Surface Handling explores race and culture from the outside in

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Brendan Lee Satish Tang: Manga Ormolu Ver 4.0-z (2015). Photo: Suzanne Ward, courtesy of the artist.

Diyan Achjadi & Brendan Lee Satish Tang: Surface Handling
Dunlop Gallery

Until May 19

Diyan Achjadi, a printmaker, and Brendan Lee Satish Tang, a ceramist, both have independent work in Surface Handling — the current Dunlop Art Gallery exhibition — but they also have a collaborative piece that’s pretty interesting. It was made during a 2015 residency at Malaspina Printmakers in their home town of Vancouver, and it’s in a different medium — photography — than the show’s other work. But it’s very much in keeping with the exhibition’s theme.

We’ll get to that work in a bit. Suffice to say it fits in nicely with the show’s title, which — as curator Wendy Peart explains in her brochure essay — refers to how an artist/craftsperson develops their artwork’s exterior surface.

But there’s a lot going on beneath the surface — and it all starts with the personal backgrounds of the two artists.

Dublin & Jakarta

Tang was born in Dublin, Ireland to Trinidadian parents of Chinese and Indian descent, and his art career has seen him live and study in several locations in Canada and the United States. Considering the mix of cultures and traditions he embodies, it’s probably not surprising his approach to art-making is fluid.

That starts with his medium: clay. Because of its association with pottery, clay is sometimes looked down upon in the art world. Even today, there’s probably places where it carries a stigma. But Saskatchewan was one of the leaders in recognizing ceramics as an art discipline, so Tang, who uses clay in a surreal and decidedly non-functional way, is right at home at the Dunlop.

Three works are from his Manga Ormolu series. It’s an acclaimed series that earned Tang consideration for the 2017 Lowe Craft Prize. Lowe (pronounced Lowee) is a high-end Spanish fashion brand, and out of 4,000 submissions from around the world, Tang was one of 26 artists chosen for a Madrid showcase that later travelled to New York and London.

Tang’s primary influences in the series are Chinese Ming and Qing Dynasty porcelain wares and the 18th century French decorative practice of ormolu or gold gilding. A third influence is name-checked in the title, “Manga”.

As most people probably know, manga is a style of Japanese comic that has since become popular worldwide. Superheroes, fantasy and sci-fi tech are big in manga, and Tang incorporates that sensibility into his sculptures. Consistent with the Ming and Qing references, there are vessel forms, but there are also embedded electronics and other mechanical elements that inspire thoughts of rocket ships and alien/cyborg lifeforms.

Achjadi’s background isn’t quite as exotic as Tang’s, but it’s close. She was born in Jakarta, Indonesia to a West Javanese father and English-Canadian mother. Before moving to Vancouver, she’d spent time, both as a child with her family, and as an art student, in London, Washington, New York and Montreal.

Like Tang, Achjadi’s medium reflects her fluidity as an artist. Printmaker might be her official title, but she references decorative art practices such as Javanese batik, Victorian-era patterned wallpaper, 19th century European porcelain candelabras and more.

That’s most evident in Java Toile, which consists of alternating sections of khaki green and magenta patterned Tyvek hung to resemble wallpaper. The Tyvek contains decorative images drawn from the aforementioned candelabras, which depict European women sitting astride an exotic menagerie of animals (both living and dead). A tiger, elephant, and what looks like a tapir are three of the animals represented.

You could chalk the images up to Victorian whimsy, but in Achjadi’s hands there’s a deeper meaning tied to colonial history when European powers plundered vast areas of Africa and Asia. Part of that plundering involved extreme mistreatment of local inhabitants, along with rapacious resource extraction with zero regard for the environment. Hence, the dead and otherwise subjugated animals.

Teaming Up

I started this article with a mention of Achjadi and Tang’s collaborative work from a 2015 residency. Using 3-D printing, the pair made domino-sized printing plates which they then pressed, with a leather belt, into the skin of close relatives to leave temporary marks that they then photographed.

The plates contain traditional Asian patterns/images that reflect their cultural backgrounds, while their use of skin as a print surface recalls tattooing and other forms of tribal and contemporary body modification.

Given the volatile political age we live in, the mixed heritage of the two artists make issues of race and ethnicity hard to ignore. Biologically, people who lived in different geographic and climate regions, over time, naturally developed a degree of consistency in skin pigmentation and other aspects of their genetic make-up.

But “race” is a much more complex construct than that, and the legacy of the discrimination and oppression that racism spawned is undeniably tragic. Through Tang and Achjadi’s hybrid artistic influences and collaboration, their work serves as an example of the global culture we’re moving towards.

It’s a culture where we celebrate difference, but also our common humanity — which is something Achjadi and Tang express very poignantly in the photographs which depict the debossed skin of their relatives in intimate detail.