Ryan Villamael, Terrain, After, 2019, sand, paper cutout. Installation view. Photo: Gian Carlo Delgado.

Ryan Villamael, Terrain, After, 2019, sand, paper cutout. Installation view. Photo: Gian Carlo Delgado.

Nontawat Numbenchapol and Ryan Villamael

Imagining “home” across registers of domicile, dwelling, and domain, the exhibition “Homecoming/Eventually” presented the work of Thai artist and filmmaker Nontawat Numbenchapol and Filipino artist Ryan Villamael. Curated by Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani, the show brought forth the artists’ thinking on place and belonging as articulated in discourses of mobility and migrancy as well as of settling and stasis.

In Villamael’s site-specific installation Locus Amoenus, 2017–, foliage made from cut-up paper maps of the Philippines grew from the museum’s ceiling; tendrils shot off the building’s pillars and balustrades and sprouted from its nooks. Meanwhile, his installation Terrain, After, 2019, featured a length of paper installed on a gallery wall and running parallel to a trail of fine sand on the floor. The bottom edge of the paper is jagged—suggesting a mountain range in negative—and is incised with thin cuts that together recall a river delta. The points where the paper dips and forms a valley are mirrored by peaks of sand from the deposit below. The installation evoked the disintegration of the paper into sediment, as if the lacerations were termite tracks and the silt below it the insects’ frass. If in Locus Amoenis maps take on the disposition of vines that mark and colonize space, in Terrain, After the flimsiness of the shredded paper settles into soil, creating a topography that appears heftier, more robust. The implied transformations signal feelings about dwelling that have to do with standing one’s ground, abiding.

Numbenchapol’s works, meanwhile, unsettle the borders and demarcations of home, providing ethnographic accounts of life on Thailand’s border with Myanmar, where the Shan people, a Southeast Asian ethnic minority who are based largely in Myanmar and who have long struggled for independence, now reside after having been displaced by the ongoing civil war. Casting Call, 2019–20, is a series of audio transcriptions from interviews with Shan individuals. Most of the refugees have escaped the military draft and labor as construction workers or in bar districts as sex workers or service staff. Few of the interviewees have proper papers and thus cannot legally travel beyond the fringes of the border and into Thailand (or to other countries). Home is a place that inaugurates identity, and leaving it displaces one’s identity, particularly when traveling across national borders. Though the displacement and migrancy of these individuals disperse the coordinates of belonging and dissipate conventional bases of identification, they also kindle hopes of homecoming and allow for complex conditions of affinity and belonging.

“Homecoming” in these works then becomes an itinerary of affiliation. The traveling to and from the border stitches together a semblance of homeland or else frays the abstract borders that nationalist agendas enable and maintain. We see another register of this in Numbenchapol’s feature-length documentary Soil Without Land, 2019, which follows the life of Jai Sang Lod, whose experience is emblematic of the tribulations that people of Shan descent face as a result of Burmese military efforts to subdue the Shan State.

Villamael and Numbenchapol unravel individual trajectories of homecoming from distinct tropes of dispersal and dwelling. While in Villamael’s more poetic works these themes emerge from the claiming of a space that is as shifty as sand, Numbenchapol focuses on how displacement breaches borders to motivate a sharper, more self-willed sense of home.