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The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art @ QAGOMA, Statement

For the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial (APT 9), I created a body of work which was exhibited in the fifty feet long foyer space at the Gallery of Modern Art's entrance in Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia. The work is created in porcelain using imagery from the Buddhist tradition, spiritual and supernatural landscapes from Myanmar. Miniatures cast of Buddhist shrines, pagodas and Chinese virgins dotted the cabinet space, interspersed by meandering of self-referential objects such as porcelain serpents and a woman morphing into the botanics.

In my work, I explore different ways of expressing my experience of alienation, confusion and pain as a cultural outsider by creating narrative spaces that explore the lines between insides and outsides. I create work that is symbolic of the self. I instill the metaphorical sculptural self with a sense of organicity and intricacy by gesturing the bodily- the viscera and skeletal, morphing into the botanical to express the vitality, delicacy, and injury of the spirit inhabiting and animating the forms.

My interest in the snake began during my graduate studies at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). At RISD, I explored imageries for metaphors and symbols in narrating my alienation and anxiety as a cultural outsider. I developed a series of specimen pieces, in one of which I adopted a snake, my Chinese zodiac animal, as a self image to explore and express notions of interiority and self as a woman. Through the depiction of a wounded and dissected body of a snake, I disclose my inner conflicts and psychological wounds.

As a third generation Chinese immigrant in Myanmar, I seek inspirations from cultural practices of ethnic Chinese and the local Burmese. Local animistic beliefs, folklores and mythologies inspire the imagery in my work. In search of autobiographical symbols, I decided to incorporate floral imagery in the work in reference to my names. My thoughts went back to an anecdote of name change in my Chinese pet name. During a visit to my grandmother’s house in my father’s hometown, Lashio, Shan State. Possibly due to disorientation and anxiety in a new and strange place, I began singing in the midst of night in bed to comfort myself. My superstitious relatives advised my mother that I could be possessed by spirits and claimed that I have to change my name to reposition my luck. So the next day, they casted oracles to determine my new name. This resulted in a new name with an odd combination of words, Tree(樹) Flower(花). The word tree was decided in reference to one of my three god mothers, which was a flowering tree in my grandmother’s house. I was decided to have three god mothers (a tree and a well in my grandmother’s house and a woman who is my mother’s friend) after my father’s visit to a shaman whose advice my father heeded. My Burmese name was decided after sending my birth information to a Burmese astrologer. The meaning of the names is Soe (to rule), Yu (tender) and Nwe (vine).

I therefore find naming system in Burmese and Chinese culture very interesting. A name is a set of words in which a person is known and therefore a crucial part of one’s identity. How beliefs, thought system, culture is woven into this signifier of oneself is fascinating to me. I therefore became engrossed in the religious, spiritual and supernatural imagery and the role they play in shaping an individual or a society as a whole. In my work, I weave together these thoughts and fascination in my visual vocabulary as I began to define myself and depict my place in the world.

Due to my interest in the supernatural, local animistic beliefs, and folklores, mythology is also a source of inspiration. I am particularly interested in the female figures in Buddhist mythologies. In three sculptures shown at APT9, I explored creating hybrid bodies using imagery of Naga Mae Daw, a dragon queen in Buddha’s birth stories, Jataka Tales. I reconfigured the Burmese serpentine icon by hybridizing her with Chinese goddess, Nuwa a part human part snake mother goddess of Chinese mythology, of whom we are all descendent of. As I reconfigured these symbols and icons, I reflect upon my otherness through making- conceiving the self as a fluid, fragile and fragmented entity. Through transfiguration of my emotional landscape by poetically depicting nature and body in parts, I ponder the complexities of individual identity in globalized society.

Photo credit: QAGOMA photographer Natasha Harth

Selected pieces on view during APT 9

Check out my page on QAGOMA website:

Many thanks to the QAGOMA team for installing the work. Behind the scene shots taken by curator Tarun Nagesh:

Follow my instagram @soeyunwe

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