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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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Camille Corot: Women

MD Staff

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Woman with a Pearl, c. 1868–1870, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des peintures. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Camille Corot is best known as the great master of landscape painting in the 19th century who bridged the French neoclassical tradition with the impressionist movement of the 1870s. His figure paintings constitute a much smaller, less well-known portion of his work, but they appeared throughout his prolific fifty-year career, with particular force toward the end. Rarely seen outside his studio during his lifetime, these works made an impact on later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century modernist artists who copied or borrowed from them, such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque. Dressed in rustic Italian costume or stretched nude on a grassy plain, Corot’s women read, dream, and gaze directly at the viewer, conveying a sense of their inner lives. His sophisticated use of color and his deft, delicate touch applied to the female form resulted in pictures of quiet majesty. The forty-five paintings on display, created between the mid-1830s and the early 1870s, are largely divided into three major subjects: costumed single figures, nudes, and allegorical studio scenes.

The exhibition is curated by Mary Morton, curator and head of the department of French paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington September 9 – December 31, 2018

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Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black

MD Staff

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Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017. Dawoud Bey. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey.

Dawoud Bey’s latest body of work is a series of black-and-white photographs that reimagine sites along the last stages of the Underground Railroad.

Photographer Dawoud Bey, the recent recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, decided to make a fresh start soon after his 60th birthday. Already renowned as a portraitist, he turned his camera on architecture and landscapes; accustomed to urban scenes, he decided to photograph thickets, a picket fence, and Lake Erie. Bey also returned to black-and-white printing, and more particularly to gelatin silver prints, which he had not used since the early 1990s. Through these choices Bey wanted to make a far greater shift: from pictures of the here and now to the vast, historical subject of the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses that aided enslaved African Americans on their path to freedom.

Bey also wished to pay homage to photographer Roy DeCarava (1919–2009) and poet Langston Hughes (1901–1967), who each addressed the African American experience in their work in part by foregrounding what DeCarava called “a world shaped by blackness.” DeCarava’s mastery of even the darkest tones gave Bey a model for depicting the twilight uncertainty that those fleeing slavery confronted as they traveled northward. Meanwhile, the closing couplet of Hughes’s short poem “Dream Variations”—“Night coming tenderly / Black like me.”—inspired the exhibition title. Bey has said that he wanted to hold darkness itself in a tender embrace.

The result is a series of 25 large-scale photographs, most of which are on view in this presentation—the first showing of Bey’s latest body of work in a museum. All the pictures were made around Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio, a final way station for those seeking freedom in Canada. The photographs show homes and patches of land that are rumored to have formed part of the invisible railroad “track,” leading those seeking freedom from one unfamiliar place to the next.

Bey chose a dense, vibrant selection of 19th- and 20th-century photographs from the Art Institute’s collection to hang directly outside the exhibition gallery, works that complement the exhibition by suggesting the range of ways that the American landscape has been represented in photographs and the place of African Americans within that physical and social landscape.

Night Coming Tenderly, Black was commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial of International Art. Art Institute of Chicago Jan 11–Apr 14, 2019

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Crystal Award Winners 2019

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Haifaa Al-Mansour

Conductor Marin Alsop, film director Haifaa Al-Mansour, and broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, are the recipients of the 25th Annual Crystal Award, the World Economic Forum announced today. The award celebrates the achievements of leading artists and cultural figures whose leadership inspires inclusive and sustainable change. The winners will be honoured in the opening session of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, at 18.00 CET on Monday 21 January. The ceremony will be webcast live at www.weforum.org.

“Any new architecture for ‘Globalization 4.0’ will need to be both inclusive and sustainable. The remarkable achievements of the recipients of the 25th Annual Crystal Award inspire us to see beyond the limits of convention to find solutions for the current issues the world faces,” said Hilde Schwab, Chairwoman and Co-Founder of the World Economic Forum’s World Arts Forum, which hosts the awards.

Awardees

Marin Alsop, for her leadership in championing diversity in music
Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony since 2007, is one of the greatest conductors of our time. Earlier this year she was the first woman to be appointed Chief Conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and, in 2013, was the first woman in 118 years to conduct the BBC’s “Last Night of the Proms”. She has tirelessly endeavored to provide opportunities for all people to access music for a world where diversity in classical music is the norm rather than the exception. In Baltimore she launched the “OrchKids” programme to serve the city’s less privileged children, and the BSO Academy and Rusty Musicians for adult amateur musicians. She is also Music Director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. A graduate of Yale University and a MacArthur Fellow (2005), at the Annual Meeting, she will lead the Opening Performance with the Taki Concordia Orchestra.

Haifaa Al-Mansour, for her leadership in cultural transformation in the Arab world
Haifaa Al-Mansour is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia. “Wadjda”, Al Mansour’s feature debut, was the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first by a female director. The success of her 2005 documentary “Women Without Shadows” was a breakthrough that was followed by a new wave of Saudi filmmakers and front-page headlines of Saudi Arabia finally opening cinemas in the kingdom. She was recently appointed to the Board of the General Authority for Culture to advise on the development of the cultural and arts sectors in Saudi Arabia. She recently released “Mary Shelly” starring Elle Fanning, and “Nappily Ever After” starring Sanaa Lathan. Al Mansour is the first artist from the Arabian Gulf region to be invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Sir David Attenborough, for his leadership in environmental stewardship
Sir David Attenborough’s broadcasting career spans more than six decades during which he has played an extraordinary role both reinventing and developing the medium of television and connecting people to the wonders of the natural world, bringing distant peoples, animals and habitats into living rooms across the planet. As a BBC producer and executive, he has played a crucial role in creating new forms of programming and scheduling that, to this day, influence global broadcasting. His work includes many iconic productions, from the ground-breaking “Zoo Quest” series to landmarks including “Life on Earth”, “The Living Planet”, “The Trials of Life”, “The Private Life of Plants”, “Life of Mammals” and “Planet Earth”. At the Annual Meeting, Sir David will present key sequences from “Our Planet”, a new series by WWF, Netflix and Silverback Films, focusing on the preservation of life on Earth.

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