Pioneering Singaporean performance artist Lee Wen was announced as winner of the 2016 Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art, on the evening of January 19, at a ceremony hosted at the residence of the United States Ambassador to Singapore, Kirk Wagar.
Jointly presented by the US Embassy in Singapore and Art Stage Singapore, the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art was conceived as an annual accolade to honor artists and curators from the ASEAN region who “stand up for the fundamental rights of freedom of speech in a difficult environment” through their work. The award is named after Joseph Balestier (1788–1858), the first American diplomat and US consul to Singapore. The inaugural 2015 award was granted to Indonesian artist FX Harsono who also attended the 2016 ceremony to present the award to Lee. The second iteration of the award tripled its initial USD 5,000 prize to USD 15,000.
“We are here to celebrate courageous individuals,” said Wager. In praise of Lee, Wager noted, “There is no stronger voice for freedom of expression in art in Singapore than Lee Wen, who has spent his life speaking truth to power.”
In his speech, Art Stage Singapore founder and president Lorenzo Rudolf commented that “artists are seismographs for the political, economic, as well as cultural development of our society,” and it is in recognition of the impact Lee has had on the Singaporean and international art scene that he was chosen as this year’s winner.
Lee Wen originally trained as a banker prior to finding his path in art. A pioneer of performance art in Singapore, Lee has been associated with the Singaporean avant-garde artists’ collective Artists Village since 1989 and has participated in exhibitions and festivals worldwide, from Taiwan and Brisbane to Cuba and Scotland. Most known for his “Yellow Man” series of performances, in which he painted his entire body in yellow as a statement of exaggeration about ethnic stereotypes, Lee is also recognized for his bravery in continuing to practice performance art during its decade-long ban in 1990s Singapore.
In a truly heart-warming act of gratitude and love, Lee surprised Harsono, Wagar and Rudolph with colorful handmade drawings, which he gifted to the men. He also announced his decision to share his cash prize with the two other shortlisted finalists this year—Burmese performance artist Aye Ko and Vietnamese filmmaker Nguyen Trinh Thi.
Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.