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.
Remembering legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen
Exactly in August 2009, legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who created the Afrobeat along with his old bandmate Fela Kuti, and I had our first historical meeting in Paris, France. I had flown in from Shanghai, China, to meet with him for an informal encounter. Despite our heavy working schedules and limited time, the meeting lasted for about two hours. During the discussions, I asked him several questions about his professional musical career and life. In fact, he was extremely passionate and enthusiastic talking with me, and to remember him here are a few excerpts:
When did you begin your musical career and who are your favorite musicians?
My career started at the age of 20. In fact, I was hired by Sir Victor Olaiya to play claves with his highlife band, “the Cool Cats” and was able to fill the drum-set chair when the former Cool Cats drummer left the band. I also played with Agu Norris and the Heatwaves, the Nigerian Messengers and the Melody Makers.
In 1964, I joined Fela’s ‘Koola Lobitos’ and stayed with Fela for 15 years. When I was learning to play I’d check out LPs and magazine tutorials by Gene Krupa, Art Blakey and Max Roach, Guy Warren was also an influence. Of course, I was also a fan of Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Bernard Purdie.
I was asked to name my dream band to play with, and I chose: Oumou Sangare and Salif Keita on vocals, Bootsy Collins on bass, George Benson on guitar, Wayne Shorter on sax, Joe Zawinul on keys, Don Cherry on trumpet, and with a line-up like that I’d have to be the drummer!
What was the motivation behind your chose profession?
My parents were…not keen. Back then, musicians were more or less thought of as beggars, or worse. But I just put it in front of them. I was an electrical technician, but I wanted to make a change. My mother was never happy about it, but my father, who was an amateur musician, eventually agreed.
How is this profession influencing or shaping your own social life?
It has had a profound effect. Our albums with Afrika 70 either provoked or described a series of increasingly brutal attacks by the Nigerian army and police. Fela and his immediate family bore the brunt of this long and shameful catalogue of assaults, trumped up charges and jailings, and I myself was jailed on one occasion. With Fela it was like being at university, and you don’t run away from education. We learnt so much by not being cowards.
When I left Fela’s band that had a big effect on my life. Lagos was too small for me and Fela. It was a small place, and I wanted room to take off without causing competition, I eventually chose Paris partly because the British immigration people were giving me difficulties, but also because African music was more happening then in Paris than in London, and my record company at the time was in France. It was the only place I felt I could exercise my knowledge. The only place to make a living. Being a musician, the line between work and social life is, often blurred doing what I do for a living is what I do for enjoyment.
There seems to be some truthfulness in your career. Which songs spiritually appeal most to you personally when on stage?
Absolutely, as a musician and an artist you have to be true to yourself. Different songs appeal to me more at different times and under different circumstances, it can depend on who you’re playing with, where you’re playing and how the audience respond to what you’re playing. Playing music is very spiritual but I won’t say that one thing I do is more spiritual than another as I try to invest all in everything that I do.
Of what importance are the messages you convey through your songs to our society, in your interpretation?
Afrobeat has always been about the struggle, then and now. Fela was right about everything, especially the messages in all his songs. Everything he sang about is still happening. Nigeria’s not getting any better. It’s all misadministration and corruption, survival of the fittest. Lagos is a complete mother ****** of a place. These messages we send to the government, they never listen to them. The people wait for an effect, but there’s no effect. These guys do nothing. Afrobeat is rebellious music. We have to keep shouting.
Do you mind talking about your experiences (both positive and negative) in previous European tours?
Laughs! I don’t mind at all but this is a big question that I’m not sure how to answer. The fact is that the good experiences overwhelmingly outweigh the bad, which is why I’m still out on tour at nearly 70 years old. As long as people want to come and see me play, I’ll play.
How do you usually visualize your audience during musical performances?
I am very pleased to have had the chance to play at many festivals abroad. The foreign people know all about social and political upheaval, so even though our cultures and heritage are completely different, they feel the power of Afrobeat and confirm my belief that music is the great healer in the world. It was a long musical trip, there is no way back but well worth it. You just don’t have to return, I have to move forward!
Many people think going into musical world is just to make quick money. What is your reaction to this?
Ha! Most musicians are struggling musicians only a small minority make serious money, musicians all around the world play for the love of it, to express themselves creatively and for the interaction with the audience. A lucky few might make millions but you can’t judge everyone else on that basis, lawyers, accountants, bankers, those guys make the serious money. Also, those motivated by money don’t make as good music, if your inspiration isn’t true, then it shines through in music.
Would you have opted out of stage if you were offered an alternative job? Not all, as I said earlier, I had job which I left in order to be a musician, that wa almost 50 years ago and I am still in it. I think I made the right decision.
If you could have lunch with anyone, real or fictional, alive or dead, who would it be and what is the first thing you would ask him or her?
It’s impossible to pick one single person, there are loved ones that would be great to see one more time, but musically the most obvious person would be Fela Kuti, and I’d ask him if he’s happy with what’s happened to the music that we created together.
What are your goals for the coming years?
I want to keep on doing what I do, improving and doing new things. I’m very happy with my band and our new album, we can do great things together. I’m very fortunate that I get the opportunities to work with all manner of artists doing different and interesting projects, long may it continue.
Music is my mission. I never get satisfied and I’m still learning from others. The musical world is very spiritual, and I don’t think there’s an end to it. The best legacy is your professional work and leaving an indelible mark on the minds of people.
Additional information: Agence France Press (AFP) wrote that Allen was the drummer and musical director of Fela Kuti’s band Africa ‘70 in the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, the pair created afrobeat, combining West African musical styles such as highlife and Fuji music with American imports jazz and funk. Afrobeat went on to become one of the totemic genres of 20th century African music.
Over Allen’s thrilling beat, Fela laid out his revolutionary and pan-African message, which led him to become one of the abiding icons of the struggle for freedom across the continent. Allen and Fela recorded around 40 albums together in Africa ‘70, before parting ways after a mythic 26-year collaboration. Such was the hole that Allen left in his band, Fela needed four drummers to replace him.
Allen taught himself to play drums from the age of 18, drawing inspiration from American jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker as well as contemporary African music. He remained hugely influential and beloved by generations of musicians.
British musician and producer Brian Eno has called Allen “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived.” Allen was the drummer in the supergroup The Good, the Bad & the Queen, also featuring Blur singer Damon Albarn and The Clash bassist Paul Simonon, which released its second album in 2018. Tony Allen died suddenly at the age of 79 in the Paris suburb Courbevoie, France.
5th Anniversary Celebrations of Establishment of China Cultural Center in Pakistan
April 20th 2020 marks its fifth anniversary celebration of China Cultural Center in Pakistan. On this special day 5 years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping on a state visit to Pakistan together with Pakistani former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif jointly unveiled China Cultural Center in Pakistan on 5 April 2015 at the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office in Islamabad.
China Cultural Center in Pakistan officially launched and began its operation Islamabad of Pakistan ever since.
In order to fight the epidemic and convey confidence and determination to overcome the Covid-19, China Cultural Center in Pakistan has launched online celebrations on Facebook. Visiting China Online series of activities include five online photo exhibitions, “Our Silk Road”, “World Cultural Heritage in China”, “The Ancient Silk Road State of Kucha”, “Beautiful China”, “Celebrating in Harmony and Joy – Chinese Spring Festival Photo Exhibition” and documentary series “Beautiful China”, “China Beyond Your Imagination”, and “One Belt One Road – People to People Connectivity”.
The establishment of the China Cultural Center in Pakistan is an important symbol of the further deepening of bilateral relations between China and Pakistan. Center’s aim and objective is to strengthen cultural exchanges and cooperation between China and Pakistan and enhance mutual understanding and friendship between the people of two countries. Since its establishment in Pakistan, China Cultural Center has actively organized various types of cultural activities i.e., cultural performances, visual arts exhibitions, film festivals, film shows, teaching, training, lectures, seminars and other different cultural activities.
China Cultural Center in Pakistan has organized 26 grand exhibitions in the past such as “China-Pakistan Friendship Photo Exhibition”, “Beautiful China Photo Exhibition”, “Belt and Road in My Eyes, A Pakistani Students’ Poster Competition” attracting more than 20,000 visitors. To celebrate Chinese New Year, more than 30 grand cultural performances such as the “70th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China”, “65th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations Between China and Pakistan”, and “Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival” gala performance for more than 100000 audience. Training workshops such as Chinese Martial Arts, Chinese Culinary Art, and Chinese Paper Cutting attracted more than 3,000 people. China Cultural Center has participated in eighth and ninth Pakistan National Book Festival in Islamabad, Pakistan and displayed Chinese cultural elements by setting up booth attracting Pakistani people from different walks of life. President of Pakistan Dr. Arif Alvi also visited China Cultural Center’s booth and highly praised the friendship between China and Pakistan. These two National Book Festivals attracted more than 500,000 people.
With collaboration of different universities and educational institutions, China Cultural Center also held a series of “Happy Chinese New Year” activities, lectures on “Traditional Chinese Medicine”, “Belt and Road” and Chinese-Western Art Exchange” and other relevant topics to effectively provide interactional exchange between students and teachers of universities. The “China Film Festival and Film Conference” held in August 2019 opened a new chapter in the exchange and cooperation between film industry of China and Pakistan.
China Cultural Center in Pakistan will comprehensively utilize all the humanity resources in the future to showcase Chinese history, culture and stories, promote traditional and contemporary Chinese culture, tourism, intangible culture and will continue to make relentless efforts for a new chapter of China-Pakistan friendship.
China-Pakialstan Dosti Zindabad!
Even during COVID-19, art ‘brings us closer together than ever’
With billions of people either in lockdown or on the front lines battling the COVID-19 pandemic, this first celebration of World Art Day is a timely reminder that “art has the power to unite and connect in times of crisis”, the head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said on Wednesday.
“Bringing people together, inspiring, soothing and sharing: these are the powers of art, the importance of which has been made emphatically obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic”, Audrey Azoulay said in her message.
Throughout self-isolation, art has nonetheless been flourishing. Pointing to peformers tapping into their creativity to relay health guidelines and share messages of hope – as well as neighbours singing to each other on balconies, and concerts online – Ms. Azoulay maintained that creativity abounds.
And the Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous masterpiece, the anniversary of whose birth, on 15 April, has been chosen for the World Day – has been revisited in a variety of ways, including images of her self-isolating in the Louvre Museum, or covering her enigmatic smile with a surgical mask.
“This is how, despite the crisis, art is demonstrating its resilience today”, explained the UNESCO chief.
Paying tribute to the solidarity shown by artists and institutions at a time when “art is suffering the full force of the effects of a global health, economic and social crisis”, she flagged that this time of confinement can also be “a period of openness to others and to culture, to strengthen the links between artistic creation and society”.
Through the hashtag #ShareCulture, UNESCO has invited everyone to communicate their love of art by sharing it broadly.
The coronavirus pandemic has closed museums and cancelled concerts, plunging many cultural institutions into uncertainty and immediate financial loss while also threatening a long-term effect on the arts.
As the world waits for the current measures to be lifted, vulnerable groups who are unable to get online, exacerbating a global digital divide, have even greater difficulty in gaining access.
Keeping art alive requires the twofold approach of supporting cultural professionals and institutions, and promoting access to art for all, according to Ms. Azoulay.
As these challenges require far-reaching cultural policies it will be necessary to “listen to the voices of the artistic world in their globality and diversity”, she stressed.
With the aim of affirming the resilience of art in during this difficult period and in preparing for the future, UNESCO has launched the “ResiliArt” movement, which, among other things, will consist of a series of global virtual debates with renowned artists and draw support for the cultural world throughout the crisis.
And looking forward, guidelines will be drawn up on improving the protection of artists for future crises.
The UNESCO chief urged everyone to participate in “this strong impetus for culture” to prove that even in a period of personal distancing, “art brings us closer together than ever before”.
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