Arts & Culture
Artist and Empire: British Legacy in Singapore
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.
The 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.
Arts & Culture
The “Dreams of Africa” Gala Shows Wonderful World of African Culture
Africa is getting renewed attention from all corners of the world. Africans celebrate their continental day on May 25th. Some believe it is the best time to observe it with cultural performances. The concept of pan-Africanism has offered the grounds to show Africa’s diverse culture, food and artworks to the world.
With the 60th anniversary of Africa Day, there are good reasons to mark the event in solidarity with brothers and sisters irrespective of the political differences. In short, the necessity to sustain the already established unity in cultural diversity by all Africans in the continent and the Diaspora across the world.
In the Russian Federation, the KizzAfro Art Week of African Culture was held in Moscow. The KizzAfro Art Week of African Culture is held with the aim of developing African culture in modern Russian society, establishing important social and cultural ties between creative people from Russia and African countries.
The main objectives of the event are: creating a favorable atmosphere for cultural and business cooperation between the peoples of Africa and Russia, familiarizing a wide audience with the customs and traditions of African countries, developing friendly ties between the peoples of the world through African culture and art.
According to Nadezhda Kuzmina, General Producer of KizzAfro Art Week of African Culture, participants of the festival event will have a one-week immersion in the wonderful world of African culture. About a thousand dancers, musicians, designers from various African countries and Russia actively participated in the project. The culmination was the “Dreams of Africa” gala show.
At the show it was simple possible to hear musicians from African countries such as Cape Verde, Nigeria, Zambia and Guinea accompanied by a symphony orchestra from Angola “Kaposoka”. There were traditional dances and modern choreography from professional dancers, their voices captivating rhythms of Afrobeat music, from Angola, Rwanda, Russia and other countries.
“We gathered here this evening to watch African culture. These African cultural performances, of course, aim at showcasing the enormous cultural potentials in the continent and importantly its happening in a unique place here. We are today in space, in Kosmos hotel, navigating and promoting our diverse culture (best artistic voices and sounds), which is part of the celebrations to distinctively mark the Africa Day,” said Professor Zenebe Tadesse Kinfu from Moscow’s International University and President of the Union of African Diaspora in the Russian Federation.
He further underlined the fact that “May 25th, the day serves as an opportunity to acknowledge the remarkable progress Africa has made while reflecting on the challenges it continues to face. Africa is a continent of diverse landscapes and rich cultural heritage. These musical groups performing together simply shows our unique adherence of pan-Africanism concept and the continental unity by the African Union. Therefore, it beholds on us and to remember that the Africa Day is a celebration of both the diversity of African countries and cultures, as well as our continued efforts to encourage greater unity among African people and the African Diaspora.”
The project was implemented with the support of the African International Congress. Here is what Konstantin Klimenko, Co-Chairman of the African International Congress from the Russian side, Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the Week of African Culture, Rector of the Eurasian International University, said: “The creators of the largest African dance festival are now starting with a new large-scale project of the African Culture Week KizzAfro Art. A large-scale forum of public diplomacy and culture has already emerged from a successful dance project.”
As part of the gala show, an informal Russia-Africa dialogue was held with the participation of ambassadors of African states, representatives of federal and regional authorities of Russia, cultural figures, representatives of the business community, including members of the African International Club. For the most part, this action will also contribute to successful preparations for the second Russia-Africa summit with the participation of African heads of state and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Despite all kinds of challenges, African men and women in the diaspora showed their collective strength and unity to have the long-awaited cultural festival featuring solidarity and friendship to their Russian audience, friends and hosts. The musicians admirably amplified their voices presenting the continental cultural unity considered as a component of the Africa’s century.
Arts & Culture
For priceless European art, extra protection costs very little
Inexpensive new materials and sensors will help even small museums prevent irreversible damage to objects.
By ALEX WHITING
Overlooking the waters of the Grand Canal in Venice, the former home of American art collector Peggy Guggenheim houses one of Italy’s most important collections of 20th century works. Until recently, many of them were at risk from an invisible attacker: acetic acid released by their ageing wooden picture frames.
Chemists based in another renowned Italian city, Florence, have come up with a new material that will protect the artworks from acetic acid, formaldehyde and other damaging volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for between 50 and 100 years.
Clever and cheap
‘We synthesised the first absorber for acetic acid and formaldehyde using a very clever, cheap method,’ said Piero Baglioni, professor of physical chemistry at the Center for Colloid and Surface Science, or CSGI, in the University of Florence.
The material is flexible and biodegradable and can absorb twice its weight in pollutants. It’s made mainly from castor oil.
Curators at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection have applied sheets of it to the backs of paintings and on a wall in one room, which includes a 1929 painting by Vasily Kandinsky and a 1915 sculpture by Umberto Boccioni.
Levels of acetic acid in the room have since dropped from two parts per million (ppm), which is high enough to damage artwork, to safe levels of 0.5 ppm, according to Baglioni.
The material, Nanorestore VOCs, can be produced in any shape, size and colour, said Baglioni, who coordinated an EU-funded research project called APACHE that developed a range of products designed to protect valuable artworks.
The discovery is likely to have a major impact on the future health of artworks, including those in storage. That’s because many galleries and museums store their collections in wooden containers, which release VOCs.
The Pompidou Centre in Paris – home to Europe’s largest collection of modern and contemporary art – is testing the material for its storage containers. The museum keeps most of its 120 000 pieces in wooden crates, including works by Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Georges Braque.
Baglioni is also testing the material in the Oslo, Norway-based museum dedicated to Edvard Munch and featuring one of the artist’s most famous paintings – The Scream. Hundreds of Munch’s prints and drawings are kept in wooden drawers that would cost a small fortune to change to a new material, according to Baglioni.
In February, following APACHE’s end last year, his team put sheets of the material – costing about €5 each – in the storage drawers and will check the VOC levels in June.
‘If it works, the museum will save a lot of money,’ Baglioni said.
The product will soon be on the market for museums and galleries. It’s also being marketed as a way to purify the air in homes, hospitals and offices. VOCs comprise 80% of indoor air pollutants and can affect people’s health.
Baglioni is working with researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University to produce what they hope will be the world’s most effective and environmentally friendly material for absorbing VOCs.
APACHE also developed sensors that cost just €0.10 each to monitor levels of VOCs. These will be made by Goppion, an Italian company that produces display cases used by the Louvre and other cultural institutions.
But the company, which took part in the project, needs broader demand for production to be viable.
‘If the market for this system is restricted to museums and galleries, it won’t be profitable,’ said Baglioni. ‘So we have to find an additional use for them.’
Most threats to Europe’s masterpieces and historical artefacts are invisible to the naked eye: changes in temperature or humidity, ultraviolet light, small vibrations from the footfall of visitors or building works as well as VOCs.
Even the type of building that the works are housed in – modern or old, stone or wooden – affects them. Often, the impacts become visible only once the damage is done.
Whereas large museums and art galleries can pay for multiple sensors to monitor closely their collections, cash-strapped smaller institutions struggle to meet international standards on maintenance and storage.
‘It’s really hard for small and medium-sized museums to preserve their artefacts because of a lack of expertise, human resources and means,’ said Marie-Dominique Bruni, programme manager at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, also known as CEA.
Bruni coordinated a project called SensMat that developed sensors and software to monitor as many as 12 different environmental factors – from dust levels to vibrations – and alert conservators to the risks to art in their care so they can act before damage occurs.
‘We facilitate the way they collect and interpret this data to decide the best way to display an exhibit, or what to change if its environment puts it at risk of damage,’ said Bruni.
That may mean changing the climate controls, limiting the number of visitors or moving the item to another room.
Metal objects, for example, can corrode in the wrong temperature, humidity and light conditions.
‘When that corrosion becomes visible, it’s too late,’ said Bruni. ‘So we have to move the objects or change the temperature and humidity to prevent their corrosion.’
One of the most detrimental effects is low-frequency vibration. These could come not just from visitors’ footfall and building works but also auto traffic.
‘Museums need to diagnose the impact of vibrations,’ said Bruni. ‘Frescoes painted on walls or ceilings and objects made with different layers are particularly vulnerable.’
Museums and galleries increasingly lend collections to each other, a practice that creates new challenges for the transport and display of objects.
‘Museums and galleries have to guarantee they won’t endanger the objects they are receiving,’ said Bruni. ‘Our software could help them define the conditions needed before receiving new objects. Insurance companies are very interested in this kind of information.’
SensMat, which ran from January 2019 through August 2022, worked with museums in seven European countries including Denmark, France, Germany and Italy.
‘It was really important to have studies in different climates and different locations,’ said Bruni.
This meant being able to develop solutions suited to a wide range of scenarios. The SensMat team hopes its findings will be used to help update international recommendations on how to display and preserve objects.
Today Bruni is trying to find investors in order to complete the last stage of development and put the software on the market.
Large museums have expressed interest in the software, but making it affordable for small galleries is the ultimate goal.
‘We’ve received lots of demand for the software,’ Bruni said. ‘We just need to develop it a little bit more. We are almost there.’
Research in this article was funded by the EU. The article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Arts & Culture
The film ‘Cuba in Africa’ wins Thomas Sankara Prize
From late February to early March, in Ouagadougou the capital of Burkina Faso, there was the week-long Africa’s largest film festival FESPACO. In fact, FESPACO was launched in 1969. This festival provided some kind of entertainment, but the most important aspect was the platform created show screening different films with diverse themes. The competition was very keen with rewards for winners delivering excellent results.
Wolfram Vetter, the European Union ambassador in Burkina Faso, called the film festival “an important contribution to peace and reconciliation in Burkina Faso and beyond.” The EU was the event’s largest funder after the Burkinabe government, and has contributed approximately €250,000, equivalent of ($265,000).
Records showed that there were more than 15,000 people, including cinema celebrities from African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast, and from abroad including France and the United States. Some 1,300 films were submitted for consideration and 100 selected to compete from 35 African countries and the diaspora, including movies from Dominican Republic and Haiti. Nearly half of those in the fiction competition this year were directed by women.
Among them was Burkinabe director and producer Apolline Traore, whose film “Sira” – considered a front-runner in this year’s competition – emblematic of many Burkinabes’ suffering. It tells the tale of a woman’s struggle for survival after being kidnapped by jihadis in the Sahel, as her fiancé tries to find her.
An interesting film, “Cuba in Africa” has received a warm, emotional response all over the world. Most people never heard of this story. Screening this film, people were touched by the altruism of Cubans who sacrificed their sons and daughters on behalf of Africa.
Negash Abdurahman, producer of Cuba in Africa, told us that his film has won the Thomas Sankara Prize. Abdurahman is an Ethiopian-American filmmaker and an educational technology specialist. He is also the Founder of RI Systems Inc.
His award-winning film Cuba in Africa was years in the making, overcoming many challenges. Cuba in Africa tells the story of Cuban volunteers who gave everything to win the independence of Angola, Namibia and contributed to the fall of apartheid in South Africa.
Abdurahman spoke briefly with us from Ouagadougou. Here are the interview excerpts:
How would you interpret the film festival that took place in Burkina Faso? What are the key features during this gathering?
Abdurahman: FESPACO is the biggest, oldest and most prestigious film festival in Africa. FESPACO is the French acronym for the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougu. The 28th edition of FESPACO took place from February 24 to March 5 in Ouagadougu, the capital city of Burkina Faso.
The festival opened with much fanfare and cultural pageantry. The heads of state of both Burkina Faso and Mali attended the opening ceremonies. For me, one of the emotional moments of the opening ceremonies was Sidiki Diabate of Mali playing the mesmerizing Kora, a traditional string instrument of several West African countries.
In your critical assessment, what were some of the messages translated to the audience there? Are these related to the Africa’s political culture, traditions and history?
Abdurahman: FESPACO celebrates African cinema and tells African stories through the eyes of Africans. This was very clear at this year’s festival as well. This year’s theme was “African Cinema and Culture of Peace.”
Before the festival, there was much tension because of the conflict going on in the northern part of Burkina Faso. Some people feared that it might not even be held at all. Playing on this fear, according to a few Burkinabe I spoke to, the French threatened not to protect the festival if they did not get their way.
French troops did, in fact, depart a few days before the opening of the festival. Fortunately, the Burkinabe were able to provide their own protection. The festival and all associated music and cultural celebrations concluded without a hitch.
What place was the film “Cuba in Africa” in the festival? What other films have similar themes to this film during the demonstration (show) in Burkina Faso?
Abdurahman: My film, Cuba in Africa, was an official selection in the short documentary category. Cuba was the only country in history that came to Africa’s aid without expecting anything in return. An Island nation of roughly 8 million people at the time, sent over 400,000 people – military as well as civilians – to help Africans in their fight for freedom.
This was unprecedented. I am honored to report that we won the much-coveted Thomas Sankara Prize. You can watch a two-minutes trailer for Cuba in Africa at http://www.cubainafrica.com
How was the final conclusion, in spite of the challenges and setbacks, of the festival?
Abdurahman: The best films won trophies and monetary awards in their respective categories. The mood was celebratory. FESPACO is a truly African institution with its own warm, unique characteristics.
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