On Thursday, February 7, dozens of students and community members crowded together in the VCAM’s Lower Create Space. They were there to attend the opening of “Your Special Island,” an exhibit featuring the works of Andrea Chung, Rachelle Dang, and Ming Wong. At five in the evening, the wall partition slid open, allowing visitors in for the first time. The exhibit was curated by Courtney Lynne Carter, the Post-Baccalaureate Fellow for the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities, and Maya Berrol-Young, a Fulbright scholar and Bryn Mawr alumna.
“Your Special Island” featured work that explores and deconstructs the imagined reality of the tropical island. The “tropical imaginary” is a set of tropes and fantasies that began during the period of settler colonialism and imperial occupation and that still makes itself felt in popular culture and Western-oriented tourism. The tropics are rendered intriguing and dangerous, unspoiled but impoverished—and these are the paradoxes of understanding that were interpreted in the work of the exhibition’s artists. Collages, performance, and reuse of historical material were employed variously in the art on display in order to reveal the artificial nature of the view of the tropics expressed in the entertainment and resort tourism that caters to audiences who still benefit from histories of colonization. Before the curators took to the floor, some time was given for the audience to take in the exhibition, and its supporting materials about the context and inspirations of the art.
Carter and Berrol-Young discussed the inspirations and intentions of “Your Special Island” in a brief curator talk. They also relayed how the three installation pieces featured in the exhibit had been adapted to the smaller floor volume offered in the Create Space, including changing the layout of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique by Rachelle Dang, and setting up a multimedia display for Ming Wong’s performance piece Bloody Marys – Song of the South Seas that contextualized the performance amidst original material for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, the musical Wong draws from and complicates.
Courtney Carter visited Maya Berrol-Young in Singapore, and when they met they first had the inspiration for “Your Special Island.” Carter spent nine months living and working in Singapore as a Dean’s Fellow at Yale-NUS College. At the same time Berrol-Young was a Fulbright scholar in Thailand, helping to teach English. The inspiration for “Your Special Island” emerged from Carter’s experience volunteering with Oh! Open House, an arts nonprofit that invites Southeast Asian artists to explore colonial histories.
Also present at the opening talk and reception was Rachelle Dang, one of the featured artists. Dang talked about her inspirations behind Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, ranging from botanical history to forced migrations. She discussed how her piece complements the other artworks present in “Your Special Island,” and how each of them offers a corrupted pastiche of colonial art and imagery, both a performance and critique of the originals. Expressing her excitement to be there, Dang offered some brief stories about how she gathered the inspirations and components for Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique including iPhone footage of a painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and casts of actual decaying fruit she found. The installation places a replica of an eighteenth century shipping container amidst ceramic sculptures of rotting breadfruit, a key product of many colonial economies, all set against a patchwork copy of a French wallpaper that depicts a fictionalized idea of colonial subjects in the tropics.
Along with Dang’s piece, visitors to “Your Special Island” could see Andrea Chung’s series of prints titled Thongs: Experience the Luxury Included, minimalist works dominated by negative spaces where locals and resort workers have been cut out of archival images of enslaved peoples in the Caribbean, superimposed with slogans and promotional materials from Caribbean tourist resorts. Across from Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique was Ming Wong’s Bloody Marys – Song of the South Seas, a looping video collage that cut erratically between dozens of performances of a single character in one scene from the musical South Pacific, along with Wong’s own embodiment of the same character. Around the video recording are stage booklets and programs from performances over the years, echoing the disconcertingly single yet disparate focus of the piece.
Written by Colin Battis ’21. Edited by Eleanor Morgan ’20.
Photos by Lexie Iglesia ’21.