Enough to Please Most Eyes


U Ba Nyan's Yangon Harbour (oil on canvas, c. 1930s).

National Gallery Singapore echoes the region’s evolving aesthetics.

It is the largest assembly of museum-quality fare on South-East Asian art, with a small selection of 8,000 works that has been borrowed from institutions and private collectors. When it opened on November 24, 2015, National Gallery Singapore (NGS) was the icing on the cake for Singapore’s Golden Jubilee celebrations and sealed its ambitions to be a significant arts-cultural hub in the region.

Refurbished for S$532mil (RM1.63bil), it exemplifies the visionary and systematic planning of the Singapore government towards its Renaissance global arts city status in the new millennium.

The opening core showcase follows two broad narratives – one about the Singapore Story, and the other on a wider South-East Asian spectrum under the respective broad appellations, “Siapa Nama Kamu?” (What Is Your Name?) in DBS Gallery, and “Between Declarations & Dreams” in UOB Gallery.

With NGS positioning itself as the bedrock of modernist South-East Asian art from the 19th to 20th centuries, the erstwhile repository, Singapore Art Museum (SAM), will become the platform for contemporary art collections and engagements despite its mission-school (St Joseph Boy’s Institution) past.

The NGS itself is an adaptive-reuse/ reconstruction from two colonial buildings – the former Supreme Court and City Hall, and the designers, StudioMilou, had among others primarily in the use of natural light added a canopy bridge. With 64,000sqm of space, the exhibitions are sprawled over three levels with a total of 15 rooms, but navigation is a bit tricky. Besides, in going for numbers, probably for more clarity and representation of artists, media, styles and period, the works are hung a little too close together.

It took 10 years to complete, five years behind schedule, with leadership changes and even a jettisoning of its former name, the National Art Gallery Singapore (NAGA).

Despite the purportedly left-leaning Equator Art Society not being named, it is interesting to find so many artists from this society appearing together: Chua Mia Tee, Lim Yew Kuan, Lee Boon Wang, whose artist sister Boon Ngan became Chua’s wife (there’s a portrait of her by Chua). The society, maligned and proscribed and eventually deregistered in 1974, is an aberrant from the then dewy-eyed and idyllic “Nanyang” (Southern Seas) vistas and more academic concerns.

The strident post-war “Art for the People” socialist rhetoric of Chua Mia Tee gets muted somewhat when his powerful works, National Language Class (1959) and Epic Poem of Malaya (1955), are separated into the DBS and UOB galleries respectively.

The stout-hearted Equator artists including their woodcuts are concentrated in the “Real Concerns” section which focuses on the disenfranchised, the proletarian and everyday concerns, and hints of social revolution. Most intriguing are sculptures by Ng Eng Teng (Bondage) and Boon Wang (an artist ruminating in Before the Moment of Painting, with a weapon-like brush in hand behind back).

Affandi's Black Bird, Sun and Man (1950).

Walter Spies's Balinese Legend (oil on canvas, 1929).

The “Siapa Nama Kamu?” section opens with “Tropical Tapestry” on Westerneyed works of topographical and botany interests with Low Kway Song’s 1921 Lynx as the Singaporean cachet. “Nanyang Reverie” includes Lim Hak Tai’s founding of the National Academy of Fine Arts of Singapore (1938) with works of pioneer and second-generation artists besides a somewhat off-tangent work (Epiphany) by pioneer art academician Richard Walker.

There are also Xu Bei-hong’s portrait of Singapore magnate Lim Chee Ghee; selfportraits by art-tivist Tchang Ju Chi (who was executed by the Kempeitai during the Japanese Occupation) and Singaporean- Indonesian Lee Man Fong (1958); a plain depiction of a kampong house by M. Sallehuddin (known for the ASAS-tinged label foisted on his innocuous work, At the Sundry Shop, in the National Visual Arts Gallery KL collection); and works by Malaysian artists Latiff Mohidin and Datuk Chuah Thean Teng.

In pre-Independence Malaya (1957) and until Singapore’s entry into a greater Malaysian polity, and exit (1963 and 1965), people moved more freely across borders and were not bothered about “nationality” issues then, so you get many artists who were Malaysia-born-and-raised opting to be on the Singapore side – like Seah Kim Joo, whose 256cm x 694cm batik mural on “Malayan Life” mosaic is truly impressive.

The “New Languages” section is homage to abstractions of the likes of Goh Beng Kwan, Thomas Yeo, Tan Teng Kee, Anthony Poon and Jaafar Latiff (batik). A section of Chinese Art innovations, “Tradition Unfettered,” features Singapore vanguards Lim Tze Peng, Tan Swie Hian, Chua Ek Kay and, of course, Chen Wen Hsi. “Shifting Grounds” challenges conventional media and approaches with performance art, installations and multimedia, spearheaded by Tang Da Wu, Amanda Heng, Lee Wen, Suzann Victor and Ho Tzu Nyen.

Montien Boonma's The Pleasure of Being, Crying, Dying and Eating.

Zulkifli Yusoff's The Power II (1991).

The next album on South-East Asian art is said to strike an overly ambitious “revisionist” stance given the peculiar histories of the respective countries and competing interpretations. Given the overly broad sweep and limitations of the displayed collection because of unreliable extant scholarship, and gaps or unavailability of works that could better tell the story, the overview can get over-simplified or lost in translation.

On the Malaysian side, an American critic hailed Redza Piyadasa’s May 13, 1969 standalone painted-Malaysian flag coffin (1970, a Conceptual Art contraption burnt in a bonfire, but reconstructed/refurbished in 2006) as an installation, when really, the honour of first installation belongs to Lee Kian Seng’s groundbreaking Windows of Red (1972, not shown in NGS). And the iconic “May 13” work is Datuk Ibrahim Hussein’s, also not in the NGS show. Ibrahim is represented only by a small work.

The South-East Asian section is spreadsheeted over several themes – “Authority & Anxiety”; “Imagining Country and Self ” (“Synthesis and Innovation”); “Manifesting the Nation” (“Bearing Witness, Inciting Action”); “Reconstructing Reality”; “Seeking Local Forms”; “Aspiring to Worldliness”; “Protest and Propaganda”; “Re:Defining Art” (“Early Experiments”); “Traditions/Transitions”; and “1990s and Beyond: An Expanded Global Face”.

Because of the colonial umbilical cord, the genesis takes different trajectories, but the pioneers are exalted. For example, U Ba Nyan (Rangoon Harbour, c. 1930s), the royal painter Saya Chone (Family Portrait), Fua Haribhitak, Joseph Inguimberty (The Studio, 1933), Victor Tardieu (Tonkin Woman With A Basket, 1923), Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo (Christian Virgins exposed to the Populace, 1884, and The Boat, 1876), Juan Luna (Spain and the Philippines, 1884), Fernando Amorsolo (Marketplace during the Occupation, 1942), Raden Saleh (Forest Fire, 1849), Walter Spies (Balinese Legend), Abdullah Suriosubroto, S. Sudjojono (Stand Guard for Our Motherland and Perusing A Poster), Lim Hak Tai (Riot, 1955), Yong Mun Sen (Relaxing, c. 1940s) and Abdullah Ariff (Tin Mining, 1960).

Western aesthetic paradigms and expressions of the local tropical milieu and conditions dominate the early period. The two world wars and the struggles for independence are reflected, or not, in varying degrees on the artistic palette, and especially so in Indonesia.

With the emergence of art schools and tutelage/exposures overseas, art societies and coteries, notions of identity, either individually or extrapolated, lead to a return to roots and tradition, while incorporating crafts and indigenous materials that are part of the cultural heritage. Malaysia sees a profusion of batik-art innovations while Vietnam has its lacquer art.

The foray into abstraction produces an intriguing spectrum of colours and forms, organic and geometric, while the ascendancy of Khomeini Islam in the mid- 1980s greatly impacts art developments and government administrations in Muslim-centric countries.

It is clear that the 11 South-East Asian countries, each in isolation, cannot hope for a viable and sustainable “collective” art history. East Timor, for example, is not represented because of more immediate basic infrastructural concerns on the heels of its newly gained independence (from Indonesia) in 2002. But together, given the growing affluence of its total population of 621.7 million people (2014 census), the prospects are good.

Seah Kim Joo's Untitled (Malayan Life) (batik mural, 1968).

The NGS twin show is the beginning of more intrusive, in-depth investigations into common regional issues impinging art, and proposed collaborations with the Centre Pompidou in Paris (March) and the Tate Britain in London (October) are steps in the right direction.

To this end, the creation of a multimedia resource centre on South-East Asian art will consolidate and augment the database and expand fields of studies, even across disciplines.

Besides the twin main events, peripheral exhibitions also keep up the busy schedule – Chua Ek Kay: After The Rain (until May 3); Wu Guan Zhong: Beauty Beyond Forms (until May 3); Tang Da Wu: 1979 Earthwork (reprisal, until May 29) and A Fact Has No Appearance (until June 19).

The NGS, which boasts of a sizeable array of important works by Malaysian artists, will be a main player in the regional art ecosystem even as more museums come on-stream. For one, there is Indonesia’s privately owned (Haryanto Adikoesoemo) Modern and Contemporary Art Museum (Macam), slated to open next year. And in Hong Kong, the HK$5-bil M+, with a targeted 2019 opening, is already having a blockbuster overture exhibition, “Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art”.

Ooi Kok Chuen has written 88 books and catalogues on art. He is a recipient of the Australian Cultural Award 1991 and Goethe-Institut Fellowship 1989, and a twotime National Art Gallery Art-Writer of the Year (2003, 2008).

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