Crush the Gift Shop

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A few years ago I visited the Singapore National Gallery. The collection was curated to display the distinctiveness of Southeast Asian art. The artwork presented was non-traditional/ non-tribal and showcased works that were influenced by western art. The Singapore National Gallery itself is an incredible building that fuses the old colonial courthouses with steel and glass lattice. The galleries grow on top of the old building as if to say: ‘ -people were colonized here- like actually in this very building… It was a tough time but we’re going to grow on top of all this. AND we’re going to display our own fine art done in the western tradition in this new building.’ As a person with some connection to Southeast Asia I was inspired to the point of tears at times walking through the galleries. I crushed (purchased many things at) the gift shop on my way out, and furiously plotted my future move to Singapore or the opening of my Modern Art Academy / Orphanage in the slums of any Southeast Asian country

Later that evening, in relating my adventures to my Caucasian, Vancouver transplant-now–local Singaporean friend of many years- a strange feeling hit me: I was born into the JV team of fine art. Could it be that any attempt to produce western art by the colonized is entirely derivative of the works of their western masters?

What could possibly leave me with this bad taste in my mouth?

I’m a Canadian first and a Filipino by blood. I have been carrying a conflict about my identity for a long time and encountered many people on this same, non-linear journey along the way. There is a lingering feeling of incompetence that comes with being a subjugated ethnicity. No matter how pretty your new art gallery is: the story of your people is one of ‘development’- an incomplete work in progress as it fumbles around trying to figure out the controls on running a ‘civilized society’.

In reading Lewis and Skawennati’s 2005 “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace” I found myself cheering along with every point of their manifesto to re-form their Aboriginal identities. I am inspired by their pro-active approach to community building using technology and the implementation of strategies that were used against them in the swindling of their land. “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace” is an incredible and valiant effort to invent a new context in cyberspace for Aboriginal people. Building on the remains of a colonial past to display efforts at westernized legitimacy is not far enough removed to avoid the feeling of patronization that comes with the loss of identity and its shallow processing or even outright denial.

The loss of culture that comes with colonization doesn’t have to happen again. I hope that Lewis and Skawennati’s efforts may even in some way reverse what crimes have been committed against Aboriginal people. I hope these traumas somehow make their people stronger in these new worlds they’re creating. By referencing a culture’s westernized legitimacy, that culture may be surrendering itself- it’s better to start again and reframe the narrative. The alternative is having their future generations too easily impress themselves about the quality of their oil paintings or the relevance of their rap music. The celebration of the ability to produce work derived from those of the colonizing culture might be shallow and short-lived; just as I was too easily inspired by my museum visit and gift shop purchases in Singapore.

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Lewis, Jason, and Skawennati Tricia Fragnito. 2005. “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 29 (2): 29.

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