FROM THE “I” TO “WE”: History of Collecting at the National Gallery Singapore

Lim Yew Kuan, London Tate Gallery
Chuah Thean Teng, Self-Portrait, 1950.
Cheo Chai Hiang, And Miles to go before I Sleep
Lim Yew Kuan, London Tate Gallery
Georgette Chen, Family Portrait, 1954.
Affandi, Self-Portrait
S Sudjojono, Draw & Paint sketchbook, 1969.
Latiff Mohidin, Mindscape 17
Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 2014 (curry for the soul of the forgotten)
TOP
1123
35
0
 
12
Jun
12
Jun
ART021 Shanghai 2018

Re(collect): The Making of our Art Collection, a new exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore, was opened on May 11th, 2018. This exhibition of 120 items from the museum’s collection reveals the untold story of the collecting practice of institutions in Singapore, and how they developed into various narratives that form art history in the region.

Russell Storer, Deputy Director at the National Gallery Singapore, explains some important statistical numbers about the collection that give context to the exhibition. The museum currently holds around 8,600 artworks from the region. Around 70% of the works are by Singapore’s artists, which is understandably the biggest part. Other major countries represented in the collection are Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and China. The vision is to expand the narratives of art history in Southeast Asia, so they are also looking to countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia.

TEXT: Alia Swastika
IMAGES: Courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

 

Individuality and the Birth of Art Institutions in Singapore

The curator of the exhibition, Lisa Horikawa, started the narrative by hanging the first artwork donated to the National Museum Art Gallery Singapore before the mueum opened. This work by Chuah Thean Teng, entitled Self Portrait (1950), was donated by a well-known patron and philanthropist Dato Loke Wan Tho, along with more than 100 other works from his personal collection. It is interesting to note that the first work of the national collection was a portrait of the artist, which strongly underlined the sense of self and individualism.

 

Chuah Thean Teng, Self-Portrait, 1950.

 

The first part of the exhibition explores the collection of Dato Loke Wan Tho further, showing the big interest he has in various artistic practices in the region. Some of the works that he donated first were exhibited in Singapore for the inaugural show of the National Museum Art Gallery. Since the beginning of his collection, he has expanded his friendships and networks to the larger artists’ community in Southeast Asia; which includes Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, where some of them are now on display in the exhibition. Aside from the collection of works by Dato Loke Wan Tho, the inaugural exhibition contained works donated by some artists, including And Miles to Go Before I Sleep by Cheo Chai Hiang. This is one of the earliest experimental sculptures in Singapore. It is made of wood and metal, with a poem by Robert Frost inked on it. The artist used found objects like a laundry board and book, and combined them with a log of wood retrieved from a pile at his grandfather’s home.

 

Cheo Chai Hiang, And Miles to go before I Sleep

 

The second part of the exhibition can be seen as a discussion about the early history of art institutions in Singapore. Some of the artists who were shown in the museum’s early days were actively engaged in art education, through the establishment of the first art school in Singapore. For example, work by Lim Yew Kuan’s artwork, London Tate Gallery, which gives the sense of a new cosmopolitan spirit in the art scene of Singapore, since it was made when the artist was studying in London. Lim Yew Kuan was the second principal of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore’s first art school.

 

Lim Yew Kuan, London Tate Gallery

 

Some of the highlights of the exhibition include the works of Singapore’s pioneer female artist Georgette Chen, who was a teacher at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Through her estate, at least 100 of her works have been donated from her personal collection to the museum. The work on display here is Family Portrait (1954), which portrays the family of Chen Fah Shin, a friend of the artist. It gives a sense of the ordinary family life and intimacy of that period, and a lens through which we can see the daily life of a middle-class family in Singapore in the 1950s.

 

Georgette Chen, Family Portrait, 1954.

 

Historicising through Pioneers

There are a number of pioneers present in this exhibition, and this is strengthened by a collection of historical figures, such as Affandi, S Sudjojono and Latiff Mohiddin. Affandi’s work is quite special since he created his self-portrait at the gallery when he was in Singapore for his solo exhibition at the National Museum in 1975. This self-portrait strongly resembles his very distinctive method of painting of applying paint directly onto the canvas without a brush. The exhibition displays a video documentary that shows the artist painting the self-portrait on site.

 

Affandi, Self-Portrait

 

There is also a series of drawings by S. Soedjojono, one of the founding fathers of modern art in Indonesia, entitled Draw and Paint sketchbook, which dates back to 1969. It captures the everyday life of a new urban city like Jakarta. He recorded the new lifestyle, including the invasion of new technology into urban houses, by drawing a sketch of a family room with a television in it, and another showing the content of the television programme. In some of his other drawings, he shows the new landscape of Jakarta with high buildings and physical infrastructures. One of the most special paintings is a portrait of his wife, the singer Rose Pandanwangi, practicing. The text he wrote beneath the drawing showed how he adored her, and how there had been a big change in his political activism. Interestingly, this book was given by an artist to a Japanese friend. One day this work came up for auction and was bought by a collector who gave the work as part of National Gallery Singapore’s collection.

 

S Sudjojono, Draw & Paint sketchbook, 1969.

 

Another important pioneering artist is Latiff Mohidin, a leading painter and poet from Malaysia. The gallery shows Mindscape 17, which he created in 1983 as part of the Mindscape series. This series was the result of his search for formalism, which was inspired by the colonial architecture of Penang shophouses. In this painting, he seems to focus on the exploration of both the exterior and interior, between the outside world and the depth of the inside, and the question of infinity. The grey colour gives it a dark feel which contrasts with the red shadowing that reveals a mysterious narrative, as if it is responding to a new time and space one cannot predict. Latiff Mohidin recently conducted a major solo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou Paris, which was part of National Gallery Singapore’s international outreach programme. Educated in Germany, Latiff takes a big interest in seeing Southeast Asia as an interconnected geopolitical area with a varied history and cultural interaction.

 

Latiff Mohidin, Mindscape 17

 

Contemporary Perspective

While National Gallery Singapore mostly focuses on its collection of 19th and 20th-century art from Southeast Asia, this exhibition offers a glimpse of its contemporary art collection. For Lisa Horikawa, this exhibition marks both an ongoing dialogue and “research to understand where we come from, and identify the ways in which we can built the collection further for generations to come”. There is an attempt in the contemporary art section in the second gallery to historicise the contemporary through the work of three Thai artists from different generations and various cultural backgrounds: Montien Boonma, Navin Rawanchaikul and Rirkrit Tiravanija. These artists, however, show both the connection and juxtaposition between modernity and traditional spirit, and how the complexity of history has formed challenging questions about identity.

Navin’s monumental installation displays 11 towers that consist of 11,000 medical bottles. Half of them contain black and white photographs of elderly people, who the artist documented for a long time. Each of the pictures reveals thousands of narratives, and the audience are provoked into drawing their own stories and interpretations of each person. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s three channels video, Untitled 2014-2016 (Curry for the soul of the forgotten) focuses on “a story” of a bronze cookpot, a kind of ancient sculpture that was used for a long time to cook curries in the artist’s neighbourhood of Chiang Mai. In this video, Rirkrit filmed different people and documented the occasions when curry was cooked in the pot. In the video, the pot mysteriously moves across the platform while the curry is being cooked. This work makes strong references to some of the other projects done by Rirkrit Tiravanija, which involved cooking as an activity that can reclaim Thai identity.

To differ with the collection of Singapore Art Museum, Russell Storer explained that the National Gallery Singapore mostly responsible for the works created until 1980s or further, if the context are relevantly connected with the path taken to build their collection. For the contemporary side, further more, Russell mentioned that the goal of their collection is to historicize the contemporary. The presentation of those three artists, then, could be seen as a way of presenting a line of history of art practices in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand in this case.

 

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 2014 (curry for the soul of the forgotten)

 

Role of Patron for State Collection

In general, this exhibition hopes to reveal the hidden stories of National Gallery Singapore’s collection policies since it opened two years ago. This is not an easy task. Tracing the documents used in the acquisition process opens up the politics behind these acquisitions, and archives the documents connected to the artworks bought or donated to them. This can reveal when the works were created or exchanged on the collectors’ circuit or auctions.

One significant point, in my opinion, is the role of patrons in the building of the national or state collections in most Southeast Asian Countries. In Indonesia, the first President, Soekarno, had an undeniable role in starting what is now claimed to be the national collection. This exhibition refers to the same phenomenon and the role of Dato Loke Wan Tho, who initiated the national art collection of Singapore. Within this practice, we cannot avoid the fact that most of the artworks reflect an individual’s personal taste or reference points, before becoming the foundation of a more public narrative. The exhibition’s curatorial framework promises deeper research by the team on how the narratives have shifted from a very individual perspective to a wider social-political context. For example, from the early days of the Singaporean social landscape, to the birth of art institutions in Singapore, up until the geopolitical interconnections between countries in Southeast Asia.

 

 

Re(collect): The Making of Our Art Collection
National Gallery Singapore
11 May-19 August 2018

 

 


 

Alia Swastika (Indonesia) has worked as Program Director for Ark Galerie, Yogyakarta since 2008 and is actively involved as a curator, project manager and writer in a number of international exhibitions. With Suman Gopinath, she was the co-curator of the Jogja Biennale XI, Shadow Lines: Indonesia Meets India (2011), and become one of the co-artistic directors for the Gwangju Biennale IX (2012). Furthermore, she participated as the curator of a special exhibition of Indonesian artists in the 2012 edition of Art Dubai.

Through her career she has worked with many significant Indonesian artists including Eko Nugroho, Tintin Wulia, Wimo Ambala Bayang, and Jompet Kuswidananto, among others.

She is a research fellow at the National Art Gallery, Singapore funded by Singapore International Foundation (2009). She has participated in a curatorial residency in BizArt, Shanghai, (2008), and in 2006 she participated in a Kelola Foundation fellowship programme funded by Asian Cultural Council. In 2005 she was also awarded a grant from Asia Europe Foundation.

Alia was the director of Jogja Biennale 2015, and recently she founded ‘Study on Art Practices’, a platform for research on Indonesian contemporary art. 

 

 

 
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply