In celebration of International Women’s Day, The Private Museum is proud to present Oh Soon-Hwa: Coastal Regions (Delta). This solo exhibition marks the second showcase of works by Singapore based photographer Oh Soon-Hwa at The Private Museum and a return to her running series exploring the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
The series of photographs is an investigation into the impacts of the recent climate changes affecting the landscape of the coastal regions: An Giang, Kien Giang, Ca Mau, Bac Lieu, Soc Trang, Ben Tre and Can Tho; where drought, salt intrusions, soil erosion and a rise of sea level have been observed. The imagery of changing landscapes and portraits of the people in the community encapsulates the intricacy of the situation in the Delta.
Soon-Hwa’s introspection leaves room to mull over how men’s seemingly altruistic desire to control nature, in a bid to ensure their livelihoods, can be overturned by the unpredictable course of nature; resulting in the communities facing the challenges of an uncertain environmental landscape instead. The resilience of the residents in enduring the shocks and stresses of the changes—both on an individual and state level—are brought to light in her documentation of the transforming land and lives.
Oh Soon-Hwa is a photographer, curator, and lecturer in the photography and digital imaging program at the School of Art, Design & Media (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). She holds an MFA from School of Visual Arts, and a doctorate degree (EdD) from Columbia University in New York. She has participated in nearly 70 exhibitions internationally; to name a few, the Noorderlicht Photo Festival in the Netherlands, the Lucca Photo Festival in Italy, The National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Houston FotoFest.
She is a recipient of Ohio Arts Council Fellowship, Korea Arts Council Fellowship, Aaron Siskind Memorial Scholarship and UNESCO-Aschberg Bursaries. She is also a member of several academic associations and an editorial board member and reviewer for the Photographies Journal, Routledge, United Kingdom.
2004 EdD Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, USA
2002 MFA, School of Visual Arts, New York, USA
1998 MA Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, USA
1996 BFA (Art & Design), Pratt Institute, New York, USA
Selected Solo Exhibitions
2014 Women in Asia, Jeonju International Photo Festival, Korea
2013 Quiet Dream and Steep Price, Alliance Francaise de Singapour, Singapore
2011 Looking East, Lucca Photo Festival, Tuscany, Italy
2010 Photo Space Gallery, National University of Australia, Canberra, Australia
2010 India International Centre, New Delhi, India
2009 Singapore Private Banking Gallery, Alliance Francaise, Singapore
2006 Macy Gallery, Columbia University, New York, USA
2002 New Image Gallery, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA
2001 Visual Arts Gallery, SoHo, New York, USA
Selected Group Exhibitions
2016 Asia Contemporary Photography, Seoul Photo COEX, Seoul, Korea
2016 Eyes on the Main Street, Wilson Outdoor Photo Festival, North Carolina, USA
2016 Asia Contemporary Photography, Lotte Gallery, Daejeon, Korea
2015 Asia Contemporary Photography, COEX P&I PRO, Seoul, Korea
2015 Asia Contemporary Photography, Lotte Gallery, Seoul, Korea
2015 Asia Contemporary Photography, Lotte Gallery, Gwangju, Korea
2014 Gyeongnam International Photo Festival, 315 Art Center, Changwon, Korea
2014 Eyes on the Main Street, Wilson Outdoor Photo Festival, North Carolina, USA
2014 Postmodern Documentary Photography, ADM Gallery, School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
2014 Postmodern Documentary Photography, SYO Gallery, Korea
2014 Postmodern Documentary Photography, East Gallery, Purdue University, USA
2014 Her Image, The Private Museum, Singapore
2012 Returning Exceeding, Pingyao International Photography Festival, China
2011 Pumping Eyes, Goodman Art Center, Singapore
2011 Pingyao International Photography Festival, China
2011 Faculty Exhibition, ADM Gallery, School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological
2011 Angsana (Fringe Event of Art Stage), 2902 Gallery, Singapore
2010 In Transition (Curated by Susan Baik and Adnrew Shire), ION Art Gallery, Singapore
2010 One Exhibition by Phase One Inc. International Photography Festival, ION Art Gallery, Singapore
2010 Forest and People, Annual Festival of Arts, India International Center, New Delhi, India
2010 Women in Asia, 10th International Conference: Women in Asia, Australia National University,
2010 Housing Memories: The Eclipse of a Hainan Tribe, Asian Civilization Museum, Singapore
2010 Housing Memories: The Eclipse of a Hainan Tribe, National Library of Singapore, Singapore
2009 The Pursuit of Happiness, Noorderlicht Photo Festival (Curated by Wim Melis), Former Nature Museum, Groningen, The Netherlands
2009 Portfolio Gallery, Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie, Arles, France
2008 International Juried Travel Exhibition, Calumet Photo Art Gallery, San Francisco, CA, USA,
2008 International Juried Travel Exhibition, Calumet Photo Art Gallery, New York, USA,
2008 International Juried Travel Exhibition, Fotofest in Houston, Texas, USA
2007 International Juried Travel Exhibition, St. Edward’s University Art Gallery, Austin, USA
2007 International Juried Travel Exhibition, The Center for Contemporary Art, Abilene, USA
2007 Pochoen Asia Art Biennale (Curated by Oh Sae-Kwon), BanWol Art Hall, Kyongido, South
2007 6th Sense, UV House, Haeiri Art Village, Kyongido, South Korea
2005 M_A_P (Curated by Romy Achituv), SSAMZI Art Space, Seoul, South Korea
2004 Faculty Show, Invitational, Macy Gallery, Columbia University, New York, USA
2003 Provocations: The 13th Annual Exhibition, Asian American Art Center, New York, USA
2002 Celebrities (Best Shots), Invitational Society or Contemporary Photography, Kansas City, MO, USA
2002 The Gallery at the Dodds Hall, West Haven, CO, USA
2002 Korean Cultural Center: Parallel Connections, Los Angeles, CA, USA
2002 John Kobal Portrait Photography Award Exhibition, Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham,
2001 International Competition, The Robert & Mary Montgomery Armory Art Center, West Palm
2001 Rockaway Artist Alliance, Rockaway Theatre Company, New York
2001 Portraits (Curated by Joyce Culver), Macy Gallery, Teachers College, Columbia University,
New York, USA
2001 The John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award, National Portrait Gallery, London, England
2001 Society for Contemporary Photography, Kansas City, MO, USA
2001 Small Works: 24th National Exhibition, Art Center, Harper College, Palatine, USA
Selected Curatorial Exhibitions
2016 Future Projections (Indian Photo Festival Director), Hyderabad, India
2016 Future Projections, Auckland Festival of Photography, Studio One Top Tu, New Zealand
2014 Unseen Light, The Gallery of Art & Technology Explorations (GATE), NTU Museum,
SPMS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
2014 Her Image, The Private Museum, Singapore
2013 Li Shui Photo Festival, China
2013 Bandung International Photography Festival, Bandung, Indonesia
2013 Pingyao International Photography Festival, China
2013 Korea Photographic Society, Seoul, Korea
2012 Fantastic City and Fantastic People, Pingyao International Photography Festival, China
2011 A Crisis of Confidence (Exhibition for winners of Kwek Len Joo Award of Excellence in Still
Photography 2011), 2902 Gallery, Singapore
2011 NTU ADM Student Show, NTU ADM Student Section, Pingyao International Photography
2011 Artificial Paradise (Exhibition for winners of Kwek Len Joo Award of Excellence in Still
Photography 2010), Singapore Private Banking Gallery, Alliance Francaise, Singapore
2010 Human Faces: Contemporary Portrait Photography from Singapore and South Korea,
Singapore International Photography Festival and Korea Festival, National Museum of
2010 Variegated Realities, Singapore Private Banking Gallery, Alliance Francaise, Singapore
2010 Mind Factory, Jody Monroe Gallery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
2010 Vending Machine, Zoolook Gallery, Soho, New York, USA
Altered Landscapes in the Mekong Delta
By Carla Bianpoen
At a time of profound environmental and social upheaval, climate change has become one of the world’s greatest challenges with extreme weather situations, storms and droughts affecting livelihoods in many parts of the world. Yet for many people climate change has remained a distant concept, and catastrophic happenings remain a distant affair, something that has so far remained outside their personal domain.
Oh Soon-Hwa’s photographs are timely reminders that climate change is actually happening not far from us. In fact, it is a daily reality in the Mekong Delta, which lies in the southern part of Vietnam.
The photographer, with the help of various experts on the challenges faced by the Mekong Delta (i.e., scientists, academics, local government agencies, etc.) and through interviews with locals dependent on the Mekong River for their livelihood, as well as through her exploration of the places; investigates the environmental transformation of the Mekong Delta caused by the climate change, and provides a narrative on its effects on both the landscapes and the people.
The Mekong Delta lies in Southwestern Vietnam. It is the most southern part of the Mekong River, which flows from China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and lastly Vietnam.
In Vietnam, the Mekong Delta has been intensively developed for agriculture, which is a major contributor to the Vietnamese export of rice. After Thailand, Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice in the world. Hence, the impact of climate change in this area does not only affect the residents here but the other countries in the region that are dependent on the agricultural output of the Mekong Delta as well.
Normally, fishing was a major activity of the people during the wet season. During the dry season they would farm rice. But such activities to sustain their livelihoods have changed in the past few years due to changing climate patterns, which impacted the weather, the water and the seas.
Rising seas pushed seawater into the land causing a growing risk to agricultural production. Being a major contributor to Vietnam’s rice export, agricultural produce suffered an enormous backlash when surging sea levels pushed sea water into the land, destroying paddy fields and rice grains that were unable to stand the incoming salinity levels.
As a result, farmers fell into great financial debts. The same can be said of fishery as fish was not salinity resilient and fishermen had to move from fishery to shrimp farming.
Sometimes, even intervention for betterment in the Delta has had a counter effect. That was the case with the hydropower dam construction that was meant to make the Mekong River as the battery of Southeast Asia and to supply the high demands for energy required by the rapidly developing cities such as Bangkok. However, this multi-nations and multi-states project attained a reverse effect.
While during the wet seasons, water was indeed released from the constructed dams in the upper stream, and during the dry season, the dams did contain the water, which generated a shortage in fresh water flowing down to the stream. But unfortunately, the seawater flew backwards to the land and incurred the salinity intrusion, which caused destruction in rice farming and soil erosion. These have transformed the land and have altered the ways people live in the coastal regions.
To overcome the salinity of rice grains, the government had provided genetically developed rice grains that are salinity resilient, and has made other efforts to improve the situation. Yet, during her recent visits along the coastline areas towards the end of 2016, Soon-Hwa found the locals struggling to cope with these changes and trying to find alternative incomes to make ends meet. They were compelled to switch from agriculture to aquaculture.
Also, the water from the river, once the source of people’s drinking water, was not fit to drink anymore and they had to resort to buying potable water, not only for human consumption, but also to feed animal livestock. To buy imported fresh water became a heavy economic burden.
On top of that, less water in the soil has promulgated the growth of insects, supported the spread of pesticides, and increased serious chemical contamination of the soil.
Beyond the appearance of peacefulness, a closer and more detailed examination of Soon-Hwa’s photographic landscapes denote the inter-connection of climate change and social landscape in these areas. The image of a house appearing as if built within the waters, for instance, is actually a house and the land it was built on, drowned by the rising sea. A picture of what appears like a field with agricultural crops actually documents how farmers discharge water and pesticide that were previously used in the fields into rivers and channels, implicating the poisonous impact on birds and animals that take in the chemical substances accumulated in their food chain as the contaminated water reaches other parts of the land.
On a fairly optimistic note, Soon Hwa also shows the tenacious struggle to overcome the perils of climate change. There is the sunshine recorder in Hydro-meteorological station in Chau Doc, An Giang that records the total direct solar radiation by measuring the weight of paper burnt on the blue steel in a day, the tents with apparatus used for recording daily humidity and temperature data, and image of the man at the station exudes patience and resilience as he has been accurately recording the movement of rain, wind, temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity at certain times of the day. These data were needed by the Center that should allow adequate steps to reduce or alter the impact of a changing climate.
Mangrove forests in the Mekong Delta have reportedly decreased by around 80% in the last 60 years. Against this fact, the photographs of the dense mangrove forests stand out; the more so as it has existed for 15 years (according to annotation). Mangroves have a special role to fulfill, as they naturally form important coastal ecotones (a region of transition between two biological communities), occupying the boundary between land and sea, and providing a number of services to coastal ecosystems.
Oh Soon-Hwa’s photography is driven by passion and compassion. Her exploration into the impact of climate change in the Mekong Delta takes its focus on the plight for the lives and livelihoods of the people along the coastal areas of the Mekong. In this, her third eye—the camera—has allowed her to clearly ‘see’ beyond the vision of the natural eye.
*) Carla Bianpoen is an international arts journalist based in Jakarta. She was the Senior Editor of the international C-Arts Magazine, as well as Artistic Director and Co-Curator for the Indonesia Pavilion in the Venice Biennale Arte, in 2013 and 2015. She is a juror for the Bandung Contemporary Art Awards, and for the 2016 Akademi Jakarta Award.
Oh Soon-Hwa, produced by Asia 361, April 2017
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