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Research Fellow

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Dr Roger Nelson

Biography

Roger Nelson received his PhD from the University of Melbourne in 2017, with his thesis titled “Modernity and Contemporaneity in ‘Cambodian Arts’ After Independence.” His research approaches modern and contemporary arts of Southeast Asia from interdisciplinary perspectives, grounded in the historical, and with a particular focus on Cambodia and Laos as points of intersection. Roger is co-founding co-editor of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal published by NUS Press at the National University of Singapore. He is co-convenor of Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories, an international symposium at the University of Sydney, held in October 2017. From 2015-16, he was a participating scholar in Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, a cross-regional research initiative funded by the Getty Foundation’s “Connection Art Histories” program. Roger also works as an independent curator, specialized in contemporary art in Southeast Asia. He has organized exhibitions, lectures, and other curatorial projects in Australia, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, including most recently People, Money Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor) at the Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok, 2017. 

Fellowship commenced in September 2017.  

Research focus

Roger Nelson's research is on modern and contemporary art in Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on trans-media intersections between visual and other forms of art, as well as with urban spaces and other texts. The role of women in discourses of the modern and the contemporary is a recurring concern in his research, which is mostly concentrated on Cambodia, Laos, and other areas of peninsular Southeast Asia. Interested in historiographies of art in Southeast Asia, Nelson recently published a major research report on terminologies of “modern” and “contemporary” “art” in nine Southeast Asian vernacular languages, co-authored with ten other contributors, all based in the region, and published in Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia. Also historiographical in nature, Nelson recently completed a journal article on recent independent curatorial initiatives in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, which is currently under peer review; in that essay, he argues that independent curatorial research and practice performs art historical functions in these contexts. Nelson's translation of a 1961 Khmer nationalist novel by Suon Sorin, titled A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land, is forthcoming with NUS Press; in his introduction to that publication, he argues for the value of the literary text as a resource for art historical and other forms of research. He is a participating scholar in a two-year Getty Foundation-funded project titled “Site and Space in Southeast Asia.” There, Nelson's research focuses on downtown Rangoon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, considering the dynamic relationships between painting, photography, sex work, and discourses about women in the booming and cosmopolitan Burmese port city. Also relating to discourses about women, gender, and feminisms, Nelson is co-editor with Yvonne Low and Clare Veal of a forthcoming special issue of Southeast of Now, and co-convenor with them of international research gatherings on gender in Southeast Asian art histories. 

Public programmes

And in the Chapel and in the Temples:
Buddhist Archive of Photography.
Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho.
1 Dec 2018, Sat - 10 Feb 2019, Sun

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How are facets of Southeast Asian modern art imaginatively engaged in contemporary practices—by artists, by archivists, and by others? This presentation highlights two ongoing research projects, which draw on histories of modern art in this region with radically unlike methodologies: one is archival, yet innovative and unconventional in nature; the other is artistic, yet includes work from archives and involves other kinds of looking. The experimental curatorial juxtaposition of the two projects asks what resonances between them might surface, which may suggest unexpected connections across the region, and across times. Among these surprising synergies are the presences of spirituality and the Cold War, and the refiguring of past forms within differing developments of the modern.


The Buddhist Archive of Photography
in Luang Prabang, Laos, has gathered over 35,000 photographs either taken or collected by monks since 1890. The photographs have recently been digitised and catalogued, using innovative methodologies attentive to climatic, cultural, and religious circumstances: this Archive is a fascinating instance of specifically 21st-century contemporary practice, as much as it is a unique collection of 19th- and 20th-century modern photographs. This is the first time that images from the Buddhist Archive of Photography have been publicly presented in Asia, outside of Luang Prabang. A series of bilingual English and Lao research volumes have also been published.

Within this vast repository of images, several tropes and questions recur. What is photography’s relationship to anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anatta (non-self), the three marks of existence in Buddhist thought? What role did Buddhists and photographers play in the Southeast Asian theatre of the global Cold War? And what are the limits of architectural modernity? These questions are posed in three bodies of photographs selected for this presentation. The first is a series of portraits of the late Most Venerable Pha Khamchan Virachitta Maha Thera (1920–2007), co-founder of the Buddhist Archive, taken every year from the age of seven until his death. The second selection comprises photographs taken or collected by another senior photographer-monk, the late Pha Khamfan Silasangvaro (1901–1987), who in addition to chronicling rarely seen aspects of Buddhist life, such as women’s meditation retreats, also gathered images protesting the effects of civil war in Laos from 1959 to 1975. The third selection of images depicts the 1950s modernising renovations of Wat Saen Soukharam temple, under the direction of the late Most Venerable Pha Khamchan. These photographs, and the publications which accompany them, reward historical, spiritual, aesthetic, and other modes of attention and analysis.

 

Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho (Philippines/United States/Germany) are collaborating contemporary artists, whose practice often draws on translocational formations of culture and discourse. Within this roving sensibility and method, Lien and Camacho often engage with Philippine histories and contemporary circumstances. This presentation includes works-in-progress and materials relating to the artists’ ongoing research on the Filipino-American modernist painter, Alfonso Ossorio (1916–1990), focused on his 1950 mural, commonly called the “Angry Christ,” painted in a modern chapel located alongside a sugar refinery owned by the artist’s wealthy family, in Victorias, Negros Occidental, the Philippines. It is the first time that work relating to Lien and Camacho’s ongoing research on Ossorio has been publicly presented.

Born in the Philippines, Ossorio left when only eight years old, and his visit to begin work on the “Angry Christ” mural was his very first return to the Philippines since then. In the intervening decades, Ossorio had eventually settled in New York, where he held his first exhibition at Betty Parsons’ celebrated Wakefield Gallery in 1941. He became close to with Jackson Pollock and other artists associated with Abstract Expressionism, a movement which was ideologically charged during the Cold War, due to its covert promotion by the United States. Ossorio described his “Angry Christ” mural as an “animated space,” explaining in a 1980 interview that he had attempted to “put as rich an iconography for those who knew and for those who didn’t know… The mural comes to life.” For Lien and Camacho, Ossorio’s mural is a “multivalent cipher,” linked not only to its religious function but also to its economic and environmental context, being located in Negros Occidental, the “sugar bowl of the Philippines,” which produces over half of the nation’s sugar. Lien and Camacho question whether the “Angry Christ” can be “radically reprogrammed” from the specific and highly privileged subjectivity of Ossorio, its maker, and the Ossorio family’s sugar dynasty, its commissioning patron. As well as making repeat visits to the chapel and Victorias over several years, Lien and Camacho have also conducted archival research in Ossorio’s alma mater, Harvard University, and at the Ossorio Foundation, New York. The artists are presenting fragmented glimpses of their research material and work-in-progress.

 

And in the Chapel and in the Temples: Buddhist Archive of Photography. Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho. is organised by Dr Roger Nelson (Australia/Singapore), an art historian and curator specialised in modern and contemporary art in Southeast Asia, and currently Postdoctoral Fellow at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The presentation draws on Nelson’s ongoing art historical archival research in the Buddhist Archive and his ongoing curatorial dialogue with Lien and Camacho.

Image credit: (Top) Pha Oun Heuan Hasapanyo, main sim hall at Vat Nong Si Khun Meuang, Luang Prabang, 1950s. Hand-coloured silver gelatine DOP. Courtesy Buddhist Archive of Photography. (Bottom) Interior of St Joseph the Worker Chapel, Victorias, Philippines, 2017. Courtesy Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho.