Sawangwongse Yawnghwe

58 White Street
September 10–October 23, 2021


Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, Louisa Benson II, 2021, oil and acrylic on linen, 23 x 23".
Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, Louisa Benson II, 2021, oil and acrylic on linen, 23 x 23″.

Hanging on a clothesline at the entrance to Sawangwongse Yawnghwe’s exhibition at Jane Lombard Gallery, “Cappuccino in Exile,” is a work made up of unstructured, sarong-like garments, or lungis, that are richly patterned with zigzags, stripes, florals, and diamond shapes. The wraps are not only fashion staples for the women of Myanmar, but they are also supernatural objects. Because a lungi covers the lower half of a woman’s body, it is believed that it can drain a man of his strength if he gets too close to one. Reeling from the country’s military coup that took place in February of this year, Myanmar women have been hanging lungis at the front lines of battle as an ingenious form of protest and defense. Such tactics have stirred apprehension among the junta and stalled military offensives against demonstrators.

Also in the show are several canvases, including the oil-and-acrylic Louisa Benson II (all works 2021), a portrait of the titular, two-time beauty pageant winner and Burmese political revolutionary who went into battle to defend the country’s displaced Karen people during the 1960s (Benson, who died in 2010, was half Karen and half Jewish). The painting is cleaved into a pair of vertical panels: The smaller one features a grisaille, full-body depiction of the war hero, while the other, larger section offers up a series of chevrons rendered in red, white, and blue. A closer look, however, reveals faint traces of an overarching grid, drawn with pen, that loosely binds the two parts into the same pictorial plane. The geometric abstraction on the right side, with its attendant flatness, appears to encroach upon Benson’s three-dimensionality. Yet a faint smudge of yellow on her left shoulder hints at a spectral presence. The mysterious mark, like a stubborn inchoate memory, refuses to fade into nothingness.

— Eric Goh

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