With a fresh crop of artists, gleaming galleries and a renewed appreciation of all things artistic, Singapore is poised to become a hub for the arts in Asia.
Words: Chitra Santhinathan Photography: Ariff Shah Sopian
Economic powerhouse. Financial hub. Skyscraper city. Singapore is all of the above. The face of modern Asia, this tiny little dot on the map is an enviable amalgamation of the old and new, of hallowed halls and stellar skyscrapers. As the city-state commemorates its 50th year, renewed interest in the arts has resulted in increased government spending in its promotion, while the proliferation of avant-garde galleries and art spaces both on the ground and online, provide artists myriad platforms for their works.
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
In a high-rise overlooking the Singapore Strait, Boedi Widjaja sits sketching a portrait, brows furrowed in deep concentration. Peering over Widjaja’s shoulders and careful not to interrupt, my eyes follow the deft flicks of his right wrist, and trace the pencil’s movements as the image, like a photograph, begins to emerge. This is no ordinary sketch. Widjaja is working on what he terms a ‘negative drawing’, a sketch that captures subtle tonalities, much like a photo negative. In his left hand, a tablet displays an image that has been digitally inverted using a setting on the device. Holding the tablet above a piece of art paper, Widjaja uses the onscreen image as a guide, noting the differences between dark and light and transferring the reverse shades onto paper. The darker tones of the monochrome image are lightened while the lighter shades receive the opposite treatment, resulting in imagery that replicates a photo negative.
The trained architect-turned-artist is currently working on a series of negative drawings that will be exhibited in January. The drawings are based on photographic imagery from newspaper archives, of historical figures and events in Indonesia – his country of birth. “I left Indonesia when I was nine and my sense of Indonesian history has always been mediated through imagery found in newspapers, magazines, television and the Internet.” Though his technique is 21st century, Widjaja’s art is a personal narrative of sorts inspired by his heritage.
The Singaporean artist still feels a deep connection to his country of birth, and through his negative drawings that meld technique and technology, he shares these sentiments with the public.
For Widjaja, transitioning from architect to artist was prompted by the birth of his daughter almost a decade ago. “She was born with a rare medical condition, and in dealing with the initial prognosis and treatment, my wife and I had to take risks. Her birth gave me the courage to step out of my comfort zone and to really go with my instinct.” Widjaja’s instinct has certainly served him well. In 2012, he responded to a call for visual artists at The Substation, Singapore’s first independent contemporary arts centre and venue, with an idea for a live performance piece, and won himself a spot to turn his concept into reality. The exposure earned him recognition and since then, his work has been well received in Singapore and abroad. His gumption to leave the security of a well-paying job for the uncertainties of life as an artist is enviable but no longer unheard of in the city-state that is fast becoming an art capital.
DIFFERENT STROKES, DIFFERENT FOLKS
All across the island, artistically talented Singaporeans armed with what was once deemed ‘solid degrees’ are trading their briefcases for brushes, and pursuing their calling, driven not by financial motives but self-fulfillment. From Widaja’s studio, I make my way to the workplace of another up-and-coming Singaporean artist, Simon Ng. A man with a cheeky, dimpled smile and a paint-splotched apron opens the door and introduces himself. I ask if I can observe him as he works and he obliges happily, moving to a large canvas propped against a wall. Kneeling on the floor, Ng begins to paint as if entranced. Watching his effortless strokes, it’s hard to imagine he has only recently been painting professionally.
A former graphic artist, Ng took a yearlong sabbatical to re-evaluate his priorities. A chance Sunday painting class awakened his love for fine arts and prompted him to go back to school – art school. At Singapore’s prestigious LASALLE College of the Arts, Ng honed his paintbrush technique and talent, graduating with first class honours in fine art.
Now, Ng paints for a living and supplements his income with teaching jobs. “When I was growing up in the 1980s, a career as a painter was frowned upon. No Singaporean parent in their right mind would encourage such a career choice. I would spend hours doodling under the dining table but that was as far as it went.” Today, Ng’s works are snapped up by buyers looking for original works of art that are affordable. This new breed of buyer consists primarily of young professionals eager to start their own collections. “There’s been a real shift. Buyers are genuinely interested in the art works and I think it’s because they are more well-read and widely-travelled.”
THINKING OUT OF THE BOX
The next morning, I wake up bright and early and head to a HDB (Housing Development Board) flat in the west of the island, where LASALLE alumnus Melissa Tan creates meteorite-inspired masterpieces. The 26-year-old invites me into her family home and apologises for the clutter; she is in the midst of moving her works of art into a proper studio. In an upstairs room, she shows me a piece she is designing for an upcoming exhibition. Fascinated by the texture and wonder of rocks, the subject has become a central theme of her art. The young woman’s paper relief ‘rocks’, made by layering intricately-etched paper, have an other-worldly feel about them. Though inspired by rocks, the paper sculptures are delicate and precise. A fine arts graduate, Tan tells me the technique she employs to create the patterned paper is much like drawing, only instead of a pencil, she uses a blade to create her cutout designs. “I like the fact that I can translate a ‘drawing’ into a physical form and turn it into a sculpture. I’ve always been attracted to the art of paper cutting and this is really a combination of several techniques.” Tan says she is encouraged by the works of fellow Singaporean artists like Jane Lee, one of the country’s most notable contemporary artists, known for her inventive techniques and innovative use of materials. “The time for experimentation is now. The public is more receptive towards new ideas and concepts and Singapore is becoming a hotbed of creativity.”
When it comes to creativity, the sky is the limit. Kumari Nahappan, perhaps Singapore’s most well-known contemporary artist, is famed for her bronze casts of chillies in every shape and form. If you’ve been to Singapore recently, chances are you would have come across the oversized, highly sought after fruit sculptures. But few realise that Malaysia-born Nahappan’s first works were abstract. The artist and mother of four attended LASALLE in the early 1990s, when the school was just beginning to make a name for itself. There, in a classroom filled with students barely out of their teens, Nahappan dazzled her peers and teachers with her outstanding compositions and secured her first solo exhibition after just one year of painting. Today, Nahappan’s sculptures can be found in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Shanghai, and her abstract paintings and installations have been exhibited internationally. The artist draws inspiration from her heritage; many of her works are contemplative and reflect the artist’s spirituality. Living and working in Singapore for over two decades, Nahappan has witnessed the amazing transformation of Singapore’s art scene.
A TIME FOR ART
“When I went to art school, the art scene in the city was just in its infancy. As a young country, the priority at the time was nation building and development.” The setting up of the National Arts Council in 1991 was a major milestone in the development of the arts in the city-state. According to official statistics, funding for arts and heritage grew from SGD280.6 million in 2010 to SGD427.3 million in 2013, indicative of a growing appreciation for the arts, heritage and culture. Nahappan says the present environment is conducive for emerging artists, as there is a great deal of support for artists, as well as avenues to promote their work. She also believes that Singapore is perfectly positioned to be a hub for Southeast Asian art. To learn more about Singapore’s role in curating art from the region, I visit the National Gallery Singapore (www.nationalgallery.sg), reputed to house one of the world’s largest public collections of Singaporean and Southeast Asian artworks.
The gallery is a new visual arts institution dedicated to collaborative research, education and exhibitions, with galleries that highlight the importance of modern art in Southeast Asia in a global context. Situated within the recently-restored Supreme Court and City Hall buildings, the expansive art space also provides a unique visitor experience through its art presentations and innovative programming, which position Singapore as a regional and international hub for the visual arts. Here, in its hallowed halls, over 8,000 exquisite works from Singaporean and Southeast Asian artists are displayed. Significant pieces include works by Singapore’s Georgette Chen, Indonesia’s Raden Saleh, Cambodia’s Svay Ken and Myanmar’s premier modern painter U Ba Nyan.
Because my visit is ahead of the official opening on November 24, I am unable to view many of the artworks as they have not been displayed yet. Nevertheless, I am fortunate enough to be given a private tour of the gallery’s expansive spaces in all its Art Deco glory. I highly recommend a visit to the National Gallery just to marvel at its architecture and its sensitively restored interiors. The building, a landmark of Singapore’s colonial past, boasts many of the original fittings and fixtures including lamps, floor tiles and canted timber ceilings.
While the National Gallery exhibits modern artworks from around the region, its contemporary counterpart, located in a former missionary school building, plays host to regional and other Asian contemporary artworks and installations.
UTOPIA AND BEYOND
Lynn Sim, the marketing communications head of Singapore Art Museum (www.singaporeartmuseum.sg), greets me when I arrive at another heritage monument, formerly the St. Joseph’s Institution. In its present incarnation, what were once classrooms are now galleries filled with amazing contemporary art works.
Sim guides me through After Utopia, an astounding exhibition that explores four different aspects of utopia or the ideal, through the eyes of artists. The exhibits are a sensorial feast of paintings, sculptures and installations. One of my favourite installations is Cabinet by Chinese artist Gao Lei. It features a chest of drawers with peepholes that reveal secret lives. I feel like a voyeur, peering through the little glass spyholes at a variety of surreal tableaus from a pair of giraffes wandering through a derelict structure to figures in gas masks in a disused bathhouse. The tableaus reflect a sense of loss felt by a generation of young Chinese (artist included) who came of age in an era of rapid globalisation.
From After Utopia, we move on to 5 Stars, an exhibition of five commissioned works that contemplate the ideals represented by the five stars on the Singapore flag: peace, justice, equality, democracy and progress. The most arresting of the series is Bloodline of Peace by Suzann Victor. Beautiful yet bizarre, Bloodline is a 40-metre-long quilt woven of thousands of fresnel lenses, each panel containing a drop of Singaporean blood. Sim tells me Victor’s work references the commitment and sacrifice necessary for peace to be maintained in a nation.
French artist and Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne could not have been more correct when he enthused, “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art”. Every one of the artists I encounter here are happy to share the thought processes behind their artworks, and along with this, their personal narratives.
I am amazed by the commitment of the artists who bare a bit of their souls for the rest of us; art, after all has to come from an honest place to be meaningful. As long as Singaporean artists continue to reach into that honest place for inspiration, they will have no shortage in audience. Singapore’s artistic ambition is no pipe dream; the city-state certainly has the talent, infrastructure and drive, and is well on its way to becoming one of Asia’s premier cultural and artistic hubs.
The Artling, an online gallery that showcases a curated selection of art sourced from Asia’s top galleries and artists, bills itself as the world’s primary resource for Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian and Asian Art. The company constantly sources new talent, both established and emerging, from across Asia, with the aim of making their work more accessible to the international market.
Featuring a meticulously curated collection of art, ranging from limited edition prints to sculptures to paintings, from over 350 artists in the region, The Artling is the go-to site for art afi cionados seeking their fi rst piece or collectors looking to expand their collection. Browse The Artling’s online gallery at theartling.com for details on the artists featured in this story, and more.
CONTEMPORARY ASIAN ART
Art Stage Singapore, a leading Asian art fair, takes places from January 21 to 24, 2016, showcasing a diverse range of some of the best Asian contemporary art, with a focus on Southeast Asian art. Featuring handpicked galleries, Art Stage Singapore promotes dialogue on Asia’s contemporary art scenes and provides a platform for art specialists and enthusiasts to come together for what is touted as the largest international showcase of Southeast Asian contemporary art to date. www.artstagesingapore.com
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