Real Concerns and Tradition Unfettered, Siapa Nama Kamu? Art in Singapore since the 19th Century, National Gallery Singapore

The act of creating the inaugural long-term display for the DBS Singapore Gallery (Singapore Gallery) has entailed significant discussions with art historians, critics, artists and curators on the topic of “modernism” in Singapore, ranging from what definitions, terminologies and technologies one may adopt, to whether there is a specific story to be narrated about the “modern” in Singapore and its associated regimes. Many of the discussions have also revolved around the history of progress and the challenges associated with charting a linear narrative where individual artists, movements and artworks are often evoked to substantiate the “success” of a national story.

Real Concerns: 1950s – 1970s
Following the Second World War, a strong swell of nationalism throughout the Southeast Asian region inspired a wave of social realism in the arts. After Singapore became self-governing in 1959, artistic themes dwelt on the effects of modernization and economic progress, as the country’s identity underwent thoughtful re-examination.

The Real Against The New: Social Realism And Abstraction. Art is a reflection of social ideology, and therefore is closely linked to the commercial and industrial sectors of society. Commercial art is testament to this. In contrast, art has little relevance to common labourers and farmers in the past. This is because in a capitalist society, art is viewed as something decorative, to be enjoyed by the scholarly and affluent classes with time on their hands, But this is not the case in new art.

Tradition Unfettered: 1940s – 1980s
As an integral aspect of its research directive, the NGS studies the foundations and influences of ink painting. This discrete component of the exhibition includes a number of scrolls in classical Chinese style, alongside unconventional directions in ink painting—including those by local artists who since the 1960s have developed a distinctive “Singapore ink” style.

Tradition Unfettered: The Story of Singapore Ink. The history of ink art in Singapore is rarely included in the broader discussion of modern and contemporary Chinese ink, which most frequently focuses on mainland China and occasionally on Hong Kong and Taiwan or the Chinese diaspora. A few local exhibitions have attempted to survey the evolution of ink art in Singapore from different perspectives or approaches. However, gaps or discrepancies in the treatment of its development within the broader narrative of Singapore art history still remain. It is often dealt with as an ethnic-based or a medium-based art form, while artists for whom ink painting was an important fusion agent.

Siapa Nama Kamu?
“What is your name? Art in Singapore since the 19th Century” weaves together a rich and captivating narrative of artworks in a broadly chronological sequence, covering Singapore’s art history from the 19th century to the present day. Drawing on close to 400 works, it explores the influences and practices that have shaped and transformed Singapore art. Each artwork provides insights into why and how an artist responded to his surroundings and circumstances. Taken as a whole, the wide range of artworks reflects the complexities involved in telling this extensive story. The exhibtion provide insight into the artworks, to trace the ebb and flow of the history of Singapore art, as well as examine the geographical confines of Singapore, the parameters of national identity and margins of time.

“Siapa Nama Kamu?” is Malay for “What is your name?” The inaugural exhibition of the DBS Singapore Gallery poses this question, inviting visitors to consider how art may relate to issues of self and community, and what it means to look at Singapore through its art. The exhibtion references Singapore artist Chua Mia Tee’s iconic work National Language Class, painted in 1959—the year Singapore gained independence from British colonial rule.

“Siapa Nama Kamu?” is being held in the 2,000-square-meter DBS Singapore Gallery at the NGS, where nearly 400 works are on display, grouped chronologically under several socio-historical themes, which are described below.

The exhibition captures the broad sweep of Singapore’s art histories at defining periods. A total of six themes – Tropical Tapestry, Nanyang Reverie, Real Concerns, New Languages, Tradition Unfettered and Shifting Grounds – will present the development of Singapore’s art scene from early visual impressions in the 1900s, the emergence of the Nanyang artists in the 1930s, the rise of Singapore’s cultural identity in the 1960s, to new approaches to art in the 1980s. The exhibits will be updated regularly as the National Gallery Singapore’s curators continue with research work.

“Siapa Nama Kamu?” may be somewhat overloaded in content, but the exhibition affords the unusual opportunity to see a comprehensive and astonishing range of artifacts, paintings, photographs, sculpture, installations and more, as the evolution of Singapore’s artistic heritage is delineated with clarity and verve.

The exhibition examines Singapore’s identity and links to Southeast Asia and the rest of the world by reflecting how artists in Singapore grappled with diverse values, ideas and tensions since the 19th century.

National Gallery Singapore is the first museum in the world dedicated to modern art from Singapore and Southeast Asia, and will present the most-extensive long-term exhibitions of art from the region. Through Siapa Nama Kamu?, we want to present a cohesive narrative of Singapore’s art history and engage our visitors with lesser known aspects, such as developments in the 19th century and the formation of art groups resulting from anti-colonial sentiments in the 1950s.

Apart from showcasing works from the National Collection, NGS also worked closely with artists and their families who have graciously donated or loaned significant works to create the most extensive exhibition about Singapore’s art history. Each painting tells a moving and inspirational story that will go towards creating a stimulating and enriching museum experience for all visitors.

DBS Singapore Gallery
The DBS Singapore Gallery, located in the City Hall Building, will open its doors on 2015. It is one of two permanent galleries that will be open at National Gallery Singapore. The artworks that the bank has donated to the National Gallery Singapore are in its permanent collection.

Development Bank of Singapore’s corporate art collection reflects the bank’s strong Asian and Singapore heritage, as well as the evolving local art scene. As Singapore’s largest bank, DBS wanted to support the Gallery in its outreach efforts to enable more Singaporeans and visitors to learn and appreciate the story of Singapore art.

National Gallery Singapore
National Gallery Singapore is a leading visual arts institution which oversees the world’s largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian modern art. Situated at the birthplace of modern Singapore, in the heart of the Civic District, the Gallery is housed in two national monuments – City Hall and former Supreme Court – that have been beautifully restored and transformed into this exciting 64,000 square metres venue. Reflecting Singapore’s unique heritage and geographical location, the Gallery aims to be a progressive museum that creates dialogues between the art of Singapore, Southeast Asia and the world to foster and inspire a creative and inclusive society. This is reflected in our collaborative research, education, long-term and special exhibitions, and innovative programming. The Gallery also works with international museums such as Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Orsay, Tate Britain, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT) and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), to jointly present Southeast Asian art in the global context, positioning Singapore as a key node in the global visual arts scene.

National Gallery Singapore oversees the world’s leading public collection of modern art from Singapore and Southeast Asia. It comprises over 8,000 works from the 19th and 20th centuries in all media, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and video.

Aiming to be the centre for research, discussion and publication on the modern art of the region, the Gallery offers wide access and fresh understanding of our unique visual art heritage.

With its comprehensive collection, the Gallery presents the development of Singapore and regional cultures to tell their social, economic and political histories. The Gallery looks beyond national and regional boundaries of art to include a wider ambit of international visual arts culture, research into Asian heritage and cultural affiliations, and engage with global cultures and discourses.