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.
Architecture Reflecting Culture: The Alhambra
Throughout history civilizations have been overtaken by successors. These in turn decline and fall as time marches on. Often all that remain are monuments, an occasional palace or temple often a tomb, usually in ruins unless of relatively current vintage.
The ancient Egyptians built massive pyramids to bury their pharaohs, projects lasting a lifetime and ensuring a reliable source of income for the workers and others involved.
The Greeks favored exquisitely proportioned temples and statuary rendered with a skill that was not matched again until the Renaissance. One would be remiss not to mention their vast output of the mind from philosophy and logic to the poetry and drama played out in the amphitheaters.
If Roman entertainment relied on blood and gore, it was part of a culture of brutal wars, subjugation and suppression of foreign peoples welded into an empire. Then there was Roman law, even if it applied only to citizens.
Of more recent vintage are the great cathedrals of Europe like Chartres, tall, massive, constructed in a span of time unimaginable in our era of haste. Preceding them were the great mosques of the Muslim era decorated in geometric shapes and colors to dazzle the eye. Damascus and Isfahan come to mind.
Then there are the Nasrid kings of Grenada in southern Spain, al Andalus to these descendants of North African Berbers and Arabs who ruled there for several centuries. A time when the three Abrahamic religions coexisted in relative harmony it saw the flowering of a civilization noted for its mixture of opposites.
The city of Cordoba with its great mosque was an early fruit of this admixture becoming the largest city in Europe during the 10th century, although civil wars had diminished it considerably by the 13th century. Yet the 13th century began the growth of a city on a hill now called Alhambra probably due to the reddish color (alhamra in Arabic) of the rock face. Housing some 40,000 citizens then, not many of the buildings survive. Notable are the defensive citadel Alcazaba, three palaces — the Mexuar, the Comares and the Court of the Lions — and an encircling wall with battlements and towers. The great mosque was replaced by a Franciscan monastery in the 15th century and is now a parador — a government-run hotel that was formerly a castle or palace or the like.
The Courtyard of the Lions is justly famous as the symbol of Alhambra. The twelve lions at the center appear to be holding up a water basin right in the center of a network of channels … on the periphery, colonnades supporting delicately carved arches form an abbey-like cloister. But the walls in the adjoining rooms hold their own surprise in intricately carved geometries of colored tiles and plasterwork. Glancing up, the ceilings are designed to take your breath away. Even more intricately constructed, they comprise thousands of meticulously carved sections of wood rising layer upon layer to feast the eye as small apertures allow in shafts of sunlight or moonlight. Watercourses run through many rooms spilling across portals into pools among enclosed gardens melding interior with exterior and joining it with nature.
The architect LeCorbusier called it ‘the intelligent, just and magnificent interplay of volumes made harmonious by daylight.’ Henri Matisse exclaimed, ‘The Alhambra is a marvel’ and Washington Irving captured imaginations throughout the western world with his 1832 book, The Alhambra. At the time going to rack and ruin, his romantic vision helped to trigger an effort to preserve the precious gem.
Now a magnet for tourists, it remains a precious reminder of what an intermingling of cultures can produce — just as the Taj Mahal does in India where Mughal emperors often married Hindu Rajput princesses and Shah Jahan (whose mother Manmati was one) built his own marvel.
Don’t avoid what is easy – diplomacy meets art
Individuals should and need to feel like they have the right to want. That is the message that artist Anastasia Lemberg-Lvova is continuously expressing through her artwork. Exemplifying socially-engaged art, Lemberg-Lvova aims to be a part of a much broader political movement which discusses important historical and modern-day social processes through creative means.
The second-wave feminist movements from the 1960s is one example of such a powerful movement. With their infamous quote, ‘The personal is political’, authored by millions of voices of women collectively rather than one feminist author, the message that every individual has the right to a voice was heavily stressed. As personal experiences took center stage and the individual became a political platform during the feminist movements, crowds of individuals also gained new meanings of courageous collectivity. Ultimately, the movement gave opportunity for previously ignored and taken-for-granted personal circumstances to be framed in a bigger picture – a picture that women as minorities were often left out of.
Continuing to portray the central message that movements such as the feminist strikes and many other historical crusades have fought for, Lemberg-Lvova uses her own art to focus on the younger European generation, highlighting the vast diverseness of the voices that live in Europe and sending a bold message that evidences a heterogeneity which needs to be more thoroughly discussed amongst the European community. With her projects, she is able to recognise the ways in which the systemic infrastructures that exist around the individual leave them feeling insecure or insignificant in relation to their voice and its right to exist in public. By initiating healthy conversation and focusing on this very elemental act of daring to express one’s desires towards public space, she has created a platform that encourages individuals to learn to voice their opinions more often, ultimately leading the person to be engaged as the multiplicities of voices are amplified to lead to more diverse discussion and perhaps outcomes.
Her exhibition, ‘Don’t Avoid What is Easy’, on show from August 14th – September 9th at the Freedom Gallery in Tallinn, Estonia, is thus the result of 2 years of research conducted mainly through interviews of younger generation individuals during her own expenditures through Europe. Although seemingly humble in its outcome as portraits, there is a strong message behind Lemberg-Lvova’s work, depicting the notion that we should feel more confident to voice our opinions about our public surroundings, Lemberg-Lvova uses art and representations to give a voice to over 100 participants from 24 European countries.
By painting vibrant oil portraits of a selected 7 individuals whom she interviewed, she touches on the concept of art and its political capacity by explaining “There will be portraits of participants with a visual interpretation of their wish as the background. The experience of, as we often say, “putting a face to a name” has a profound effect and is more intuitively understood than just going through text or trying to grasp abstract ideas. Painting as a form of expression is immensely malleable and useful when getting ideas across.”The desire to initiate discussion and give it a platform within the context of a gallery means Lemberg-Lvova’s art is inherently social and public. These qualities make for an intriguing space where the audience can identify small changes that resemble the tip of a much bigger iceberg– or at least the ignition of confidence and curiosity.
This focus on the first and easiest step sometimes being the hardest is something of great importance for Lemberg-Lvova as she explains “An inhabitant of a city logically has the right to express ideas or wishes when it comes to their surroundings – it is, after all, their home. But they are often stuck in the belief of not being able to change anything. In this instance, I am not talking about taking action or creating a plan. This is about the simplest first step that does not require anything – feeling like one is entitled to express a wish. It doesn’t have to lead anywhere; just remember that you have the right to want something. What follows is a different matter, but it is clear that nothing will happen without this first step.”
An interactive wall installation where participant answers are projected for all to see will pay homage to the importance that Lemberg-Lvova holds for communities to listen to the expressions of their surrounding civilians. She explains “From an early age, our heads are flooded with subliminal messaging and that often diminishes internal self-worth. Let me explain this from the point of view of a woman – a frame of reference I am most familiar with. As a woman one feels that unless they have perfect dazzlingly white teeth, flawless hair, a tiny waist and the right kind of shoes they are not worthy of expressing an opinion. Because if you do not fulfill all of the criteria above, no one will listen to you or even consider you worthy of attention. This is a cliché, yet it exists because it is true. It describes the reality of many women, because we are surrounded by sources reaffirming it – adverts, friends, sometimes parents or spouses, fitness centers and the list goes on. At the exhibition, I am striving to fill the space with messaging that reiterates one’s right to express their wishes whoever they are.”
Her message is clear – we should not avoid formulating our wishes in matters that concern us. Her persistence to initiate discussion and to give it a platform within the context of a gallery means her art is inherently social and public. These qualities make for an intriguing meeting space for the artist as well as her audience amongst each other.
Open Studio at Kogo Gallery, Widget Factory (Aparaaditehas), Tartu, Estonia: 08.07-01.08
Exhibition “Don’t Avoid What is Easy – Diplomacy meets art”at Vabaduse Gallery: 14.08-09.09
*Valeriya Billich also contributed to this article. Photos:Mariia Nedosekova
Life of a Bon Vivant
Uncertainty and summer saunter in with its retinue of rules, so I am told. While philistines slip into their shorts. Gentlemen don’t do that. At least the ones I know, or rather, admire. I am strongly of the opinion that summer requires meticulous management and planning. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the sartorial preferences, dietary habits, and recreational regime. Additionally, and rather, increasingly significant nowadays, at the bar cabinet, which must gracefully welcome fresh grog.
Change, I am reminded of being told is a perpetual challenge. This is true now more than ever before. This summer shall be different for me; No travel to new or old destinations, no steeps into rich heritage which are pulsing with an unparalleled artistic spirit, no gastronomic sensations and beautifully landscaped parks and gardens that beautifully manicured and most of all, a restricted consumption regime of spirits and smokes. There is no doubt about the fact that the perfection of a sufficient dose of sensual stimulation shall be missed, dearly.
In times of such glaring uncertainty, many of us find ourselves in the rigour of isolation. Yet one mustn’t drown in sorrow, for that pernicious jump into the rabbit hole of total despair will drive to insanity. Instead, in the spirit of making hay while the sun shines, I find myself deeply grasped in my hobbies and interests of art, culture, fashion, and even interior design. In furtherance of my interests and passions, I plan future trips to the European continent for study and debaucherously pleasurable activities while my folks worry about the thickness of their chequebook.
Despite countless hours spent on my multiple whims and fancies devoting time to the daily duties is an art. An art that is similar to the fine tailoring abilities of the talented gentlemen with the extraordinary skill of Hunstman, Savile Row. Managing the split of time is learned and perfected over time, like the of cutting cloth. This skill, over which I have achieved mastery, I am lucky to say, I received at birth from my mother who hails from a decorated family of army officers. For me, it runs my veins to be fastidious. For novices, here’s a hint; Avoid morning lie-ins, afternoon naps, and daytime Netflix binges while leaving tasks to complete after the evening meal. Have some self-discipline, dude.
These days after supper, I find myself sitting back in my armchair engrossed in a new book with either a Cohiba or something out from my patriarch’s prized whiskey collection, resting on my mahogany piecrust tripod table helping me fulfil the senses. Millennial Chilling is not for me. I have often been told that I am an old soul trapped in a new body. To me, that is madness, but I often see the method in it. That is because, I do not find any sense of gratification or contentment in doing nothing but, for those who do, remember, one simply can’t make love seven days a week, much as one’s partner might desire it. Other forms of vigorous exercise are sometimes required.
While I happily drown myself in pursuit of knowledge, I turn to the literary world to share my final thoughts to share a contrary tale. The words of Ernest Hemingway: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. For me, contrarily, the gleeful effect of the fine cognac and Erik Satie’s mastery on the piano has its drowning effect. You hear only what you wish to hear much like my most favoured ruler, Napoleon. To that, I’ll drink.
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