Celebrating Pop Art With a Southeast Asian Punch

For Philippine artist Thomas Daquioag, giving a new meaning to the notion of live-action superheroes is all in a day’s work. Much like Superman, the Green Lantern or the Flash, he runs past people, changing into an eye-catching costume of bright purple and yellow spandex in their wake. And just like those other superheroes, he sets off on a mission.

Daquioag’s mission, though, is more understated and mundane than saving the world from Lex Luthor or Parallax; it’s nothing less than a performance art to bring his paintings to life.

“The superheroes are my way of highlighting the heroic characteristics of the Filipino worker. It’s all too easy to overlook this, as they are the common people that we see on a daily basis,” he says of his art, whose style evokes the social realism of Diego Rivera and other artists of the Mexican Muralist movement.

“Whether it’s the driver who takes us around or the maid who cleans up our house, we tend to take them for granted. So much so that we often forget just how much we need them.”

He gets his point across with paintings like “Invincible” and “The League.” In the former, manual laborers and everyday people are depicted going down a street. But a tearaway strip across the painting reveals their “superhero” costumes underneath their clothes.

“The League” does something similar by combining the halves of two taxi cabs: as everyday people shuffle into one half, superheroes like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman emerge from the other.

Daquioag’s imagery is part of “New Icon: Pop in Asia,” an exhibition of contemporary art from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, and South Korea, currently being held at the Salihara cultural center in South Jakarta.

Jointly held by the South Korean Embassy and Surya University’s Arco Labs Center for Art and Community Management, the exhibition is part of celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of relations between Asean and South Korea.

“Pop culture in Asia is iconic, timeless and a good medium for cultural exchange, as it can highlight differences and dynamics as well as identities, in this case an Asian identity,” says curator Jeong Ok Jeon.

“But the works featured in the exhibition are more personal and intimate, unlike the distant, mechanical and impersonal features of Western pop art as done by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and other practitioners. The exhibition also resonates with Asean’s goal of an integrated community. But unlike commonly held conventional wisdom on Asean that emphasizes economic growth, the arts featured here are more kaleidoscopic, not uniform, as they focus more on the people-to-people exchanges,” Jeong says.

Nirwan Dewanto, Salihara’s program director, says Pop art in Indonesia traces its origins to the New Art movement that swept the country in the 1970s.

“It was a pioneering movement because it dismantled the high art and hierarchy it represented,” he says. “As a transition from Modernism to Post Modernism, it also touched on the underground movement.”

True to the kaleidoscope that is its theme, “New Icon: Pop in Asia” takes on the need for various groups to come together despite their differences — a theme Myanmar’s Arker Kyaw addresses in “Freedom From Fear,” which depicts a Muslim boy and a Buddhist boy.

“The work alludes to the need to set aside sectarian tensions like those between the Buddhist majority Karen and the Muslim Rohingya,” says Kyaw, whose work also featured at last year’s Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar.

“Myanmar is still affected by such conflicts and its people’s paralysis in the face of them, due to lingering effects from the military junta that used to run the country for decades. We are tired of the instability [in Myanmar], as well as restrictions on art and movement. I want to destroy the great wall [restricting freedom] through creating.”

Indonesian artist Stereoflow explores the same theme in his mural “In a Relationship.” It shows a boy and girl holding hands, determined not to let physical distance get in their way.

“It symbolizes the relations of Asian countries that remain close, though they are separated by vast seas and distances. The colorful patterns allude to Asean’s diversity,” says Stereoflow, real name Adi Dharma, a graffiti artist from Bandung.

“For this work I used linear and cubist patterns that have long been my trademark. The spray paint I used also has a gradation of at least five shades on the colors that I use.”

South Korean artist Lee Wan weighs the parliaments in his own country and in Indonesia in his work, “Made In Indonesia: Wooden Table” — a seesaw with a table at its center.

“The seesaw depicts the fluctuating fortunes of political parties, due to its resemblance to current political structures. The table at the center symbolizes Indonesia’s timber industry as well as a place where people can sit and exchange ideas,” Lee says.

Curator Jeong says the artists will get a chance to engage in exchange programs with Indonesian artisans and Surya University.

Tunggul Wirajuda, dimuat di The Jakarta Globe, 21 Agustus 2014