, hence the title- ‘Genesis I’.
As I stood in front of this magnificent, cloaked figure, I was reminded of myself and a piece I created in 2016. I was 18 years old, in my first year of art school, and as an impulsive response to my racist (randomly allocated) flatmates, I made an abaya along with a hijab and a veil in black latex fabric.
Some of the negative and aggressive diatribes I often heard included “you’re Muslim? So, you can build us a bomb?” and “evacuate the building! Adeebah’s cooking her smelly food!” Similar to Ali, I too sought to challenge the very people that harassed me. The reflective nature of the black latex acts as a mirror as they watch me. ‘Look at you, looking at me’, I thought. Naturally, some deflected from the point of the piece and called me pretty. Some were simply uncomfortable and speechless. I was taking up space and claiming it as my own. Just as The Red Chador commanded the room with its very presence, my piece stood in sisterly solidarity. I am Muslim, keep looking.
Rituals and Rebirths was a masterpiece of an exhibition. At the forefront were three powerful WOC (Women of Colour) artists. It is essential that we remember that these works amplify the voices of those who are not seen or heard, and possess intersectional, hybrid identities. The exhibition brought an understanding of celebration, health and wellness, an emotional releasing of traumas, and a reclaiming of Otherness. As a Southeast Asian, Muslim woman who grew up in Moscow, these experiences were all too familiar to me. I too inherit the trauma of Asian hate crimes. It is easy to see difference as something that threatens a society when the norm is white. However, it is clear from this exhibition that although we are seen as the Other, we should always embrace it. It felt almost liberating to be in a room that delivered the message – Release, Reclaim and Revitalize. The impact of this experience was monumental, bringing vital discussions to the table, which, like the pieces shown, will keep evolving, renewing and eventually, be heard.