Sunday, May 8, 2011

Singapore Art - National Identity in Art?

Qns: With globalization, it is futile for Singapore to persist in establishing a national identity in art. Discuss.

Singapore is a unique society in which many different cultures and races congregate and live together in harmony. In such a cosmopolitan country, it is inevitable that these migrants bring along their cultures and practices to Singapore and influence the societal practices here. Therefore, Singaporeans are advantaged as they get to experience a variety of cultures, from food to clothing and definitely in art. However, the national identity of Singaporeans becomes blurred as result of such globalization and influx of foreign cultures. 'Uniquely Singaporean' becomes increasingly clouded and we ask ourselves, is there even Singaporean art in the first place? If there is, what is it?

Upon first glance, it may seem that there are no artworks that are undeniably Singaporean. The painting styles adopted by local artists are often either western-influenced or chinese-influenced (Chinese painting and calligraphy), renown sculptors, such as Ng Eng Teng, and artists, like Liu Kang, were mostly born in olden China and pursued an art education in London and France, graduating from art institutions overseas. As a result, the works that they created often drew inspirations from their motherlands as well as their art education. In this sense, these works would not be 'made-in-Singapore'.

Some may regard artworks done in the Nanyang Style to be Singaporean Art. Indeed, the Nanyang Style does seem to have the multicultural quality that Singapore possesses, the merging of both the western and eastern styles of painting. Our pioneer artists, Liu Kang and Georgette Chen, both adopted this style. However, it is important to note that the Nanyang Style only seeks to portray life in the Southeast Asia region, which included several countries other than Singapore.

However, if one ponders over it, the Singapore national identity does exist in art. A well-known example is the renowned artist, Chua Mia Tee, whose works are often referred to as underlining 'a vigorous search towards an anti-colonialist and nationalistic identity in art'. Indeed, famous works like the National Language class (1950) portrays the historical scene of Singapore in the olden days, where Malay was once the national language of Singapore, and students of various races and linguistic habits learn Malay from the cikgu: the bespectacled middle-class man of pressed pants and shoes, the working-class man in white cotton shirt tucked out of khaki slacks in loafers, the woman in white Chinese school uniform dress, the smiling nonya woman in capped baju Shanghai and so on. Workers in a Canteen (1974) is another notable work which acknowledges the hard-work and contribution of the working class to the then young nation's program of rapid industrialization and economic development.

Another example is First Generation, the sculpture depicting five kampong boys jumping into the Singapore River for a swim. This sculpture captures the simple and happy lifestyles of the people living along the Singapore River several generations ago.

From these examples, one can gather that Singaporean art is present, not in terms of the style and techniques of creating the artwork, but in terms of the subject matter depicted in the works, capturing the locals' living and working scenes of Singapore's past. These works act as a nostalgic reminder for the older generation of their childhood, when Singapore was still a fishing village moving into urbanization. Younger generations, on the other hand, may not relate to these works as they do not have the fond memories of Kangpong life that their parents possess.

One may argue that most of such 'Singapore art' are often based in the earlier years of the 1970s and 1980s, whereas 21st century artworks are often contemporary works that addresses general issues that people all over the world can relate to, such as obesity and poverty rather than subject matter specifically pertaining to Singapore. Indeed, globalization has made the world a smaller place and local artists are starting to target an international audience.

Yet there is a notable handful of 21st century local artists who draws inspirations from their daily lives in Singapore and creates works that Singaporeans can relate to. An example is the group vertical submarine, consisting of three artists, Joshua Yang, Justin Loke and Fiona Koh. One of their recent works is Foreign Talent (2007), which acted as a commentary on Singaporeans’ negative views of foreign workers.

Two statues were in erected for about two months in the Raffles Landing Site, and Little India – a known gathering place for many migrant workers. The heroic representation of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in the form of a polished statue was placed in contrast to the archetypal figure of a migrant worker represented in raw concrete with a rough finish. Both pedestals of the migrant worker statues were fitted with plaques bearing the following words: On this obscure site and many others we landed on Singapore soil since time immemorial with our labour and toil changed your genius and perception from a mere idea to a concrete reality. Till now, the influx of foreign workers remains a worrying concern to many Singaporeans.

Your vote is our Secret (2011) is a recent work by local artists, Antz and Eeshaun, inspired by the just concluded General Elections 2011 in Singapore. Indeed, this year’s General Elections is, undoubtedly, the most exciting and heated battle between the People’s Action Party (PAP) and 6 other opposition parties, with newspapers, the radio and even twitter and face book covering any news about the elections. Therefore, it is no surprise when Antz and Eeshaun presented this work in the ‘Raw Art Face Off’ exhibition.

Besides, Singaporean Art is being promoted, and artists are encouraged to create works that reflect our national identity. MM I love you and Beyond LKY are exhibitions that displayed works reflecting the Singapore identity, which are held in conjunction with the National Day last year in 2010. Indeed, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is a politician who all Singaporeans are indebted to. He has shaped this island from a fishing village to what it is today. Exhibitions like these spur Singaporeans to review their national identity, urging us to return to our roots and ask ourselves, “What makes us Singaporeans?” --- An important question in the globalization era.

As can be seen in the earlier examples, local contemporary artists do create artworks based on themes of much relevance to Singapore. Therefore, the Singapore national identity does exist in the local art scene. While it is hard to say for certain if a revolutionary Singapore art movement will be started, Singapore art is definitely developing with time and one should give the local art scene some time to grow instead of completely writing off the idea of establishing a national identity in art.

Yet answering the question “What makes us Singaporeans?” is not easy, for we are not of one ethnicity, but of a multitude of cultures. Our experiences as a nation are also limited to the 66 years after independence, considering that countries like Japan and England had centuries to bond and uncover their unique national identity. The search for our national identity continues and one should allow art to aid in finding that character that makes us unique.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article, hope Singapore art style keeps improving... May I share an article about Castello Sforzesco in Milan in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan in youtube