First presented in 2015 at Tate Britain under the title “Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past” the show’s October 2016 debut at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS), entitled “Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies” is curated by the local team comprised of Low Sze Wee, Melinda Susanto and Toffa Abdul Wahed, marking the NGS’s second international collaboration (the first was with Paris’s Centre Pompidou).
Tate’s version of “Artist and Empire” received criticism for its shortsighted selection of works from only British collections, with limited contemporary viewpoints from those who lived under colonial rule, in particular from Southeast Asia. The tour of the exhibition to Singapore was thus a curatorial challenge, and particularly provocative, given the NGS’s potency as site of historical, national and cultural significance. Comprising of the former Supreme Court and City Hall, the latter which was also the World War II site of the surrender of the Japanese to the Allied Forces in 1945, the NGS underwent extensive refurbishments to open in 2015, during Singapore’s 50th anniversary of its independence from Malaysia. The first curatorial redress was the retooling of the exhibition to select more than three quarters of its total of 211 works from Southeast Asian countries, India and Australia.
Displayed at the exhibition’s entrance is the oil portrait, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (1817) by British painter George Francis Joseph, and a magnified image from the documentation video of Singapore performance artist Lee Wen’s untitled piece from 2000. Lee’s image depicts participants on scaffolding, which brings them eye-level next to the Raffles statue along the Singapore River. The pairing of the 19th century painting with Lee’s installation presents two unique perspectives on the British influence in the city state: on the one hand, the inclusion of the painting represents Singapore’s acceptance of its colonial heritage and its origin myth as being “founded” by Raffles, while on the other, Lee’s work arguably offered viewers to literally adopt a position of equal standing, and in doing so, confront Singapore’s colonial past. This approach to feature historical paintings alongside contemporary perspectives, usually addressing a similar subject matter, provided a compelling narrative throughout the exhibition.
Dichotomous comparisons continue in the portraiture gallery with Hew Locke’s photographs, Edmund Burke and Edward Colston (both 2006), from the “Restoration” series, which depict memorial statues in Bristol decked with livery collars of gold and seashells. The exaggerated garlands on the statues highlight the contrasting ethos of two men honored by the city: Burke, who was associated with the abolition of slave trade, and Colston, whose wealth was derived from the slavery in Africa. These images were situated near Arthur Pan’s Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (1953) a painting commissioned by the Singapore City Council on the occasion of the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Adding to this dialogue was Low Kway Soo’s Portrait of Tan Jiak Kim (1919), which showed the Straits-born Chinese merchant and community leader wearing medal honors that were awarded by King George V in 1912. These works raised questions as to the veneration of historical characters with status, power and wealth.
At certain points throughout the exhibition, the narrative became difficult to follow with its various sections and subsections. However, a combination that stood out in the section “Producing Knowledge,” was the presentation of Empire Marketing Board posters (c. 1920–30), used to promote the import/export of Empire-produced goods, and Erika Tan’s commissioned installation The Weavers Lament Part I – IV (2016). Comprised of a digitally manipulated video, strips of textile and archival images, Tan’s piece focuses on the forgotten figure of Halimah Binti Abdullah, the Malayan weaver who traveled to participate in the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London and died in Britain. The Weavers Lament is not only a fitting representation of Tan’s oeuvre, which investigates the transnational negotiations between the colonial administration, the erasure of colonial subjects, and the rewriting historical narratives, it also critically gestures toward the lack of work by Malay female artists in the NGS’s permanent collection.
The exhibition’s “Encountering Artistic Legacies” section starts to illustrate the development of artistic practice in the region under Britsh rule with the display of Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s painting Self-Portrait with Friends (1962) depicting artists from Kuala Lumpur’s Wednesday Art Group, which was formed in 1952 by British art educator Peter Harris during his decade-long sojourn in Malaysia. Nearby hung Harris’s own paintings Man with Moustache (1960) and Head and Rear Shoulder of Chinese Lady (1956). Despite the clear lineage of Harris’s influence among modern Malaysian artists, more works would have been helpful to flesh out these trajectories and connect them to our contemporary era, as well as to examine how the these legacies intertwine with the institutions. It might have also been interesting, but perhaps too contentious for Singapore’s censorship, to invite Singaporean artist Jack Tan, currently teaching in art institutions in England and whose practice explores the legal system, to present a work on the intersections between institutions and legacies, within the historically parliamentary, judicial and artistic setting of the NGS.
The NGS’s aim of presenting alternative perspectives to colonial narratives while working in collaboration with Tate Britain, an institution that has conventionally maintained an exclusionary notion of modernism, was always a challenge. The curatorial endeavor to open and recuperate postcolonial articulations via the exhibition and display choices, was further undermined by the central placement of Emanuel Edward Geflowski’s marble Statue of Queen Victoria (1888) in the main lobby of the NGS. This reinstatement of the Queen and its gesture toward re-colonializing the gallery and its nation, was exacerbated by the “Artist and Empire” exhibition poster in Singapore with its cinema-style poster that depicted the “colonial” and “indigenous” characters from the exhibition paintings as supporting characters surrounding the Queen, who is the protagonist. In addition, the NGS’s “Empire Ball”-themed fundraiser faced public criticism and lent doubt to the NGS’s ability to manage the sensitivities of contentious material within the postcolonial framework. It suggested that the NGS’s ambitions to assert itself as the authoritative art historical voice in Southeast Asia is made problematic by the competing pressures of the nation’s political and cultural realities.
Nevertheless, as Hammad Nasar, former head of research and programmes at Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive, who participated in the Tate Britain symposium commented in an interview, “As a museum of a certain size and scale, with enviable resources at its disposal and an international reach and ambition the NGS has the opportunity to expand the stories, and indeed the very notion, of art beyond the narrow regional outlook of the North Atlantic.” The challenge remains, beyond current partnership restrictions, whether the NGS can successfully transfer these expanded stories back to the European context, where it is just as, if not, even more needed.
“Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies” is on view at the National Gallery Singapore until March 26, 2017.
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