The onus of universal (read: Euro-American and Anglocentric) translatability is the bane of regionally specific art. “The Tailors and the Mannequins: Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin,” curated by Roger Nelson, conjectures alternatives to this chronic imposition. It is the inaugural exhibition of the National Gallery Singapore’s Dalam Southeast Asia project space—dalam is a Malay word that can mean “inside,” “deep,” or “within”—dedicated to underrepresented art-historical narratives with an emphasis on works from the collection.
The two artists make an odd pair, and connections between them are oblique. The Singaporean Chen (1927–2020) and the Cambodian You Khin (1947–2009) were never acquainted, having been born two decades apart and under very different socioeconomic circumstances, but both lived in and/or traveled to “far-flung” regions including Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. That said, the artworks’ opacity tempers categorically jejune celebrations of Global South cosmopolitanism. The 1981 oil painting by You Khin that lends the show its title, a work made during his two-year residence in the Ivory Coast, depicts two gaunt, faceless workers hunching sullenly over their sewing machines. A pair of equally anonymous mannequins perch indifferently behind them. Tangled swaths of red, green, and beige fabric muddle the foreground, compounding the metaphorical distance between the painting’s subjects and its viewers.
In Untitled (Doha Scene: Pakistani Bakers), 1990, and Untitled (Public Scribes), 1993, four or five indiscernible figures withdraw into clusters of intense and focused activity, ignoring the artist viewer. Yet again, You Khin shows that he is not privy to the scenes he chances on while lingering in public spaces. Untitled (Meeting Above Pigeon Cages), 1978, a painting of a Sudanese market, dramatizes his exclusion from the social life his painting records. Vendors frantically grab caged birds, gesticulating and gazing in all directions except his, creating divergent lines of sight and motion to the point of chaos. In You Khin’s paintings, omission holds as much weight as representation, if not more.
Chen shared You Khin’s penchant for focusing on textiles in the everyday settings of distant places she visited, though she nuanced this artistic preoccupation with her attention toward gender. But the decidedly apathetic appearance of the figures who inhabit her eerily inchoate scenes, for instance in the etchings Laundry (Kalash Women), 1994, and Laundry (India), 2008, deflect any potential appeal to one-dimensional identitarian interpretations. In the latter painting, indistinguishable human figures are rendered in minute scale, dotted like ants against a stale brown-and-blue terrain; a brown animal in the foreground, perhaps a horse, is almost twice their size. What astonishes is the tiny figures’ clothing. In the former work, two women, belonging to the Kalash ethnic minority living along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, wear black apparel with strategically placed red and yellow stripes, though they clearly avoid the artist’s gaze.
Striking crimson robes are the focus of Chen’s large oil painting Kenyan Chieftains, 1991. Chromatically dense in places, yet haphazardly streaked in others, the dynamically painted canvas starkly contrasts with its subjects’ flat, childlike, and unrealistic countenances. In Chen and You Khin’s artworks, the ill-proportioned and anonymous human bodies, ironically clad in enigmatic garments, underscore an aesthetics of estrangement that barricades any voyeuristic view of Global South cultures. Rather than capturing foreign or novel encounters in a finicky way, this exhibition makes transparent the processual unknowability of what Nelson calls the works’ “encounterism.”