The backdrop of history has always been the fertile bed upon which May Oon draws inspiration from for her works in oils or charcoal. Oon has previously tackled representations of Peranakan culture, the early political life of Lee Kuan Yew, and 9/11. This time round, her references stretch further back to the coolie trade in Singapore.
Compared to Oon’s previous work, the artist’s figures this time take on a more hard-edged quality, with their defined musculature etched against the street scene. The coolies and tradesman recede into the background, blending in with the visual rhythms of the buildings and infrastructure surrounding them. Gone also are the luxurious swathes of painterly coats, replaced instead with dry-brush underlayer or marks and erasures made through rigorous hand-rubbings.
One of the roots of the word “coolie” itself comes from the Urdu word “Kuli”, which itself could be from the Turkish word for slave, qul. The position of the slave has been a vexed figure in history and artistic representations, straddling the roles of both subject and object. They are person and property at the same time.
It would be too convenient to draw neat parallels between the coolies who came to Singapore to the slave trade in other parts of the globe decades earlier. Coolies were characterized by a greater sense of personhood and self-determination, in some cases even able to complete their indentured servitude within a few years, and oftentimes receiving a wage, in the process.
The coolie in Singapore has continually been repackaged in themepark-like fashion through public commissions of bronze sculptures that pepper our public spaces. Sculptors like Chong Fah Cheong and Malcolm Koh give our past a renewed visibility, reflecting the harsh realities (which include poor wages, squalid living quarters, and vulnerability to clan violence) in the rugged contours of their weathered bodies. They are usually cast in human scale lending an odd fossilized immediacy to their presence as art objects.
Oon’s coolies are portrayed less intimately, more anonymously. Their visages are blurred, rendering the coolies into faceless cyphers, lacking any distinctive individual identity and cementing their status as indentured labour and chattel. Oon on the one hand pays tribute to her subjects, but neither lionises nor worships them. They are atemporal, ripped from time to float within our Web 2.0 culture of recycled and readily accessible imagery.
Oon’s new pieces raise questions about how history is presented, transmitted, reconstructed, and ultimately sold. Any act of representation is never neutral. What are the histories being presented, and what assumptions do we bring to viewing contemporary representations of historical subjects?
The artist approaches her subject with a cool distance, self-aware of the cultural filters and underlying power dynamics of archival processes. Her sensitivity to the repackaging of images of old Singapore make it possible to deconstruct the conflation of nostalgia and history.
An interesting turn in Oon’s artmaking practice is her incorporation of the humble recycled sack-cloth as her surface. Her materials are raw yet also removed from their original use. … rough textures and smells are removed through repeated washes, and frayed edges are hidden with obvious stitching. Here we see a conscious reexamination of Oon’s own mode of production.
At the same time, Oon’s works allow us to ourselves reexamine the presentations of history and memory in Singapore’s current search for a new national narrative. Singapore’s national archives are now open sandboxes from which we reconstruct collective mythos through appropriating, reconfiguring, and remixing memory.
Nevertheless, one need not extrapolate too much conceptually. The charm and allure of Oon’s latest works come from how easily her medium and subject matter dovetail together; drawing from extensive research on photographic references, Oon has chosen compositions and figurations which lend to intensive mark-making, a process comprising repetitive rubbings and erasures. Through this, Oon’s pieces become also a quiet meditation on the increasingly fuzzy boundaries that define “art” and “work”, and a koan to physical labour and artistic ritual.
Over/Time runs from 3 til 17 July 2015.
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