When Singapore broke away from Malaysia in 1965 to become an independent sovereign state, little thought was given to the impact this had on the local arts scene and its artists. In a first-ever joint exhibition at National Gallery Singapore, which pulls together six very different post-independence artists, we discover how our young nation helped them push the envelope on our modern art scene.
Entitled Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporean Artists After 1965, this exhibition, now on till Aug 22, will feature six solo presentations by local art pioneers Chng Seok Tin, Goh Beng Kwan, Jaafar Latiff, Lin Hsin Hsin, Mohammad Din Mohammad, and Eng Tow, each tracing the artist’s practice across decades and disciplines. It promises audiences a rich visual experience with a deeper understanding of how this group of artists actively expanded the boundaries of art in post-independence Singapore through innovative artistic practices and techniques.
It’s interesting to note that the title of this exhibition is derived from an extract by artist Ho Ho Ying, who was one of the leading intellectuals of the Modern Art Society Singapore, proclaiming: “Strictly speaking, Realism has passed its golden age; Impressionism has done its duty; Fauvism and Cubism are declining. Something new must turn up to succeed the unfinished task left by our predecessors”.
In an exhibition catalogue published in 1963, Ho highlighted cultural anxieties that were prevalent after Singapore’s independence from Britain in the same year, followed by its separation from Malaysia in 1965. As the island city-state went through a period of rapid urbanisation and internationalisation, the need to construct a distinctive Singaporean cultural identity was paramount.
Heeding Ho’s rallying call, local artists (including the six highlighted here) explored the role of art in the development of a nation’s cultural identity, resulting in the multidisciplinary and experimental approach to art that characterised post-independence Singaporean art and marking a new chapter in Singapore’s art history.
Eugene Tan, director of National Gallery Singapore says: “Building on our previous exhibitions on Singapore artists in the 19th and 20th century, this show reflects our commitment to growing scholarship around Singapore artists in the post-1965 years. In learning about how the artists strove to be continuously ‘new’, we hope audiences gain a better understanding of the important role art can play in society in contributing to nation-building efforts, and in reflecting the zeitgeist of the times.”
The featured artists
Featuring over 300 artworks and more than 100 archival materials and objects spanning across decades and disciplines from collage, printmaking and installations, to batik, cloth and digital art, the showcase provides a rich visual experience that demonstrates the breadth and depth of the artistic practices of these selected artists.
Individually and collectively, they rode the wave of change on Singapore’s tumultuous road to independence and subsequent nation-building. Their diverse practices reflect the city state’s syncretic cultural identities and contributed significantly to the indispensable role of artists and art in our lives today. Many of the issues addressed are just as relevant today, such as urbanisation, spirituality, the environment and digital technology.
Held at the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery within the City Hall Wing, the showcase comprises three separate exhibition spaces, each shared by two artists, paired for their similarities in concepts as well as materials.
The late Mohammad Din Mohammad developed innovative approaches to painting and installation in order to address the spiritual and physical ailments arising from the struggles of urban lifeThe late Chng Seok Tin drew upon Buddhism, Daoist and Confucian philosophies for her multi-disciplinary art forms
Gallery A will explore the works of printmaker and multidisciplinary artist Chng Seok Tin and Mohammad Din Mohammad who worked at the intersections of art, music, traditional healing and Malay martial arts. The pairing examines how both artists drew upon spiritual and non-Western knowledge systems in conceptualising their art.
Chng was often inspired by Buddhism and the I-Ching, the Chinese foundational text for Daoist and Confucian philosophical traditions. Despite the loss of her vision due to an accident in 1988, she continually devised innovative strategies in print, sculpture and installation to further her practice.
Likewise, Mohammad Din Mohammad developed innovative approaches to painting and installation in order to address the spiritual and physical ailments arising from the struggles of urban life. He was also a traditional healer, silat guru (Malay martial arts master), writer and collector of Southeast Asian objects.
Goh Beng Kwan’s textured collages explore issues around cultural representation, urbanism, and identity
Eng Tow uses diverse media from textiles to paper, clay, carbon fibre and bronze to channel the metaphysical beauty and inexplicable forces around us
Artists Goh Beng Kwan and Eng Tow are showcased in Gallery B, for their artistic sensitivity to the use of materials such as Goh’s use of everyday materials in his collages, and Tow’s cloth works.
Key works include Goh’s heavily-textured collages that explore issues around cultural representation, urbanism, and identity, and the Urban Renewal painting series, which documents the architectural changes to Singapore’s urban landscape.
Audiences can also look forward to Eng Tow’s meditative works using diverse media from textiles to paper, clay, carbon fibre and bronze — all created to channel the metaphysical beauty and inexplicable forces around us.
The late Jafaar Latiff modernised traditional batik-printing methods using chemical dyes and broad, bold applications of wax resistLin Hsin Hsin’s background in mathematics and computer science has influenced her artistic practice and led her to write her own equations and algorithms to develop new digital methods of artmaking
In Gallery C, abstract painter Jaafar Latiff, and interdisciplinary artist Lin Hsin Hsin are paired together for their use of technology in making art, in line with the move towards automation and computerisation in 1980s Singapore.
Jaafar’s presentation traces the artist’s approach to painting in the batik medium and how he had pushed the limits of conventional techniques with innovative methods through decades of rigorous self-study and experiments.
Technologically-savvy audiences will gain an understanding of how Lin’s background in mathematics and computer science has influenced her artistic practice since the 1970s, and how it has led her to write her own equations and algorithms to develop new digital methods of artmaking.
Painting with Light
Those looking to gain deeper insights into the artists, their works and their influence on Singapore’s art, history and cultural identity may sign up for talks and tours led by the curators, or artists themselves if you’re lucky. Otherwise, there are also audio tours (in four languages) available on the Gallery Explorer app.
Each solo presentation will be accompanied by a publication available later this year, offering a critical examination of the artist’s engagement with concepts such as multiculturalism, developmentalism and modernisation.
As part of National Gallery Singapore’s Painting with Light festival (now on till July 25), there will also be a screening of filmic readings of Something New Must Turn Up by a panel of young artists on their impressions and interpretations of the exhibition.
Something New Must Turn Up is led by Dr Seng Yu Jin, deputy director for curatorial and research, along with seven other curators. Here, he tells Options more about the gallery and the exhibition.
How does National Gallery Singapore plan the themes for its exhibitions?
There are several factors that National Gallery Singapore takes into consideration when planning exhibitions. For this exhibition, the gallery was guided by its ethos to expand the scholarship on Singaporean artists by furthering research on post-independence Singaporean artists who were pushing the boundaries of art in collage, printmaking, batik painting, assemblage, cloth works and the digital.
This builds on the gallery’s previous efforts in featuring Singaporean artists from the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as earlier solo exhibitions by leading ceramic artist Iskandar Jalil, early ink painting artist Chen Chong Swee, photographer Chua Soo Bin, and an on-going solo exhibition on Georgette Chen.
Was this exhibition created to coincide with National Day?
It was not conceptualised around National Day, but we do hope that Singaporeans will visit the exhibition to celebrate our local artists and reflect on the artists’ concerns and artistic engagement with the challenges in the context of post-in- dependence Singapore. These six artists captured the tensions and sentiments of post-independence Singapore through their artwork, and showed us how resilient and innovative they have been during the period after Singapore’s independence in 1965.
For example, Goh Beng Kwan’s collage, Iron Defence, is his response to Singapore’s urgent need for self-defence as a relatively young country, while Jafaar Latiff embraced progress and modernisation of traditional practices by drawing from the cultural sources of Southeast Asia through unconventional techniques in batik painting, such as the use of chemical dyes and broad, bold applications of wax resist.
Another example is how Eng Tow’s meditative method of artmaking gives modern audiences the pause they need by encouraging slow viewing and reflection as they view it from different angles, which contrasts with Singapore’s fast-paced lifestyle.
What are the reasons for choosing these six artists for the exhibition?
These artists represent a diversity of artistic practices and backgrounds of post-independence Singaporean artists. They worked across a wide range of mediums, techniques and disciplines — from Mohammad Din Mohammad’s talismanic collages to Eng Tow’s bronze installations and Lin Hsin Hsin’s digital art. They also came from diverse backgrounds — Goh Beng Kwan, Chng Seok Tin and Eng Tow furthered their art education overseas and returned to Singapore, while Lin Hsin Hsin, Jaafar Latiff and Mohammad Din Mohammad continued their artmaking in Singapore. Together, they represent the pluralistic and diverse local art scene of that time.
Another example that comes to mind is how Lin Hsin Hsin — an IT visionary, poet, composer and artist — made the decisive move to discard traditional ways of painting with brushes by moving into digital art. In 1994, she established what was reported as the world’s first virtual museum.
It was also a conscious decision to select three women artists to raise awareness of female artists in Singapore’s art history and ensure that their contributions to the development of Singapore’s art scene are represented and brought to public attention.
Who do you think will resonate most with the general public?
Everyone’s art experience and preferences are subjective. In fact, with the diversity of art practices, art works and the rich visual experience that the exhibition offers, there will be something for everyone to appreciate. We hope that by spotlighting these artists through this exhibition, Singaporeans will gain a deeper understanding of their cultural identity and recognise these forerunners for their enduring contributions to Singapore’s modern and contemporary art.
Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporean Artists After 1965 will be on show at the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery from now till Aug 22. Admission is free. Visit nationalgallery.sg for more information.