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The Ring of Fire: Contesting the Myth of Homogeneity
by Helen Yu-Rivera

(click on small images for large images with captions)

In 2007, Filipino potter Hadrian Mendoza envisioned a project to bring together potters from Southeast Asia in order to foster a sense of community, to revive traditional knowledge and skills and encourage the sharing of new techniques and approaches. Through this network, the project aimed to “invigorate cultural expressions of regional as well as local identities through pottery.” Dubbed as The Ring of Fire, the project culminated in an exhibition of works by contemporary potters and ceramic artists in Southeast Asia and a series of workshops at the Ayala Museum in the Philippines from October 21- November 11, 2009. The name of the project aptly describes Southeast Asia which is geologically surrounded by volcanoes. More than a geological allusion, it is also indexical of pottery and its process and the shared passion among potters and ceramic artists of the region.

As a dynamic region, Southeast Asia boasts of a rich historical and cultural tradition. Despite this, countries in the region have, for a long time, been dwarfed by more politically powerful countries such as China and India. In the literature on the early development of pottery in Southeast Asia, the region is usually divided into two spheres. One sphere consists of Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand which were heavily influenced by India. The other sphere is Vietnam which was influenced by China. Although Chinese pottery styles and techniques were passed on to artisans in the Philippines through trade as well as contact with the large population of migrant Chinese in the country, the weight of its influence is limited compared to that seen in Vietnam. Despite the strong influence of India and China, the different styles in the region reveal the ability of potters in Southeast Asia not only to assimilate but to adapt these influences to suit local tastes.

This dynamism continues to be evident in the works of contemporary potters and ceramic artists from Southeast Asia exhibited at the Ayala Museum. The exhibition featured the works of artists Serge Rega from Cambodia, Ahadiat Joedawinata from Indonesia, Sisuk from Laos,Yeow Seng Cheah, Hwee Min Low, James Seet and Lileng Wong from Malaysia, Sigrid Bangay, Lope Bosaing, Pablo Capati, Pete Cortes, Joey de Castro, Jaime de Guzman, Joe Geraldo, Winnie Go, Julie LLuch, Hadrian Mendoza, Camille Dacanay Mendoza, Jon Pettyjohn and Mark Valenzuela from the Philippines, Thomas Cheong and Alvin T H Tan from Singapore, Bathma Kaew-Ngok and Vipoo Srivilasa from Thailand and Bao Toan Nguyen from Vietnam.

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Many of the works conveyed meanings that were borne out of local concerns yet are universally shared. A particularly engaging work by Vipoo Srivilasa entitled Polyp Cups draws from his bicultural experiences as a Thai artist currently based in Australia ( Fig.1). According to Srivilasa, the work evolved from his concern for the coral reefs and ecosystems of Thailand and Australia and the damage being done to them as a result of human greed. He relates that the work is inspired by ceramic figurines of corpulent Chinese court ladies during the Ming dynasty which remind him of humanity’s greed and overindulgence. The works of Lileng Wong from Malaysia reference nature in a more intimate way as she draws inspiration from her personal experiences. In Nature Series 2, the base of one of the pieces alludes to two rocks piled on top of each other while the slightly bent neck suggests the graceful stem of a flower (Fig. 2). Lamenting the loss of nature as it is currently overrun by high rise buildings in Malaysia, Wong’s work is a statement of the probable renewal of nature through art. Being a relatively young nation, Singapore does not have a long pottery tradition that it can call its own. Ceramics artists in the country also have to deal with the limited space and the lack of raw of materials. Singaporean artists Thomas Cheong and Alvin T H Tan however, are unhampered by these limitations. Their works reveal personal rather than local expressions as they deftly play with materials, form and color (Figs. 3&4) The emphasis on form and materiality of medium rather than local identity is also seen in Effervescence, a work by Malaysian artist James Seet, where overlapping circles evoke the concept of repetition of forms and simplicity of glaze (Fig.5). One noticeable characteristic of contemporary pottery in Southeast Asia is that they continue to be influenced by other countries such as China, Japan and Europe. The use of glazes such as oribe, celadon and porcelain attests to this. A jar by Filipino potter Jon Pettyjohn utilizes local clay but is fired in an Anagama kiln (Fig.6). Malaysian artist James Seet states that while he sources his materials from local markets, his styles and techniques are a conglomeration of local and foreign influences sifted over the years.

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While many of the themes find commonality across cultures, the local is still strongly inscribed particularly in the works of Filipino ceramic artists. Hadrian Mendoza’s Carabao and Noypi are both emblematic of national pride and belonging (Fig.7&8). Julie Lluch’s Maranao alludes to the women of Lanao in Southern Philippines while Lope Bosaing and Jaime de Guzman’s works reinterpret traditional rice wine jars from Northern Philippines (figs. 9,10&11). In his work, Bosaing combines the contemporary technique of firing in an electric kiln with the use of traditional reptilian motifs from Sagada around the jar’s mouth ( Fig.10).

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Aside from the exhibition, a series of forums were also held where critics, writers and artists shared their ideas and works. Pottery workshops were held where different techniques were shared such as throwing ten kilos of clay on the wheel and using a torch to create cracks on a ring of clay. A torch was also used to quick dry a thin layer from a slab of clay which was then stretched so that the dry part broke but the soft clay stayed intact, resulting in a cracked concrete road effect. The forums showcase the importance of workshops, lectures and discussions as collateral activities in an exhibition. They negate the concepts of exhibitions as static and museums as temples by engaging the audience in constructive discussions.

In pooling together potters and ceramic artists from Southeast Asia for this project, the question of whether regionalism is still valid or simply a passé historical concern comes to the fore. The Ring of Fire cannot be paralleled to regionalism in the United States in the 1930’s which aimed to subvert foreign (European) colonial influences in the arts and gave rise to the assertion of a singular style defined as local (American) and identified strongly with the region. While The Ring of Fire did not bring about the formation of a singular identity, it may be seen as a counterforce to the hegemony of countries such as China, with its long pottery tradition; Japan, with its continuing patronage of the art form; and Europe as the center of contemporary art production and management. By making visible the talent and dynamism of contemporary potters and ceramic artists in Southeast Asia, the project has truly given a voice to the region and allowed its artists to assert themselves in the global scene.

Another significant contribution of this project is that the showcase of diversity corrects previously accepted notions of the homogeneity of pottery styles in the region. Many Western scholars have underplayed differences in the pottery styles in Southeast Asia by conveniently grouping them according to spheres of influence and calling them collectively as Southeast Asian Pottery. The dearth of materials published on contemporary pottery in the region also stresses continuity of traditional forms and techniques at the expense of difference and change. By highlighting contemporary pottery in the region, the project has brought to light changes across time. The diversity of approaches, forms and techniques displayed by the works in The Ring of Fire also demonstrate the continuing validity of identity as a theme/concept in contemporary arts. While it is impossible to identify a single style that can characterize the pottery in Southeast Asia, the works foreground the notion that identity is constantly shifting and is subject to critical discourses and contestation. In the end, the significance of The Ring of Fire lies not in the quest for commonality but in the celebration of diversity.

- Helen Yu-Rivera, Ph.D.

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