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Zulkifli Yusoff’s Hujan Lembing di Pasir Salak (Raining Spears at Pasir Salak, 2008) based on Swettenham’s Malay Sketches.

Penang Palette

A Journey into the Testy World of Colonial Art

Whether welcome or not, colonialism was a profound fact. Its complex reality found expression in art that can be approached with a healthy historical distance today.


A makeshift platform next to the replica statue of Sir Stamford Raffles set up on July 22, 2000, at the man’s purported first landing site allowed those who wanted to interact with Singapore’s founder go eyeball to eyeball instead of having to obsequiously look up his crotch.

The video and photography from this “Artists Investigating Monuments” event by performance artist Lee Wen, presently ailing, now sets the tone if not tenor of Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies.

It is National Gallery Singapore’s (NGS) Grand Exhibition No. 2, in association with London’s Tate Britain, using Tate’s Britannic-centric “rah-rah” exhibition, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, in November last year, as a departure. The NGS show is euphemistically described by its curator Low Sze Wee as “a fresh perspective” from the Asia-Pacific colonies on their shared histories in terms of art, less so artefactual or ethnographic.

With 200 artworks starting from the sixteenth century, it explores different ways in which the colonial art legacy has been represented, negotiated and contested through time, and which could read as the Colonies biting back in the vein of Re:Visiting (Re:Looking), Re:Questioning, Re:Interpreting and Revising (?), without having to be bogged down by overly historical perspectives. This is neatly covered in the Timelines of Events and “Six Artists’ Lives and Legacies” (Datuk Chuah Thean Teng, Malaysia; Tom Roberts, Australia; Lim Cheng Hoe, Singapore; Jamini Roy (India); U Ba Nyan (Myanmar); and Awang Sitai (Brunei).

Gallery director Dr Eugene Tan dubs it “a valuable counterpoint to reflect on the issues of post-colonialism and decolonization.”

Ironic was the kerfuffle over the inappropriate term for its fund-raiser, “Empire Ball,” which was swiftly changed to “NGS Ball,” for in truth, the reference point, willy-nilly, is unavoidably the “Empire” – good or bad.

And what better way to pique interest than Wong Hoy Cheong’s “Re: Looking” installation, prominently plonked in the foyer of the former Supreme Court, commissioned by NGS from the 2003 fictionalised living-room drama of Austria being subjugated under a “Malaysian Empire”. For the NGS show, the role is switched to Britain being the colonised and with Hoy Cheong using props from salvaged architectural objects from the colonial-era Supreme Court and City Hall buildings that were converted into the NGS. There’s life after art, after all.

National Gallery Singapore director of Curatorial, Collections and
Education Low Sze Wee walking the media through the exhibition, starting
with the mural photograph of Lee Wen’s platform to go Up and Personal
with Sir Stamford Raffles’s statue. In the background is Sir Raffles's portrait
by George Francis Joseph.

Wong Hoy Cheong’s Re: Looking’s Re: Looking – in a twist of the colonies
biting back. In the foyer of the former Supreme Court.

Some works from the original Tate exhibition are harnessed to help tell what is essentially The Singapore Story in art; with some Commonwealth countries roped in for good measure – Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei, Australia and India.

It is a rare opportunity to see side-by-side two similar portraits of Sir Frank Swettenham painted by the same artist – John Singer Sargent, no less. One is from the collection of the Singapore National Museum and the much larger one from the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London. Also from NPG is a portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles by George Francis Joseph.

Other well-known British artists featured are Sir John Millais (Tate) and Augustus John (with portraits of Colonel T.E. Lawrence and The Emir Feisal) and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and maritime painter-engravers William and Thomas Daniell.

The Australians are dominated by the Heidelbergers – Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra), all masters of the Australian bush landscape.

Pinned under the twin broad narratives, “Countering The Empire” and “Encountering Artistic Legacies”, with thematic pigeonholes of Classification and Commerce; Producing Knowledge;
Encounters and Civilisation; Reproduction and Circulation; and Production and Consumption: Expressing The Nation – Subject and Form.

Portrait of Sir Frank Swettenham, the first Resident-General of the Federated Malay States, by John Singer Sargent.

There is the portrait of Straits tycoon Tan Jiak Kim, by Low Kway Soo, depicted resplendent with the Medal Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George conferred by King George V. Indeed, many Straits-born Chinese in Singapore bore such great allegiance to Britain that they even commissioned the marble statue of Queen Victoria (1888) to mark her Golden Jubilee in 1887. This was shown in the UOB City Hall Courtyard of the NGS building.

There are those credited with laying the foundation of art in the colonies, though not by design: Peter Harris (Malaya), Richard Walker (Singapore), and not covered, Dr Alexander Hunter (Madras School, India).

The early years belong to the pioneers flushed with newly attained nationhood – Singapore’s Cheong Soo Pieng, with his portrait of Khoan Sullivan, wife of academician Michael (Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford); Low Kway Song (portrait of Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman) and Lim Cheng Hoe; Malaysia’s Yong Mun Sen, Thean Teng, Datuk Hoessein Enas and Abdullah Ariff; Burma’s U Ba Nyan and Saya Saung; and India’s Jamini Roy, Raja Ravi Varma and Gaganendranath Tagore.

In this tapestry comes Miyamoto Saburo’s Meeting of General Yamashita and Percival (National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo), a glorified version of Lt Gen. Arthur Percival’s surrender to the “Tiger of Malaya/Beast of Bataan” Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, after the Battle of Singapore. Sir Winston Churchill called it “the largest capitulation” in British military history.

Another low point of the British in Malaya was the spearing-assassination of British Perak Resident J.W.W Birch in his boathouse in Pasir Salak, as represented by Zulkifli Yusoff’s installation, Hujan Lembing di Pasir Salak (Raining Spears at Pasir Salak, 2008). Birch was no doubt peremptory and disrespectful, and meddled in local affairs of slavery and taxation; yet his death only perpetuated greater British dominance.

The acquiescence of slavery in the London exhibition is broken by Hew Locke’s photography mockingly adorned with bling, taken off the statues of Edward Colston and Edmund Burke in Bristol. Colston was heavily in the slavery trade.

It is this probing, prodding, pointed intervention in the Contemporary section with the “What If?” and “So What?” tonguein- cheek that is so refreshing about the show. It takes it beyond being just a cavalcade of historically linked statements of art treading the beaten path.

Hoy Cheong has another work, as doubtless a few other relevant ones, called The Definitive ABC of Ethnography (black ink on handmade and glycerine paper, c. 1999) laden with more than 250 images, typefaces and text.

The second part of I-Lann Yee’s Study of Lamprey’s Malayan Male I and II (2009). Here, the artist with
back half-turned confronts the "missing" (whitewashed) image of the naked Malayan man.

Jamini Roy’s Untitled (Krishna and Balarama, c. 1960).

Miyamoto Saburo’s Meeting of Generals Yamashita and Percival (Oil on canvas, 1942).

Portrait of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman by Low Kway Song.

Another Malaysian, Yee I-Lann, in her Study of Lamprey’s Malayan Male I & II (digital print on paper) insinuates herself looking back at John Lamprey’s pathologically flawed profiling grid of pseudo social hierarchy.

Simryn Gill, who was born in Singapore and grew up in Malaysia (and who is now Australian and representing that country in the Venice Biennale), takes a jab too with Rampant (1999), with pictures of banana plantations, bamboo stands, camphor laurels and sugar-cane groves in northern New South Wales, Australia – but are no Waltzing Matildas of botany.

Michael Cook, an Australian of Bidjara descent, reverses the colonial usurpation of Australia by Captain James Cook (no relation) in his Undiscovered, bedecking an aborigine in European garb, rewriting history as it should be.

Singaporean Erika Tan seizes on Halimah Abdullah, a Malayan weaver taking part in the British Empire exhibition in Wembley in 1924, for her trajectory. Though not identified in the slides or video, Halimah
died of pneumonia and was buried there. It also highlights how to the British, the colonies were just a breadbasket for raw materials, produce and the consumption market. On show is also the original weaving loom, from the V&A Museum.

Sweetly packaged, the exhibition opens up discourses on the art of the Colonial Master and the Colonised, the imperatives of “How, What, For Whom?” the works were produced for, the art of the documentation of historical events, how the Empire saw the Other, and how the Others are finding their destiny – with or without vestigial colonial baggage.

While at the NGS, don’t miss Clay Journey, a major survey of Cultural Medallion ceramist Iskandar Jalil, open until February 28, 2017.

“Artist and Empire: (En)Countering Colonial Legacies” rules at the NGS until March 26, 2017. It is at the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, Level 3, City Hall Wing, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Road, Singapore. Admission fees are S$15 for Singaporeans and S$25 for non-Singaporeans. For enquiries, contact +65 6271 7000, email or visit

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary ‘movel’ (a novel conceived as a mock movie) fantasy spun from a local legend.
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