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The Secret South explores Taiwan’s connection with the Global South

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Ishihara Shisan, Japan, Refugees in Tarla, 1943, gouache on paper, 178 × 75.7 cm (×2),
Taipei Fine Arts Museum Collection

By Leo Maliksi
The United Nations and the World Bank now use the term “Global South” to refer to the developing countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands.
“Global South” was first used in 1969 by American political activist Carl Preston Oglesby and has gained popularity as an alternative to the term “Third World,” which arose during the Cold War. The Third World included countries that remained unaligned with either NATO or the Warsaw Pact. The United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Western European nations and their allies comprised the First World.
“The Secret South: From Cold War Perspective to Global South in Museum Collection,” an exhibition that opened on July 25 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) explores the relationship between Taiwan and some countries of the Global South.
“Taiwan is in the Northern Hemisphere, but lies on the border with the South,” said TFAM Director Ping Lin. “This exhibition explores the ambiguity of this location and expresses that ‘the South’ is a concept that is continually changing.”
“It’s not simply a geographical location or a spatial dimension, but implies a certain value and charm.” Charm often defies definition. It is a quality that can be described as mysterious, secret.

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Photo by LRM
Director Ping Lin, right, the exhibition’s chief curator, invited Nobuo Takamori (高森信男), left, to act as guest curator.

For Director Lin, “the South” also symbolizes the “dark place” of the museum, a section where exhibitions that differ from the usual or mainstream exhibitions are held. “This exhibition also alludes to Taiwan’s ambiguous position in the world,” said Lin. “It has thus become the curatorial plan for an exhibition that also portrays Taiwan’s economy, culture, and society.”
During the Japanese colonial era, Taiwan was brought into the system of what is now known as the Global South. The Japanese used Taiwan as a base for its southward expansion, and Taiwan became the center of Japanese academic research on a wide range of subjects relating to Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
After the Second World War, Taiwan was swept into the Cold War between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party, and during this period the February 28 Incident took place in 1947 and the Kuomintang government retreated to the island in 1949. The 1950s was Taiwan’s “closed-door” period, meaning it was difficult to leave the country for travel. 
However, artists such as Kuo Hsueh Hu, Yang San Lang, and Ma Pai Shui went on business trips to Southeast Asia, and when they returned they brought with them the idea that strengthening ties with anti-communist countries in Southeast Asia meant that the Taiwanese needed to have cultural exchange with Southeast Asia’s ethnic Chinese communities.

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Liu Max C.W., Taiwan, The Medical Ship Anchored in the Mekong River, 1967, watercolor on paper, 24 ×31 cm, Taipei Fine Arts Museum Collection
While the Vietnam War raged in the sixties, Liu Max C.W. was working as a civil engineer for Vietnamese anti-communist forces. His art works provided the Taiwanese with images of the conflict and his “Indochina Peninsula Series” instilled a long-term interest in the South among Taiwanese people.
However, the sixties also brought a gradual decrease in cultural exchange with Southeast Asia’s ethnic Chinese communities. Taiwan then began to focus on Latin America, Africa, and Oceania. Today, nearly all the countries that maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan belong to the Global South. 
Countless Cooperative Ventures
Director Lin, the exhibition’s chief curator, invited Nobuo Takamori (高森信男) to act as guest curator. A Taiwanese curator of Japanese descent, Takamori’s curatorial work focuses on cultural, historical, and interdisciplinary experiences through contemporary art.
His work highlights how the totality of Asian culture is reflected in cross-border artistic cooperation. Appointed by the National Culture & Arts Foundation to the position of researcher at ARTWAVE, Taiwan International Arts Network, Takamori works to strengthen networking between Taiwanese and international artists.
“I used to think that Taiwan’s interaction with the Global South was something from the Qing Dynasty,” said Takamori during the opening press conference. “But my recent research has revealed that this is inaccurate: since the end of the Second World War, Taiwanese and Southeast Asian artists have made countless cooperative ventures.”
From 2015 to 2016, Takamori was a member of the Ministry of Culture’s Southeast Asian Affairs committee. He has curated international exhibitions in Taiwan, Vietnam, Germany, Mongolia, Thailand and Mexico. He also writes for several national and international art magazines and journals.
Domestic artists develop a new narrative of Taiwan

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Yao Jui-Chung & Hank Cheng, Taiwan, Chinese Pagoda (Domaine Agro - Industriel Présidentiel de la N’Sele), 2020, mixed media, 45 × 45 × 26 cm. Courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

For this exhibition, TFAM will showcase its collection of paintings that portray conditions in Taiwan and around the world during the Second World War. Refugees in Tarla, painted by Ishihara Shisan in 1943, shows refugees taking a rest surrounded by common tropical plants such as cacao trees and hibiscus flowers. It is an idyllic scene far removed from the field of battle.
Some of the paintings on display were acquired by TFAM during artistic exchanges with Taiwan’s Latin American allies from 1985 to 2008; others were acquired through the Taipei Biennial, which TFAM has organized since 1998. Several of the paintings belong to the National Museum of History and were acquired during exhibitions or other artistic exchanges with well-known Southeast Asian artists: among them, Ang Kiukok of the Philippines and Cheong Soo Pieng, Liu Kang, and Chen Wen His of Singapore. The TFAM exhibition marks the first time these paintings have been on public display.
The works by contemporary Taiwanese artists develop a new narrative for Taiwan in the history of the art of the Global South. In I-DEN-TI-TY (1996, 2020), artist Mei Dean E made gold plates or pennants for all countries that formed or broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan, continuing up until very recently.
In his video Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau (2015), Hsu Chia Wei asked veterans of Thailand’s Intelligence Bureau to act out the Thai fable of “Hanuman the Monkey” to depict the intelligence network the KMT left behind in northern Thailand.
The painting Chinese Pagoda by Taiwan’s Yao Jui Chung combines the image of what looks like a miniature pagoda with a small camera screenshot of men celebrating a national event. Malaysian Au Sow Yee’s video and sound installation Kris Project+: Polaris, Southern Stars and the Darken Bats, 2020 is a photographic still of a costume party where some people are dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, and others in contemporary western attire. Both works point to the passage of time and the changes it brings.
Historical documents on exhibition

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Su Yu Hsien, Taiwan, Life for the People of the Sea, 2011 , Single Channel Video, 6'01".
Courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Visual works such as paintings and audiovisual installations are sometimes the best way to convey an idea, but documents serve to articulate ideas, enabling audiences and readers to internalize what images seek to convey.
The historical documents on display in this exhibition further define Taiwan’s relationship with the Global South. The research findings of Singaporean artist/researcher Koh Nguang How, independent curator Chen Hsiang Wen, independent researcher Huang Yi Hsiung, and Rikey Tenn Bun Ki, director of the National Measurement Laboratory’s (NML) Residency & Nusantara Archive Project, explain the diverse forms of artistic and literary interaction between Taiwan and the South.
The final theme of this exhibition is “The Local South.” It is intended to connect the exhibition with contemporary Taiwanese society and show how, despite the recent increase in artistic and cultural exchange between Taiwan and the Global South, Taiwan has inherited the legacy of the Cold War. The future remains uncertain, but the aspirations of Taiwanese people today remain largely unspoken, secret.