Snippets: National Gallery Singapore, Jan 2016 (II)

…Painting European conventions into local subject matter, evolves into incorporating local styles. Walter Spies’ ‘Balinese Legend’ looks like a crossover of Henri Rousseau with a Chinese ink landscape. ‘Pasar’ by Hendra Gunawan projects a wonderful abstract style for its time, in painting a typical market scene. A Japanese soldier in Fernando Cueto Amorsolo’s ‘Marketplace during the Occupation’, recalls a tumultuous time despite its straightforward depiction. Vietnamese lacquer on board – with its golden splendour – demand its own compositional elements. S. Sudjojono’s large painting is a sight to behold, and befitting of its masterpiece status. Representative works by Malaysian and Singaporean artists from the 1960s are typically abstractions. Do Indonesian and Filipino art feature more politically-charged content, as compared to the rest of Southeast Asia?

Hendra Gunawan – Pasar (c. 1940s)

Batik patterns by Jaafar Latiff and Yusman Aman captivate, although it is the first time I come across the latter Malaysian. Loaned from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s collection, Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s ‘Membasoh Kain di Tepi Sungai’ displays a wonderfully-stylised painting, its slender figures looking more like performing a ritual than going about their daily chores. Climbing up a flight of stairs, David Medalla’s bubbly ‘Cloud Canyons No. 24’ greets visitors into a gallery that documents the conceptual and experimental approaches by regional artists. Works by Jim Supangkat and Raymundo Albano are exhibited; ‘Ken Dedes’ by the former invokes a moral judgement by simply juxtaposing a classical sculpture with a casual drawing, while the latter’s photographic collage captivates with its evocative approach to drawing physical space.

Patrick Ng Kah Onn – Membasoh Kain di Tepi Sungai (c. 1960s)

A relatively high number of works by Sulaiman Esa are shown, including three new creations that reflect upon the infamous joint exhibition with Redza Piyadasa, Towards a Mystical Reality. Re-created and re-staged artworks are not uncommon within the many NGS galleries, either commemorating specific events or an art object. In this case, the problem lies in its procuring feedback from the same artist, instead of merely deferring its reconstruction. Sulaiman’s contemporary response towards a historical moment engenders irrelevance, for one exhibition clearly outlined within the parameters of canonical art. Black hearts and an al-Fātiḥah message embedded within the artist’s profile are unnecessary, as 1977 etchings hung nearby already display a clear move away from the edifying moments of a Mystical Reality. “What models are we talking about?”, asks an adjacent painting by Redza.

Raymundo Albano – A Grid Describing A Room By Defining Its Parts (1978)

Perhaps identifying with a time more familiar to mine, the exhibits on the highest floor of the UOB gallery beguile as a collective whole. Community and personal predicaments are clearly described in visually attractive ways – rock juts out from Santiago Bose’s canvas and threatens to flatten the indigenous people below it, Chatchai Puipia’s self-portrait on leathery animal skin is unsettling yet beautiful, paper mats and sawali sheets decorate a painting of women by Imelda Cajipe Endaya, and Heri Dono projects a contemporary version of wayang kulit. Artworks created in the 1990s focus more on the cultural resonance of objects. Examples include Norberto Roldan’s assemblages with traditional cloth, Montien Boonma’s stack of ceramic bowls (and Tang Da Wu’s delightful homage), and a glass cabinet by Navin Rawanchaikul containing bottles filled with old photographic portraits.

[l] Installation snapshot of Montien Boonma – The Pleasure of Being, Crying, Dying and Eating (1993, reconstructed 2015); [r] Tang Da Wu – Montien and SAM (2010)

Malaysian artworks shine here too – Zulkifli Dahalan’s ‘Ruang Dapur’ deconstructs social space by literally undressing its occupants, sensual images reveal itself within Lee Kian Seng’s blue & red dye work, Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam casts a scathing light on Reagan & Thatcher via newsprint, abstract decorative motifs are flattened and spray-painted onto Ismail Zain’s canvas, Zulkifli Yusoff’s critique on Malay deference manifests in a monochromatic installation, and the popular image of one independence declaration is juxtaposed by Ahmad Fuad Osman with human bodies in distressed poses. Tracing linear trajectories about Southeast Asian art history is impossible given its diverse cultural and socio-political histories; and frankly unnecessary in this globalised world. 

Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam – Friends in Need (1986)

At a time when paintings become synonymous with culture and a national identity, I am resigned to the fact that Singapore can amass this cultural capital, while Malaysia cannot. The two permanent exhibitions run for five years, which will serve as an invaluable resource for Singaporeans, and art enthusiasts within the region. Enthusiastic guides and ample wall texts (although some are badly written) lead the uninitiated, as I look upon children running about Ise’s rooftop mural/ installation. The museum even has a mobile application to aid browsing. While dissenters may claim this project to be a white elephant, and the local government still struggling with censorship and funding, this is Singapore’s declaration that it can be a cultural centre, as I continue to dream on, in Kuala Lumpur…

Roslisham Ismail @ Ise – Sira Pisang (2015)