Singapore

Kazuo Kuniyoshi, Terua, Koza City was called by the nickname “Black People’s Town.” (Kokujingai), 1971, ink-jet print, 15 3/4 × 22 1/2". From “Wishful Images: When Microhistories Take Form.”

Kazuo Kuniyoshi, Terua, Koza City was called by the nickname “Black People’s Town.” (Kokujingai), 1971, ink-jet print, 15 3/4 × 22 1/2". From “Wishful Images: When Microhistories Take Form.”

“Wishful Images”

NUS Museum, National University of Singapore

On the exhibition’s oblique threshold, visitors can read a statement. Both addressing and signed “All citizens of the Republic of Ryukyu,” the letter declares a collective creation of a “social constitution” for “an entirely autonomous society.” This hopeful announcement is in fact the opening of a 1981 poem by Kawamitsu Shinichi, penned more than a century after Japan dissolved the nominally independent Ryukyu Kingdom to form what we know today as the Okinawa Prefecture. By entering the exhibition space, visitors acknowledge and come under the jurisdiction of this constitution.

Titled “Wishful Images: When Microhistories Take Form” and curated by Hsu Fang-Tze, the exhibition channels the utopian possibilities of Kawamitsu’s poem-as-constitution. Divided into six chapters and undergirded by denunciations of military violence and of the selfish accumulation of power, resources, and capital, the poem, printed on the walls, quite literally encircles the exhibition space, lassoing works by five artists from seemingly disparate sociopolitical contexts into intimate conversation.

To be clear, Okinawa serves not merely as subject matter for the exhibition, but rather as a dynamic point of entry to discussions of broader geopolitical and historical affinities. Case in point: Hsu juxtaposed works addressing two little-known microhistories, the Koza riot of 1970, in which Okinawans protested against American military occupation, and Singapore’s participation that same year in the Lusaka Conference, a summit of nonaligned nations, where demilitarization was a key topic of discussion. Although such entanglements are likely to remain entombed in oblivion, this exhibition manifests them in the form of “wishful images” that recall forgotten or forcibly elided pasts, tracing their pulses into the present.

Aya Rodriguez-Izumi’s Okinawa’s Tragedy: Echoes from the Last Battle of WWII, 2020, reproduces four prints from a 1987 English textbook devised by her Cuban-American father featuring translated survivor testimonies from the Battle of Okinawa, a 1945 clash between American and Japanese armies that ravaged the Okinawan civilian population. Each print is accompanied by a corresponding audio excerpt, narrated by Rodriguez and her parents, and a title, austerely printed on top of an empty glass cabinet. The accented voices and intangible shadows cast by the lettering revivify forgotten accounts of suicide and sacrifice, haunting the amnesiac contemporary viewer.

Kuniyoshi Kazuo’s twenty-four black-and-white images document the Koza riot. A photojournalist by trade, Kuniyoshi did not sensationalize the event. Instead, his photographs capture unexpected alliances, such as those encompassed by the stationed soldiers’ antiwar and African American civil rights protests that took place around the time of the riot. Photographs such as Two jukebox ladies, 1978, featuring a pair of biracial women, and Terua, Koza City was called by the nickname “Black People’s Town.” (Kokujingai), 1971, further allude to anti-imperialist intimacies.

Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s video Eleven Men, 2016, implicitly questions film’s ability to document and legitimize textbook renditions of history. Nguyễn appropriated scenes from state-backed films from the 1960s through the present that feature famed Vietnamese actress Như Quỳnh and superimposed new plotlines onto the footage; the narrator pettily critiques the appearance and disposition of the actress’s eleven on-screen male partners. She is no longer the hapless, timeless object of desire she normally portrayed. We witness the actress aging while Vietnamese history and the film medium’s material quality progress seamlessly and episodically in parallel.

Hsu’s curation is a radical contextualization of time and space. A mélange of disavowed continental connections bleed into and scar the present. Lucy Davis’s film Jalan Jati (Teak Road), 2012, is the artist’s attempt at tracking the origins of her scavenged teak bed through Southeast Asia’s history and topography. The piece testifies to art’s cosmopolitan potential, even amid ongoing lockdowns and travel limitations. Instead of simply reaffirming the importance of supposedly global perspectives, the exhibition speaks to the discomfiting complexities of regional specificity.