Researching The Interwoven Narratives That Shape Art History in Southeast Asia

Carlos Quijon, Jr
Carlos Quijon, Jr.

My entry to curating and the arts was through literature. I studied comparative literature as an undergraduate, then took some essay and poetry courses. I was drawn to writing and theory. I found excitement with the way these two things merged in art and art writing. The more I got involved in curatorial projects, the more I fell in love with materials and processes. I like talking to artists like Dominic Mangila, who is a painter who can talk excitedly about paint and gesture, or Pam Quinto, who is a young ceramics artist who uses the medium in nontraditional and experimental ways. I enjoy learning from people who are very knowledgeable about things I know nothing about. I also enjoy listening to people when they talk about something they love or are invested in. I also like learning new vocabularies, and ways of describing the world. Curating is exciting for me in these senses, because it urges you to be sensitive about materials, their contexts, and people who work with them.

When I write, I can do it alone. There is a self-sufficiency in how writing typically happens. Curating undoes this self-sufficiency. It emphasizes working with other people and other materials (space, objects, managing funds). In this sense, it is closer to editorial work, involving more than just the writer. I founded a small press and online journal in 2012, titled transit. This was my entryway to curating because of the way I needed to constantly consult with authors, designers, and artists.

For me, starting a project with others is always about availability and willingness. It is hard to work with people if these basic things are not secured. I also think it is very important to be able to trust others, and be mindful of the difference in their pace, process, references, access to archives, and their contexts. The conjunction of these elements shape the exhibition, publication, or event. I have in mind projects such as In Our Best Interests, which is a series of exhibitions and programs that will travel from Singapore to Manila in 2021, and to Busan in 2022. Singaporean curator Kathleen Ditzig and I are co-curating it. We approach the history of Southeast Asia from two different places (Singapore and the Philippines) with different histories and theoretical influences. In other words, what we will exhibit as the art, history, and art history of Southeast Asia is shaped by our respective pragmatic realizations, that although we live in the same region, we experience and understand it differently. It was good that Kathleen and I were part of the cohorts of the “Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia” program, with  the Getty Foundation, the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, and the Dhaka Art Summit. We know each other from this extended fellowship and friendship.

Presenting as a fellow of Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories, Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia (MAHASSA) at the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, August 2019. Photography Muhammad Nafisur Rahman
Presenting as a fellow of Getty Foundation’s “Connecting Art Histories, Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia” (MAHASSA) at the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, August 2019. Photography Muhammad Nafisur Rahman

In my wardrobe I have several basic shirts, mostly in black and maroon, and a number of pairs of red socks (eight pairs in total now, I think). I like color-blocking. I thrive in repetition, with some detail variations, not all black, which is too curator’s fashion for me.

Besides health, safety, and people’s basic livelihood, the pandemic threatens how we imagine sociality, socializing, and personal conversations. I am used to living alone, but before the city lockdown took effect, in Manila, in March, I went back to my family home in Quezon City, since we didn’t know how bad it would become. That was the best decision, considering the subsequent lockdowns were terribly anxiety-inducing. I think we are far from sorting out the pandemic, but I am now back living alone. This period made me realize how important it is to take care of oneself, especially when you need to be present for other people. I am truly privileged that most of my work, prior to the pandemic, was all commission- and submission-based, so my livelihood isn’t too affected. Now every meeting is via zoom, which is a lot more tiring, but safer for everyone.

Local fare. My mom is from the Bicol region, south of Manila, where most recipes call for coconut milk and chilies, such as Bicol Express, a rich stew of green chilies, coconut milk, shrimp paste, and pork. When I travel, I stick to places that friends recommend. In Hong Kong, I go to this one duck place, because a good friend took me there once. And when I spent three days in Jogjakarta this year, to cover the Jogjakarta Biennale, I ate dinner in the same restaurant, ordering the same tempeh dish every night.

When I am not working in the art field, you can find me at home. I like spending my time in my room mostly reading and taking notes. If I go out, I stay long hours in a coffee shop, and read anything unrelated to work. I am also deeply in love with my university campus at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where I am finishing my graduate degree. I usually spend time there, at the library or the museum café, meeting friends or just passing time.

I am currently working on a number of different researches. Most recently, for my research on In Our Best Interests, I have been looking at the formation of Maphilindo (an acronym for Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia), an earlier iteration of Southeast Asian regionalism, formalized in 1963. It was based on a Pan-Malayan ethnos, that in some accounts, inherits the discourse of the third world, or the non-aligned nations during the Cold War, in reference to the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, in 1955. Kathleen and I study the period in the 1960s, when Maphilindo was inaugurated up to its eventual dissolution due to cross-border conflicts between Indonesia and Malaysia, as a possible moment when affinities between Africa and Southeast Asia emerge. For this project, the understanding of Southeast Asia, through Maphilindo, emphasizes not only how the region is entangled in colonial relations, but also that state actors had their own goals that problematized the determinations of colonial control. I also have an ongoing research on the idea of the return of democracy in the Philippines, in the period after the ouster of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. In particular, I am interested in how this shapes art history of the 1980s and 1990s, in the Philippines.

Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile director Mizuki Takahashi, Vargas Museum curator Patrick D. Flores, and curators Cristian Tablazon and Pristine de Leon. Courtesy Vargas Museum
Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile director Mizuki Takahashi, Vargas Museum curator Patrick D. Flores, and curators Cristian Tablazon and Pristine de Leon. Courtesy Vargas Museum

The perfect future invention for me would be a foolproof, personalized, and cloud-supported audio to text application or device, or even better, a thought-to-text encoder. I think that would do wonders, especially for personal archiving of notes on artists studio visits, exhibition visits, research for work, and even for personal thoughts.

The book that still haunts me is Anne Carson’s Plainwater, a collection of essays and poetry. Since I first read it in 2009/2010, I have always been enamored by Carson’s language, imagination, and intelligence. I have been a fan of her ever since, but Plainwater is still my favorite. One of the best parts of the book (just because of its unexpected analogy) for me, is a fictional interview between the author and the Greek poet Mimnermos, here is an extract:
M: Don’t get angry
Carson: I am not angry I am conscientious
M: Like moss

When I travel I always take with me a short book. If I travel for a long period of time, I like to take note of how my frame of mind changes by reading, and re-reading, the same book. I stayed in Seoul for five months—the longest out of Manila, so far—and I had with me two books, Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, and Carson’s Plainwater. I read and re-read both for at least once every month. At some point, I started a series of daily notes after Carson’s essays. I managed to write one for October, and got too busy soon afterwards. 

I write for and about exhibitions for a living. It is quite hard to single out a recent exhibition that inspired me. But one very influential exhibition for me, was South by Southeast curated by Patrick D. Flores and Anca Verona Mihulet, at Osage Gallery in Hong Kong, in 2015. It was imaginative and propositional in the sense that it asked its visitors to imagine the relationship between two areas: Southeast Asia and Southeastern Europe (or the Balkans). It resisted the conventional limits to the imaginations about Southeast Asia and the Global South in general.

To keep sane I like to read books, manga, watch anime, play computer games. I also exercise when I can. It helps to just stay a home with time to read leisurely, without any emails.

I would never be an art collector. I am not too keen on collecting art, actually. Maybe books, but art not so much.

I feel at home when I can cook my own food.

Singapore Art Book Fair 2019 panel “On Critical Writing” with Qinyi Lim, of National Gallery Singapore, ArtAsiaPacific deputy editor H. G. Masters, and artist-curator Ema Tavola. Courtesy NTU-CCA Singapore
Singapore Art Book Fair 2019 panel “On Critical Writing” with Qinyi Lim, of National Gallery Singapore, ArtAsiaPacific deputy editor H. G. Masters, and artist-curator Ema Tavola. Courtesy NTU-CCA Singapore

What drives me forward the most about curating? I like how one can experiment with ways of thinking with other people. I also like how ideas are formed collaboratively, it is always my practice in relation to other people’s practice. In the exhibition Minor Infelicities that opened at the Post Territory Ujeongguk art space in Seoul, for example, we were five co-curators. The show’s initial prompt was to design an exhibition of queer art in a contemporary context. We did our curating remotely, except for the curator based in Seoul who helped organize the show. The Seoul-based curator invited two artists, the rest of us invited one artist each. I can imagine how a situation like this might be a nightmare for someone who is used to having the final say about everything, but for me it was exciting, and a great learning experience.  

If I wasn’t curating I could probably do many things. Write and teach for instance, I always imagined teaching as this self-renewing vocation wherein you get new students and get to teach new subjects every term. I think that would be an ideal set-up for me. I studied to become a lawyer for a bit and I was teaching literature to college students, before I started working on exhibitions. At some point, I wanted to be a biologist, maybe a botanist or a marine biologist (one of my best friends is an oceanographer, which I think is cool too).

Carlos Quijon, Jr.

Independent curator

Manila, Philippines

Biography:

Carlos Quijon, Jr. is an art historian, critic, and curator based in Manila. He is a fellow of the research platform Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia (MAHASSA), convened by the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories project. He writes exhibition reviews for Artforum and has essays published in ArtReview Asia (Singapore), Art Monthly (UK), Asia Art Archive’s Ideas (HK), and Trans Asia Photography Review (US), among others, and his research is part of the book From a History of Exhibitions Towards a Future of Exhibition-Making (Sternberg Press, 2019). He is an alumnus of the inaugural Para Site Workshops for Emerging Professionals in Hong Kong in 2015 and was a scholar participant of the symposium “How Institutions Think” hosted by LUMA Foundation in Arles in 2016. In 2017, he was a research resident in MMCA Seoul and a fellow of the Transcuratorial Academy both in Berlin and Mumbai. He curated Courses of Action in Hong Kong in 2019, a will for prolific disclosures in Manila and co-curated Minor Infelicities in Seoul in 2020. With Singapore-based curator Kathleen Ditzig, he will be co-curating In Our Best Interests, a series of exhibitions and programs in Singapore, Manila, and Busan in 2021/2022 on the histories of Afro-Southeast Asian affinities.

Art critic and writer.

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