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Artist and Empire: British Legacy in Singapore

Rattana Lao

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Mr Low Sze Wee, Director, Curatorial, Collections & Education, National Gallery Singapore, shared with Rattana Lao (Modern Diplomacy) on the origin, expectation and reception of the Artist and Empire: (en) countering colonial legacy exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore.

Can you tell us about the rationale of Artist and Empire? Why do you bring all of these pieces to Singapore? What’s the meaning behind hosting such exhibition?

The complex and contested nature of the British Empire was reflected in the considerable public attention drawn by Tate Britain when it held the Artist and Empire exhibition in London in 2015. This was the first time in the United Kingdom that an exhibition had been mounted to examine the topic of Empire through the lens of art. Whilst some applauded Tate for tackling a sensitive topic, others criticised the show for not sufficiently highlighting the exploitative excesses of colonialism.

In deciding to hold the Artist and Empire exhibition in Singapore in 2016, the National Gallery Singapore was drawn to the show’s potential resonance with its audiences, given Singapore’s history as a former British colony. Our curatorial team adopted a different approach for Singapore. Using Tate’s main exhibition themes as a point of departure, we examined the topic from the perspective of the former colonies, particularly from the Asia-Pacific region.

The first aspect of our show examines key types of artworks created at the height of the Empire. Produced mainly by British artists or for British patrons, artworks like history paintings, and formal portraits helped justify imperialism and colonial expansion. Other artworks such as botanical or ethnographic paintings, were part of colonial endeavours to produce and exploit knowledge about the colonised worlds. Unlike the Tate Britain show, the Singapore exhibition juxtaposed such historical works with those by contemporary artists. Usually hailing from the former colonies, these contemporary artists often adopt a critical stance towards the legacies of colonialism in their own societies. Hence, their perspectives serve as useful entry points in understanding works from the past.

artSingaporeThe second aspect of our show focuses on the rise of modern art movements in the waning years of the Empire as the colonies moved towards self-determination and independence. We took a comparative case study approach to look at how local artists in the colonies responded to the demands for national identity in the context of their own colonial experiences. Many of these works were created by local artists for local audiences, as reflected through their choice of subjects and forms of expressions.

The Artist and Empire exhibition in Singapore draws upon close to 200 works from international and regional collections as well as Singapore institutions. About 15% of the artworks came from the Tate’s 2015 exhibition.

What do you expect to get from this exhibition?

The locus of our exhibition has shifted from Britain to the Asia-Pacific region, with an emphasis on works from the former colonies of India, Australia, Brunei, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore. Through this, we hope the exhibition will generate greater discussion on the formation of national identities and their complex relationships with the colonial experience.

At critical junctures of the exhibition, contemporary artworks have also been included to intervene and critically examine the postcolonial condition. We hope that these juxtapositions help generate insights and dialogue in how we should relate to the past.

How has the public respond in Singapore been? Positive, negative or neutral toward “colonialism” as a theme? How do you think your exhibition help to change or challenge Singapore mindset?

The response to the exhibition has been encouraging. One of our goals was to generate deeper conversations and understanding of Southeast Asian art within a larger global context such as the colonial experience.

It is not possible to point to any one thing, place or person as representing the British Empire. As an entity that spanned so many centuries and regions, and affected the lives of millions of people, its rise and decline remains hotly debated. The Empire is, therefore, a complex idea which continues to change, even till today. What and how artists create are inevitably coloured by their subjective world views and agendas. In turn, the circulation of such visual images, whether through exhibitions or publications, affects how the Empire is imagined by the public. Through this exhibition, we hope visitors will look more deeply into art and realise the cultural specificities of art, and the power of art to change and shape perceptions. In this way, we gain a deeper understanding of our past and present.

What roles do art – and the National Gallery of Singapore – play in promoting education in Singapore?

Art helps to hone visual literacy, critical thinking and analysis. Hence, art education is a critical means with which to cultivate greater interest in the arts amongst our diverse audiences, especially the young.

The Gallery has a dedicated facility, the Keppel Centre for Art Education, which offers a wide array of experiential activities and programmes for our young visitors. We also have regular and special programming during the weekends and school holidays. All these are part of our efforts to nurture an interest in art among our young visitors.

We also want to foster a deeper understanding of Singapore and Southeast Asian art among our adult audiences. Hence, we also organise special programmes such as curator tours and art talks to accompany our exhibitions.

What do you think needed to be done in order to stimulate the art scene in Singapore? How do you see the trend for art?

There is a growing recognition that arts and culture play an integral role in building social bonds and identities. The fact that two significant national monuments have been transformed to establish Singapore’s largest public museum devoted to the visual arts is testament to this. However, in order for there to be a sustainable art scene in Singapore, the state cannot be the only driver of development. We need a more diverse arts eco-system that can cater to a wide range of audiences. This will need the support and active participation of many stakeholders from individuals to corporations and foundations.

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

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A Season of Classic Films: European classics screened at cultural heritage venues across Europe

MD Staff

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This summer, European film classics will be screened in some of Europe’s most iconic cultural heritage venues. From tomorrow until the end of September, classic films from across the EU will be screened free of charge in a wide variety of venues in 13 EU countries – from small towns to capital cities – highlighting Europe’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. As part of the wider restoration and digitisation of heritage films, the event series “A Season of Classic Films” is supported by Creative Europe MEDIA programme.

Commissioner Tibor Navracsics, in charge of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, said: “European cultural heritage, including our great film classics, should be accessible to everyone. I am pleased to see that the Season of Classic Films makes it possible for everyone interested to be part of an experience shared across Europe, even when attending a local event.”

Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, in charge of Digital Economy and Society, added: “Cinema is an essential part of our rich and diverse European culture and is contributing to reinforce bonds between people feeling the same passion and emotion for films. Digital transformation has a decisive potential to strengthen the positive effects of culture, both economically and socially. This is the challenge of our strategy Digital4Culture, to take advantage of this successful connection between digital technologies and culture.”

The classic films season starts tomorrow at the Bologna Film Festival with a presentation of some of the restored films shot using Gaumont’s Chronochrome colour system, one of the earliest colour filming techniques. Among the classic films to be screened throughout the season are some of the best-known titles in world cinema, including Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927), Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 blows” (1959), and “Cinema Paradiso” (1988) by Giuseppe Tornatore. The iconic venues hosting the screenings include Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki, Greece, Kilkenny Castle in Ireland, and the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, Italy. The full programme of the season is available here.

Background

Since 1991, the European Commission has been supporting Europe’s audiovisual sector, contributing to is competitiveness and to cultural diversity in Europe, through the MEDIA Programme. One of its most substantial actions is providing financial support to the distribution of European films outside their country of production. Every year, on average over 400 films are made available to audiences in another European country with MEDIA’s help. In May 2018, the Commission proposed to increase the budget of the programme by almost 30% for the next EU long-term budget for 2021-2027.

Within this project, Creative Europe MEDIA will also fund the restoration and digitisation of heritage films in order to ensure that the European culture is passed down to future generations. The event series for this summer was planned as part of the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage and reinforced by the Digital4Culture strategy.

“A Season of Classic Films” follows a first initiative, the “European Cinema Night”’, which programmed 50 free screenings of 20 MEDIA-supported films from 3 to 7 December 2018 across the EU and reached almost 7,200 people. The classic films season is expected to attract 15,000 Europeans to the free screenings.

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The Sounds of the Islands: Junkanoo Cultural Festival

MD Staff

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It starts with a deep drumbeat, a baritone sensation that vibrates within your chest. An instant tingle of rhythm journeys up your spine in anticipation of the cadence to come. What follows is nothing short of remarkable; a symphony of unconventional sounds blend together to create the most infectious melodies. This is Junkanoo: a long-standing semi-annual Bahamian tradition birthed from the islands’ early ancestors. Whistles, cowbells and even conch shells are used in this charismatic exhibition of island culture that is now revered around the world.  

History of the Tradition

The earliest rumoured origin stories for the bi-annual festival stems from an African Chief by the name of John Canoe. After being kidnapped and enslaved in the West Indies, John Canoe appealed for the right of his people to partake in their celebratory traditions. The most notable time for the festival to be orchestrated is around the Christmas holiday. The most illustrious part of the festival takes place on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day at the capital island of New Providence. On these days, what was once regarded as an expression of freedom and cultural identity has now transformed into one of the fiercest national competitions. On-lookers crowd the parade routes, cheering on their favourite groups and chanting competitive mantras from the bleachers. The four most famous Junkanoo groups face off at the parades every year in hopes to win prizes and highly coveted national bragging rights.

How to Experience Junkanoo Year Round

Due to the increased popularity of the Bahamian tradition, Junkanoo can now be experienced year-round. The splashy display of costumed dancers and musicians highlight many destination-weddings. Hosts desiring to offer guests an authentic and lively environment can contract a Junkanoo band to create a unique entertainment experience. If you are in attendance at any of the local seasonal festivals, you are sure to close out the day with a Junkanoo rush out.  In recent years, a junior edition of the Junkanoo competition has been added to the winter line up of events. The littlest natives of the island adorn painted faces and tiny drums in hand, skipping and twirling to the rhythmic music.

Whether you are a first-time visitor of the islands or one who calls The Bahamas home, once experienced, the rush of Junkanoo will never leave you.  

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Turning air pollution into art

MD Staff

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Photo by Studio Roosegaarde

Artists are known to take inspiration from the world around them. So it’s no surprise that some have begun shining light on one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time—air pollution.

According to the World Health Organization, every year around 7 million premature deaths are caused by air pollution, with 9 out of 10 people breathing toxic air. Air pollution is also known to contribute to climate change and so efforts to tackle it can also help address the climate crisis.

The time to act is now, and artists, like so many others are looking at ways to raise awareness about air pollution, find solutions to reduce it and even use it as a resource.

Pollution Pods

Michael Pinsky got inspired by the differences between the various types of air pollution, when he set out to make Pollution Pods. The project consists of five domes, each imitating air in five different areas of the world: Northern Norway, London, New Delhi, Beijing and São Paulo. As you move through the domes you experience varied levels and sources of air pollution.

“I wanted to have very different sensations from one dome to another,” Pinsky told UN Environment. “It’s not just a question of how strong the pollution is but that they have very different characteristics as well.”

For London, Pinsky recreates the smell of diesel. For Beijing, he mixes the smells of industrial fumes, coal or wood-based heating, and transportation emissions. While New Delhi whiffs of burnt plastic and grass, as citizens still burn a lot of their rubbish.

Luckily, the pollution is only in smell and visibility, without the actual harmful gases. But Pinsky says the experience still isn’t very pleasant. That’s the whole point: air pollution isn’t pleasant.

Pinsky hopes Pollution Pods will lead to a more “radical approach” when dealing with air pollution, particularly with transportation. “It’s not so easy to apply the same advocacy or philosophy towards different cities in the world,” he said. “But in some cases, you could turn the problem around in two years with the right policies.”

Smog-free towers

Daan Roosegaarde was motivated by living in Beijing and witnessing the city’s strive for economic development and citizen wellbeing, when he created the Smog-free Tower. The “largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world”, as Roosegaarde calls it, sucks up polluted air, cleans it and releases it back into the atmosphere.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not a minister, I cannot give 20 billion euros to green energy today. But I’m an engineer and an artist, I can create a clean-air park, like an oasis.’”

The premise is that the smog-free tower sits in a city park, making the air 20–70 per cent cleaner than the rest of the city. It uses positive ionisation technology, which Roosegaarde says is the only way to clean large volumes of ultra-fine particles while using little energy.

Towers are now found around the world in China, Poland, the Netherlands, and soon, South Korea and Mexico. It’s also led to a global campaign, with local partners in each country replicating the towers. Roosegaarde has now introduced the smog-free ring—made of compressed smog particles—and the smog-free bicycle as well.

“This is not utopia. It’s a pro-topia where we, step-by-step, try to improve our cities,” he said. “The grand goal is to have them not needed anymore, but until then, you do what you can to remain healthy.”

Air pollution-based ink

Anirudh Sharma was visiting his family in Mumbai, India, when he began to notice that in the evening his white shirts would gradually turn speckled with something that resembled dirt.

“I realized this was air pollution, or sooty particulate matter, made of black particles released from exhaust of vehicles,” Sharma told his alma matter Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. “This is a major health issue.”

When he returned to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sharma decided to do something about the air pollution back home. So he set up Graviky Labs—a start-up that has developed a technology to attach to diesel exhaust systems to capture particulate matter. The team at Graviky treat the soot to turn it into ink, called Air-Ink, for use by artists around the world.

So far, the start-up has captured 1.6 billion micrograms of particulate matter, or the equivalent of collecting 1.6 trillion litres of outdoor air.

“Less pollution, more art. That’s what we’re going for,” Sharma said.

UN Environment

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