With Singapore’s National Day celebrations following the London 2012 Summer Olympics, it is easy to get swept up in a sense of national pride. These public spectacles aside, how does the
visual arts better help us understand our national identity? How have artists depicted our local histories, and tied it to their own personal life-stories? How can we rediscover our country with new eyes through art?
Singapore’s art scene has been said to be characterized by a pastiche of styles, taking its cues from Western (historical or contemporary) art movements and Eastern artistic traditions. Nevertheless, our local artists have still tried to examine questions of what
defines us as Singaporeans, either as a national collective, or as individuals.
In Singapore’s earlier decades, pioneer artists like Chua Mia Tee and Liu Kang captured life in Singapore through their depictions of local scenes and landscapes. While Liu Kang adopted a more lyrical painterly style, synthesizing indigenous aesthetics with influences from the School of Paris, Chua Mia Tee depicted Singapore’s history through a more realistic lens, capturing everyday scenes (like people in a classroom) which also blend in broad political themes of nationalistic aspirations and the social integration of different cultures.
As Singapore progressed through the decades, the country saw not only growth in its economy and standard of living, but also the ensuing influx of popular culture from the region, reflected in local past-times like screenings of Shaw Brothers movies and local getais. We saw the nation start to settle into its own ‘skin’, and develop its own way of life through our coffee-shop culture and daily interactions between different racial groups.
This is captured perfectly in Royston Tan’s 2002 film “Hock Hiap Leng”, an example of current nostalgia for Singapore’s past decades, with his humorous 70’s-inspired tribute to the namesake’s history as a 55-year old coffee shop along Armenian Street before it was planned for demolition in 2001 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Meanwhile, K Rajagopal also reminisces of the New World Amusement Park in his 2007 film, “The New World”, tying in histories of the local landmark with personal memories of childhood
It goes without saying that the aforementioned examples don’t even begin to fully exemplify the relationship between the local visual arts scene and Singapore’s nationhood (a question
which warrants a whole publication on its own)… they merely take on local themes and imagery on a personal and everyday level. And perhaps this is the most honest way of addressing our country’s local identity – not through sweeping political narratives, but through introspective storytelling.
Take for example Elgin Ho’s "(S) 439965", (a simple but poignant film about his local haunts in Katong), or Chang Kai Xiang’s "Kampong Buangkok", which, and also
Mervyn Teo’s "Barbershop in Little India"… these are all works filled with specificity and warmth for their subject, an homage to the places and childhood memories these artists grew up with.
Art is a medium, which allows artists to get to the heart of what makes Singapore the country that it is. According to photographer Kevan Goh, his project of documenting old and new
buildings revealed “how the growth and development of my country is also a reflection of [his] own past and future.” Through these artists’ eyes, we get to experience Singapore and its history in a whole new light, rediscovering the country that we call home.
So get to know your country better by visiting your nearest museum, or attending a local community performance. As Singapore gets engulfed as a red dot in the tide of globalizing culture, our local artists are still trying to find ways of capturing our local flavour – these are the personal histories of people and places that make us who we are as Singaporeans. It’s always important to remember where we came from as a country to give us a sense of where we’re going, and there’s no better way of doing that than through seeing our country’s history depicted through
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