Local perspectives on sugar’s story
Neo-colonialism is probably the key word for Akiq AW, the exhibition curator appointed by the Langgeng Art Foundation (LAF), to read and present a complete framework for the photography project “The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar”.
The show itself was initiated by Noorderlicht, known to consistently hold photography exhibitions in the Netherlands. As the exhibition’s title implies, the project is a photographic investigation into globalization through the first commodity ever traded across continents: sugar.
The exhibition at LAF’s two main galleries in Yogyakarta that opened on Nov. 9 and runs to Jan. 20, 2013, comprises the works of six photographers commissioned by Noorderlicht to record the current condition of the sugar industry along with hundreds of colonial-era photographs compiled from various archives in Europe.
As the initiator, Noorderlicht provided artistic material for the exhibition and collaborated with local partners in Suriname, Indonesia and Brazil to exhibit the project in their respective countries.
What is interesting is that Noorderlicht treats the project as open source. That is, all local partners and curators are free to use all materials to create an exhibition, even to give the photographs new contexts and paradigms considered to be the most appropriate to the local situation.
For the exhibition in Yogyakarta, Akiq collaborated with colleagues Angki Purbandono and Wimo Ambala Bayang, both members of an artist’s collective that promotes contemporary photography known as MES56.
Keen observation and wide experience in organizing exhibitions are evident in their decision to divide the whole project into two big sections: the new photography assignments and the old, colonial photography. The division is considered a way to focus the audience and allow them to compare photographs and the ways they were taken. It also serves as a way to present the point that Western photographers nowadays have the tendency to perceive locals as mere objects, and in this sense, are no different than their colonial predecessors — which then becomes merely the neo-colonial gaze.
They frame the exhibition into an act of seeing and being seen, and how there will always be an unbalanced presentation between the two. It is about how in the colonial photographs, audiences can see a very distinct social structure between the colonizers and the colonized, or the West and the East.
“And a similar presentation was still felt in the photographs taken by these six photographers,” said Akiq. And so, he argued, “This is not just about photography, but also how Westerners perceive us.”
This idea does not come from thin air. Besides observing and studying the materials provided by Noorderlicht, they voiced their objections about the lack of local photographers commissioned to partake in the project to document the condition of the sugar industry from a local perspective. “There was a lack of proximity between the photographers and the issues they explored,” said Akiq.
On the second floor gallery, visitors were presented with newly commissioned works by James Whitlow Delano (Japan/US), Alejandro Chaskielberg (Argentina), Ed Kashi (US), Francesco Zizola (Italy), Carl de Keyzer (Belgium) and Tomasz Tomaszewski (Poland).
The photographers recorded social realities and various elements of the sugar industry in the present, including the current state of factories, the life of immigrants and workers with the market changing so much, and also the story of how the sugar industry has become a part of the cultural heritage in the form of consumption and rituals.
These photographs are then given four main contexts by the exhibition curators. One hundred and eighty of 300 photos are represented in the form of an index accompanied by text, allowing each photograph to tell a different and specific story.
The first context shows the legacy of the sugar industry in the colonial era. It consist of photographs by Chaskielberg showing the remaining sugar factories in Suriname, places that once thrived and generated a lot of income and are now overgrown with weeds. The living situation of the descendants of sugar factory workers was documented by Delano. His pictures show descendants from Java, India, Africa and China: the four major population groups in Suriname.
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