Singapore opens a window onto the art of Southeast Asia, past and present

With its two separate permanent exhibitions, one for the city state and the other for the region, the National Gallery Singapore is showing its own art history in dialogue with its neighbours

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 3:00pm

At a media briefing ahead of the officially opening of the National Gallery Singapore last month, a veteran art writer from Indonesia asked the panel of curators why the new museum had two separate permanent modern art exhibitions – one for Singapore and one for Southeast Asia – as if the Lion City wasn’t part of the region.

It’s an interesting question – one that raises the issue of not only how the city state sees its art history and development in relation to the rest of Southeast Asia in the past but also how it positions itself as a promoter of regional art to the rest of the world in the future.

In response, Eugene Tan, director of the National Gallery, says that the institution – a mammoth project that took a decade and HK$2.9 billion to realise – is there to first and foremost tell the story of Singapore art.

To tell that story, it’s important to look at what had been happening in Singapore’s neighbours, how art practices there were shaped by social and political changes over the past 150 years, as well as the development of its own art.

And that explains the two permanent galleries. “With the Singapore Gallery we are able to go in depth into most of the important aspects of our own history, whereas for the Southeast Asia Gallery, this is the first time there is a permanent exhibition devoted in presenting a regional perspective,” says Tan.

So Singaporean artists will be featured in the Southeast Asia exhibition and vice versa, adds Low Sze Wee, the National Gallery’s director of curatorial and collections.

“Singapore, in particular, has always been very open to outside or external influences and references. So we hope that when visitors come and visit both permanent exhibitions they will actually see the connections for themselves.”

Tan, who has curated a number of important exhibitions including the Singapore Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) and the inaugural Singapore Biennale (2006), later adds that the National Gallery’s role is not to represent Southeast Asian art history.

“But we are presenting one perspective because we realise that we cannot represent the whole region,” he says, “but at the same time we are well placed to better profile art from the region, I think, to further draw attention to what’s happening in other countries.

“So we have been engaging with our partner museums and [art] institutions who have very kindly lent us works from their national museums and national collections for our permanent exhibitions, as well as collaborating with us in sharing their expertise and knowledge.”

He also believes the museum is “better positioned internationally” to further the profile of art from within the region: “We just want to tell the world that, look at Southeast Asia, there is all this incredible art that had been made here, and it’d been made here the last 150 years.”

And if the new venue is anything to go by, Singapore is very well placed to take that proactive role.

The building, an architectural amalgamation of two colonial-style national monuments, is a highlight in itself. The former Supreme Court and City Hall are now connected with a new atrium and two link bridges.

The Southeast Asia Gallery is housed inside the restored Supreme Court buildings and exhibits are displayed in 15 rooms spanning three levels.

About 400 artworks from 10 countries – Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Myanmar, Laos and Brunei – are on show, half of which are from the National Collections, and half from private and institutional lenders around the world.

The permanent exhibition on modern Southeast Asian art, billed as the biggest of its kind, includes a major section on the 19th century. All the art works – from paintings to sculptures and installations – are carefully and thoughtfully displayed. While all exhibits are treated with reverence (as they should be), the National Gallery stresses they are also for everyone to see and appreciate; admission is free for Singaporeans and permanent residents. (More than 170,000 visitors passed through its doors within the first two weeks of opening, according to the museum.)

We also acknowledge that our exhibition is not comprehensive – it’s a reflection of the state of our collection, the state of scholarship and research in particular fields
Low Sze Wee, curator

Low says the notion of “Southeast Asia” is a fairly recent one. Although the region has had a long history of shared cultural exchange, through trade and the movement of people, the term didn’t come about until the second world war when the Allied forces described this part of the world as “South of China and East of India”, hence Southeast Asia.

“It’d be another 20 years before the term became formalised when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was formed in [August] 1967. And that was the geopolitical grouping. The identity as a region started … after that.”

But he points out that an art exhibition entitled “A Southeast Asian Competition and Exhibition” was held in Manila as early as 1957, indicating that there was already a growing sense of a collective identity among the artists in the region. But that definition of Southeast Asia was to remain – and to large extent still is – fluid. “I think identity is never fixed or static,” says Low.

This notion of evolution is also reflected in how the exhibition on Southeast Asian modern art is curated.

“The permanent gallery is a platform that evolves,” says senior curator Lisa Horikawa.

“It will provide a chance for curators to interrogate and re-examine our own exhibition in the coming years; how do we then find ways to critically examine the work that we had done earlier by considering other kinds of [art] work that can also fit into this narrative or, rather, presenting a new narrative, or another aspect, that was not examined in the inaugural display.”

The exhibition title, “Between Declarations and Dreams”, is taken from the poem Krawang-Bekasi written by Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar in 1948. Known for his strong sense of individualism, the work was a response to the massacre of villagers in West Java by the Dutch colonial forces.

The title “conveys the position of modern artists in Southeast Asia who have been working between declarations – the historical, ideological, political markers that framed their practice – and dreams, which are subjective, expressive and creative”, says Horikawa.

“It’s this call from these poets and academics who felt [it] resonate with artists across time and Asia.”

The narrative of the large exhibition is told in chronological order and divided into four time periods, with each highlighting the key impulses to art-making, according to the curator. Seminal and historical significant artworks on show include Raden Saleh’s Boschbrand (1849), Juan Luna’s España y Filipinas (1884), Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s Las Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho (1884), Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya (1955), a 2015 remake of Roberto Chabet’s Kite Traps (1973), and the more contemporary Shocking Pink Collection (1998) by Manit Sriwanichpoom.

It opens with “Authority & Anxiety”, charting the cultural and political changes that swept across the region in the 19th century. Most significant among these was the rise of European colonial powers and the subsequent influence of Western art on local forms of visual expression. Some artists, such as Juan Luna from the Philippines, began to use new tools, styles and genres of art that signalled a conceptual break with tradition and reflect the beginning of the modern.

That is followed by “Imagining Country & Self”, which features works from the early 1900s, when the consolidation of colonial rule was complete for most parts of Southeast Asia and when paintings of picturesque landscapes became more popular. The growth of art schools and institutions led artists to develop a stronger sense of professional identity.

“Manifesting the Nation”, a collection of works from the 1950s to ’70s, reflects how the shifting power dynamics in a post-war world was affecting the region, intensifying the struggle for independence, when art became increasingly politicised. A new generation of artists turned away from idealism to more realistic depictions, drawing on this authenticity to incite patriotism and social change.

The exhibition ends with “Re:Defining Art”, showcasing art from the 1970s onwards, when artists started making work that offered bold alternative interpretations of the past, and when the media used extended to photography, video, performance and site-specific participatory events.

Horikawa stresses that the aim of “Between Declarations and Dreams” is not to offer a comprehensive overview of art in each country, but to seek a narrative that goes beyond the national framework and “by doing so creating a platform that invites visitors to examine, understand and reimagine Southeast Asia and modern art in the region”.

Low says as with all exhibitions, there will always be limitations, whether in terms of budgets, time or just lack of space.

“As curators, we also acknowledge that our exhibition is not comprehensive – it’s a reflection of the state of our collection, the state of scholarship and research in particular fields,” he says. “The state of development of art is not even throughout Southeast Asia so we cannot claim to be able to state a very definitive or comprehensive view.

“That is why we stress the permanent galleries offer a slice of how we see art history in the region, but our changing, special exhibitions will offer us an opportunity to add more breadth to the narratives.”