A photography exhibition by Swiss photographer Beat Presser opening tonight at Meta House charts the course of human migration thousands of years ago from Indonesia across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar.
The Sea of the Ancestors is Presser’s third exhibition in Cambodia, and marks the first time the photos will be shown outside of Indonesia. It was last on display at the high-profile Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in October.
Composed of black-and-white film photographs taken over 35 years in Indonesia, Madagascar and East Africa, The Sea of the Ancestors features portraits and photographs of boats on land and sea.
Focusing on relatives long separated by a huge expanse of ocean, it inverts any historically linear focus usually associated with documentary photography.
“The theme of the exhibition – the story you can’t see – is how people have travelled 2,000 years ago, from part of Indonesia … all the way down to Madagascar, which is half way around the world,” he explained yesterday as he set up.
Extensive DNA testing and language studies have pointed strongly to the inhabitants of Madagascar originally coming from Indonesia.
“We can only suggest how people got there. It’s kind of like a fairy tale,” Presser said.
Presser himself is a frequent migrant. Last year he released a book, Surabaya Beat, which came out of his travels around the Indonesia archipelago over the course of a couple of years – and on 30 or 40 different boats of various shapes and sizes.
“I did like a hitchhiking trip from harbour to harbour . . . I would sit at the harbor, look and see who could be taking me along, and travel to the next place,” he said.
This type of adventure is often at the centre of his work, “to bring things closer to people who will not have the time to do such things”, he said.
While technically based in Berlin, Presser travels to Southeast Asia each year to teach. This year, he’s on an extended tour.
The exhibition will next head back to another Indonesian literature festival – this time in Makassar, Sulawesi – but Presser has a soft spot for the Kingdom.
“This is the best city in Asia,” he said.The Sea of the Ancestors opens tonight at 6pm and runs through January 24 at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard.