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Artist and Empire: British Legacy in Singapore

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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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Arts & Culture

Squid Game, Style influence and Sustainable consumption

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Photo source: Netflix

Have you heard about the recent South Korean drama blockbuster named Squid Game yet? It was released on Netflix on Sept. 17, 2021, and has quickly earned a worldwide audience. Since debuting, it has been viewed by more than 100 million people and has become the no. 1 trending in top 10 lists in 94 countries around the world.

Not only topped the list, but the South Korean drama has also created a trend that has influenced fashion style around the world and dominated the online platforms such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and several online shopping websites: Amazon, eBay, Shoppee, and so on.  On Google.com, you will find more than 223,000,000 results in only 0.53 seconds; on Amazon.com, the term “Squid Game costume” has also become a top finding, even when you have just typed only two characters “sq”, the full term “Squid Game costume” will appear and you can find more than a thousand of results about this kind of clothes. 6,150 results for Squid Game costume appear when searching on eBay. On Instagram and Facebook, the hashtag #SquidGameCostume has recently become the most popular key hashtag and could be the influent style this winter.

Unlike trending superhero movies like Captain American, Avengers, with characters wearing specialized and inconvenient costumes for daily use, “Squid Game” is full of players wearing banal teal-green tracksuits. And this style of wearing tracksuits has been promoted by luxury fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton and Channel in recent years, because of its convenience and full of fashion, suitable for almost everyone from children, young people, and adults. That’s why the seemingly simple tracksuits in “Squid Game” turned out to be more trending.

The green tracksuit will likely become popular because of its convenience and ease of production, but it’s not the only known outfit, one that’s probably even more sought-after is the set of hot pink boiler suits and black masks watch the spectacle. Halloween is just around the corner, this type of costume has the potentiality to become another “red jumpsuits and Salvador Dalí masks” – a phenomenon that comes from the previous hit Money Heist.  Clearly, Squid Game costume could be a perfect choice for the one who is looking for the new and trending Halloween costume, and fashion influencers may have to queue in line after Squid Game this Halloween and winter.

With marketing strategies in all aspects that an ordinary person can reach just by picking up the smartphone, it is not difficult for “Squid Game” to be accessible through advertisements, and finding a way to win in marketing could be more easily for fashion companies and even companies that are not engaged in the fashion industry. Netflix even sells Squid Game t-shirts and hoodies on its website, and it seems that marketing the products of trending movies will become the marketing trend in the future.

However, from the environmentalist or sustainable consumption supporters’ perspective, the influences of the fads can go against what they’re pursuing. Sustainable consumption is the use of services and related products, which responds to basic needs and brings a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations. Sustainable consumption is closely related to sustainable production and sustainable lifestyles. When thinking about the relationship of a hot trend like Squid Game and its influence, we could see the 4M plus model (4M +) including Mass media marketing -Mass outfit obsession – Mass production – Mass consumption, and the plus could be the Mass damage for the environment. It may seem to be not a kind of mass production if it only happens once in a blue moon and only happens for one movie/show, but in fact, it is an unstoppable game that every director wants to win. Fashion’s influence could be a tool to reach the top trending show of the year and also be a push for the fashion industry and consumption later.

So, is the top trending show doing well in marketing and promoting fashion consumption by creating style influence, definitely Yes, but is it promoting sustainable consumption? I am not sure.

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The winner of the All About Photo Magazine contest is a picture of a happy Nenets family

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Photo: Yulia Nevskaya, "Tundra people"

The work of the Russian photographer Yulia Nevskaya “Tundra People” – a photograph of a happy woman from the Russian northern region of Taimyr surrounded by three children won first prize in the All About Photo Magazine travel photography competition. This photograph’s victory is particularly noteworthy for the UNESCO-announced Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022–2032), which will focus on the rights of native speakers of indigenous languages.

All About Photo is a free and independent magazine that has become one of the most vibrant portals of photography on the web. Moreover, All About Photo result is one of the most far-reaching online magazines where you can find everything related to photography.

Nevskaya worked a lot in the north of Russia, including with small peoples: the Nenets and the Sami. She took many photographs in one of the most interesting and northern cities of Russia – Norilsk.

This is how she described her trip.

“Norilsk is an industrial city, there are many industries that are harmful to the environment. This city was a revelation for me. I expected to see a smoky sky and an oppressive atmosphere. But the city turned out to be full of light, a combination of shades of white and blue against the background of the silence of the Arctic, “Nevskaya said.

The main enterprise of the city – Norilsk Nickel – has been actively cooperating with the indigenous people of the region for a long time.

The Taymyr Peninsula is a peninsula in the Far North of Russia, in the Siberian Federal District, that forms the northernmost part of the mainland of Eurasia. Administratively it is part of the Krasnoyarsk Krai Federal subject of Russia.

Nornickel has been cooperating with the Indigenous Minorities of the North for more than 30 years.

The photo shows Angelina Wanga with her children Denis, Linda and Dima. The picture was taken at the end of April. Snow in the tundra will melt only at the beginning of summer.

In July, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, with the support of Norilsk Nickel, the exhibition “The World in the Faces” of the famous Russian photographer Alexander Khimushin was held. The author personally presented a collection of more than 170 artistic photographic portraits of representatives of different peoples of the world, shot in authentic national costumes in places of residence. The exhibition was dedicated to the upcoming International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People and Their Languages. It is a celebration of multiculturalism and our incredible ethnic diversity at its best.

In 2018, Khimushin went to the Russian Arctic – Taimyr. The result was a series of portraits of the region’s indigenous inhabitants – Dolgans, Nganasans, Enets, Nenets, Evenks.

Khimushin became the first Russian photographer to have an exhibition at the UN headquarters in New York. Works from The World in Faces project were exhibited at the University of Lille in France, and for six months were broadcast on the screen of the world’s largest digital art center in Bordeaux.

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Landmark report highlights untapped potential of Africa’s film industry

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Nigerian film actress Toyin Abraham was among entertainers who helped the UN share messages to address myths surrounding COVID-19./ Toyin Abraham

Africa’s film and audiovisual industries could create over 20 million jobs and contribute $20 billion to the continent’s combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, said on Tuesday in a new report highlighting this untapped potential. 

The African Film Industry: Trends, Challenges and Opportunities for Growth is the first-ever mapping of the sector, which currently employs some five million people and accounts for $5 billion in GDP across Africa.

Making creativity viable

Audrey Azoulay, the UNESCO Director-General, presented the report in Paris alongside esteemed filmmakers Abderrahmane Sissako and Mati Diop.

“This landmark publication reflects on the importance of strengthening international cooperation to enable all countries, in particular developing countries, to develop cultural and creative industries that are viable and competitive both nationally and internationally,” she said.

The report aims to help the African film industry, and decision-makers, to take stock of the current landscape and plan strategically for future growth.

Africa’s potential as a film powerhouse remains largely untapped, despite a significant growth in production across the continent, the report argues. Nigeria alone produces around 2,500 films a year.

Even though affordable digital film equipment and online platforms allow direct distribution to consumers, opening new avenues for content creators, Africa is the most underserved continent in terms of movie theatres.  Currently, there is only one cinema screen per 787,402 people.

Lights, camera, piracy

The film industry also faces the significant problem of piracy.  The UNESCO report estimates that 50 per cent to over 75 per cent of revenue is lost to piracy, though precise data does not exist.  Additionally, just 19 out of 54 African countries offer financial support to filmmakers.

The report outlines further challenges, including limitations on freedom of expression, as well as education, training and internet connectivity.

Films as ‘public goods’

This year marks two decades since the adoption of a UNESCO Declaration that upholds cultural diversity as being as necessary to humanity as biodiversity is to nature.

Ms. Azoulay said in commemorating the anniversary, “we must raise our voice to reaffirm that films are indeed ‘public goods’ that require public support and investment to ensure equal access to creation, production, distribution, dissemination and consumption.” 

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