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.
UNGA76: Giant eco-friendly artwork set to inspire world leaders
A new 11,000 square metre ‘ephemeral fresco’ created by Swiss artist Saype, has set the stage at UN Headquarters in New York, to welcome world leaders for the General Assembly High Level Week. It shows two children building the world of the future using origami, highlighting the participation of young people.
“World in Progress II is perfectly suited to our time and place. First, it is, in all senses, a big picture. Both its execution and its subject are monumental and ambitious. We have to take several steps back, just to view it in its entirety. Then we understand that it shows two children, designing their ideal world together”, said on Saturday UN Secretary General during the unveiling ceremony.
Antonio Guterres explained that, just like the artwork, the United Nations’ mission extends far beyond what we can see around us. “Most of it lies out of our view. Our work is multilateral, and multi-generational. And each of us plays an essential part in creating the whole”, he added.
Guillaume Legros, or “Saype”, an artist name inspired by the contraction of the words “say” and “peace”, is famous for its invention of an eco-friendly painting process. His special technique allows him to create huge frescoes directly on the grass.
“In two weeks, there will be nothing left due to the regrowth of the grass. This makes the work disappear, even more than the rain”, he explained to UN News, adding that he spent more than a year finding the right pigments for his ephemeral art.
Saype had already shared one of his creations at UN premises before. Last year, World in Progress I was unveiled during the commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary in Geneva, Switzerland.
“In the centre, there is a dove that symbolizes peace. The basic idea is that on the one hand when talking about children, we ask ourselves what responsibility we have towards them. But, on the other hand, they are the ones who will have the world of tomorrow in their hands. This means that we must really learn to live together in a world that is also hyper-connected”, he said.
A call to world leaders
For the UN chief, the children depicted in World in Progress II are designing our shared future.
“This year’s General Debate will take up this theme, focusing on the world we are building together. My recent report on Our Common Agenda recommends new ways for today’s decision-makers to better serve both young people, and future generations”.
Mr. Guterres said he was hopeful that world leaders will take inspiration from Saype’s art to consider how “we can look beyond our immediate surroundings, while respecting nature and our planet”.
Bengal’s Thriving Cotton Handloom Tant Textile Crafts Looming
India being a diverse nation endorses and nourishes indigenous ethnic crafts. Every region of India has to offer thriving cultural heritages, a few of those receiving the attention of the mainstream population, while several are failing to do so. Once glorified Bengal’s Handloom Tant Textile Crafts falls into the second category, as it’s lost the place to be under the spotlight. Even though “Every Handloom Tant Textile Crafts has a unique story to tell—as it is inheriting one of the finest and ancient weaving mechanisms that sprouted in nowhere other than Bengal. Dating back to the 15th century and leaving remarkably earliest trace from Nadia District of West Bengal Handloom Tant Textile Crafts received Royal patronage and retained popularity throughout centuries. Its uniqueness lies in design which mostly includes the depiction of ancient Bengali cultural influences and reflection of Bengali flair. In that sense, Handloom Tant Textile Crafts are very much connected to the soil of Bengal and utterly reflects sustainable, indigenous initiative within the millennials weavers of Bengal, who still feel connected to the ancient essence.
The word ‘Tant’ indicates the cotton-based Handloom Textile Crafts, includes Handloom weaved Textiles including Saris, Cloth pieces, Dupattas, Bed Sheets etc.
Shantipur of undivided Bengal, now in Nadia district of West Bengal having earliest record of Handloom Tant Crafts weaving back to 15th century. It remained dominant cultural tradition from 16th to the 18th century and received extensive royal patronage along with the world-famous Muslin and Jamdani Sari of the same genre. In 1947 after the partition of Bengal, a hefty number of weavers migrated especially from Tangail Bangladesh to India and received rehabilitation in different regions including Phulia, Shantipur. Weavers bore their lineal Handloom Tant Textile weaving Crafts with them. Residual weaver communities got settled in the Hooghly and Bardhaman regions of West Bengal. Since then, each region has developed its signature style.
The weaving Technique
Handloom Tant Textile Craftsare woven with locally produced Bengal cotton. The kind of fine handspun yarn being used for Weaving of Handloom Tant Textile Crafts once applied in weaving soft, feather-light Muslin and Mulmul textiles that have been exported and adored globally for ages. The fineness of weaved cotton depends on the yarn quality and it is on the yarn that the textile is fine (combed cotton) or coarser (regular cotton).
Cotton being deftly woven to the thread is further being woven by craftsmen to Tant Textile. It is customary to use shuttles. Though nowadays handlooms have largely been replaced by power looms to weave Tant Textiles, which compromising the quality of Tant Textiles pushing environment-friendly, electricity-saving Handloom on the verge of extinction.
Popular motifs in use
The most popular Handloom Tant Textile Crafts product is Sari. The handloom Tant Textile crafts products other than Sari also depict motifs like Sari. A quintessential six-yard Tant Sari is distinguished by a thick two-to-four-inch border and a decorative Aanchal. Weavers use fine cotton yarn to manifest a variety of floral, paisley, and artistic motifs, attached to the culture of Bengal. Some of the most adored time-honoured motifs of West Bengal’s Handloom Tant include bhomra (bumblebee), tabij (amulet), rajmahal (a royal palace), ardha Chandra (half-moon), chandmala (garland of moons), ansh (fish scales), hathi (elephant), nilambari (blue sky), ratan chokh (gem-eyed), benki (spiral), tara (star), kalka (paisley) and phool (flowers), etc. Apart from these regional trends are being followed.
Why Handloom Tant Textile Crafts losing the interest of the mainstream population and what are the way forward?
Because of the advertisement and marketing industry the youth generations are mainly inclined towards high-shine clothing, heavy silks and zari, ignoring or being unaware of clothing science and technology. Handloom Tant Textiles, in comparison, is a modest, soothing clothing based on environment-friendly technique which add real charm to Tant. Elderly people are not even aware of the positive aspects of Handloom Tant Textile Crafts, due to no such promotion leading the Crafts to evade.
What is in particular in Tant to rethink its revival?
Handloom Tant Crafts comes under the range of heritage textiles of West Bengal. Sari-loving Indian women would certainly like to acquire collection of handloom saris from across India. While Handloom Tant Textile Sari would certainly give the blended feeling of heritage and comfort. Most of the Sari-wearing Indian women find themselves particularly attached to Bengal’s Handloom Tant and Jamdani Sari. Jamdani Sari belongs to the same genre of Handloom Tant. Tant Jamdani from Dhaka and Shantipur is exceptionally lightweight, characterized by intricately designed motifs that seem to float on the surface of the translucent ultra-fine textile, giving it an almost mystical grace in appearance.
Moreover, Handloom Tant Textile Crafts are comfortable to wear in tropical climatic zones of the world. Tropical, subtropical climates of the Indian subcontinent are exceptionally fine to wear and use such textiles. While most of the raw material being used and the technology being followed in Handloom Tant Textile Crafts is nature friendly and indigenous for the subcontinent. Revival, then on the restoration of the lost glory of Handloom Tant Textile Crafts of Bengal will certainly promote environment-friendly sustainable textile technology basing on the growth of the home-based cottage industry of West Bengal. Employing Indian youth in the process may revamp the initiative in the way Handloom Tant Textile Crafts would get a modern outlook and that will generate youth entrepreneurs to promote indigenous industries and a lot more positive things would happen in this row.
How important the present time is to preserve Handloom Tant Crafts? what could be the way forward?
As an economic industrial activity, the ‘Tantshilpa/Tant Crafts’ (the art of weaving handloom Textiles) is second only to agriculture in providing a livelihood to the people of certain regions of West Bengal. Ravaging the hope of business in Bengali New Year on April 14, 2020 the ongoing pandemic and ensuing lockdown have led to insurmountable losses to Textile Industry. Handloom Tant Textiles also facing a tremendous challenge for decades losing the interest of younger generations owing to its traditionalism and maintenance cost. The need of the hour is to activate retail for existing stock using e-commerce and involving youth to regenerate the work chain and boost business. The genesis of interest towards such heritage and endangered craft like Handloom Tant Textiles can restore the sentiment and attachment of weavers’ communities.
Organizing regular workshops with the weavers offering creative concept and textile design expertise in developing an ongoing collection of modern Tant saris and textiles that can bring the Handloom Tant Industry on-trend. While Tant is a versatile and comfortable fabric especially suited in the climate of India and considerable places of the world and also lends itself well to soft furnishings home decors cum comfortable garments.
Classified Handloom Tant Textile Crafts are being picked by authentic celebrities, dignified women. To revive the Indian Economy in the post-pandemic global crisis, promotion of indigenous Industries based on the authentic handmade, handloom, and traditional crafts are the way out, which is also environment friendly. ‘Make in India’ and ‘buy local’ is more relevant now than ever before, as each locally-made purchase directly supports indigenous industry, regional to global work circle, in turn, funds its makers, that is, the craftsmen/women in every level.
The hands that nourish tradition, indigenous crafts need to be celebrated. Direct connection of remote areas Handloom Tant Textiles weavers with well-structuredHandloom Tant Textile Craftswork chain is the way forward that less known regions areas of West Bengal like Santipur, Phulia, Nadia, and Dhaniakhali get counted in the global map of Textile industry representing the glorious Handloom Tant Textile Crafts of Bengal.
Copenhagen named UNESCO-UIA World Capital of Architecture for 2023
The city of Copenhagen has been officially designated as World Capital of Architecture for 2023 by the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, on the recommendation of the General Assembly of the International Union of Architects (UIA).
This decision is in keeping with the partnership agreement established between UNESCO and the UIA in 2018, through which UNESCO designates the host cities of UIA’s World Congress as World Capitals of Architecture. “We are very happy to see the torch of the World Capital of Architecture title pass to Copenhagen from Rio de Janeiro,” Audrey Azoulay said. “The inaugural World Capital of Architecture in Rio was a real success, underlining the important role of urban planning, notably in the pandemic context”, she noted, adding that “Copenhagen will build upon Rio’s achievements, by continuing to show the way in which architecture and culture can respond to the challenges of our time, especially in the environmental field.”
UNESCO and the UIA launched the World Capital of Architecture initiative to highlight the key role of architecture, city planning, and culture in shaping urban identity and sustainable urban development. Every three years, the city designated as World Capital of Architecture becomes a global forum at the forefront of discussions on contemporary urban planning and architectural issues.
As the World Capital of Architecture for 2023, Copenhagen will host a series of major events and programmes on the theme “Sustainable Futures – Leave No One Behind.” In cooperation with the Danish Association of Architects and various Nordic professional bodies, the municipality will examine how architecture and urban design contribute to meeting the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
From 18 to 22 July 2021, Rio de Janeiro will host the World Congress of Architects online. Following Copenhagen in 2023, Barcelona and Beijing are the two contenders looking to claim the World Capital of Architecture title in 2026 and host the next World Congress. The official decision will be made later this year.
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