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The visual art of Singapore, or Singaporean art refers to all forms of visual art in or associated with Singapore as well as by Singaporean artists, from its precolonial history to present. The history of Singaporean art may include, for instance, artistic traditions of the Malay Archipelago, portraiture, landscapes and natural history drawings of the colonial period, Chinese ink painting, Islamic calligraphy, Nanyang style paintings, social realist art, abstract art, and art practices using other traditional media such as sculpture, photography, and printmaking. It also includes contemporary art practices such as performance art, conceptual art, installation art, video art, sound art, and new media art.
Due to Singapore and Malaysia's long shared history which culminated in the separation of Singapore from the Federation of Malaya in 1965, overlaps may be observed in the histories of both Malaysian and Singaporean art. Nevertheless, the emergence of modern Singaporean art, or more specifically, "the emergence of self-aware artistic expression" is often tied to the rise of art associations, art schools, and exhibitions in the 20th century, though this has since been expanded to include earlier forms of visual representation.
Presently, the contemporary art of Singapore also circulates internationally through art biennales and other major international exhibitions. Contemporary art in Singapore tends to examine themes of "hyper-modernity and the built environment; alienation and changing social mores; post-colonial identities and multiculturalism." Across these tendencies, "the exploration of performance and the performative body" is a common running thread. Singapore carries a notable history of performance art, with the state historically having enacted a no-funding rule for that specific art form for a decade from 1994 to 2003, following a controversial performance artwork at the 5th Passage art space in Singapore.
A 14th-century golden armlet bearing a repoussé plaque of the Javanese Kala was excavated from Bukit Larangan (Fort Canning Hill) in 1926, demonstrating a link between Singapore and classical Malay sultanates. The kala motif draws from Hindu mythology, and traditionally adorns the top of main entrances of temples and is found in many parts of Indonesia. Demonstrating the use of metalworking techniques, the armlet dates back to the 14th century, around the time a possible Kingdom of Singapura would have been thriving on the island, complementing indigenous Malay writings about the presence of a state in Singapore headed by a Malay elite. The armlet also demonstrates the influence of the Hindu cosmology for Malays in their pre-Islamic past.
Another significant artefact is the Singapore Stone, a surviving fragment of a large sandstone slab inscribed with Indic script that stood at the mouth of the Singapore River, measuring 3 metres in height and width. Believed to date back to at least the 13th century and possibly as early as the 10th or 11th century, the inscription remains undeciphered. More recent theories suggest that the inscription is either in Old Javanese or in Sanskrit, which suggests the possibility that the island was an extension of the Majapahit civilisation in the past. About January 1843, the slab was blown to pieces to widen the passageway at the mouth of the Singapore River to make space for Fort Fullerton and for the quarters of its commander, leaving only fragments of the slab.
The earliest visual references to ancient Singapore exist predominantly in artifactual and cartographical forms rather than explicitly in visual art forms. These representations and artefacts help demonstrate a progression towards the specific formulation of visual art practice in Singapore as self-aware artistic expression later in the 19th and 20th centuries. The earliest possible cartographic depiction may be the 2nd century CE Geographia by Greco-Roman astronomer Ptolemy, with a place called Sabana or Sabara marked on the 11th Map of Asia at the southern tip of the Golden Khersonese (meaning the Malay Peninsula) where Singapore may lie. A 1573 map by Ignazio Danti further depicts Cingatola as an island located on the tip of Regio di Malaca.
Early Singapore came to be known as "Temasek", a name possibly deriving from "tasik" (Malay for lake or sea) and taken to mean Sea-town in Malay. The landmass of Temasek (淡馬錫) is visually depicted in the Mao Kun map published in 1628, a set of navigation charts published in the Ming dynasty military treatise Wubei Zhi. Long Ya Men (龍牙門, Dragon's Teeth Gate) is also depicted within the map, believed to be the entrance to Keppel Harbour. The map is often regarded as a surviving document from the 15th century expeditions of Zheng He, in addition to accounts written by Zheng's officers.
Sometime in its history, Temasek came to be known as Singapura. The Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) contains a tale of a prince of Srivijaya, Sri Tri Buana (also known as Sang Nila Utama), who landed on Temasek after surviving a storm in the 13th century. According to the tale, the prince saw a strange creature, which he was told was a lion; believing this to be an auspicious sign, he decided to found a settlement called Singapura, which means "Lion City" in Sanskrit. It is unlikely there ever were lions in Singapore, though tigers continued to roam the island until the early 20th century. Such narratives of origin have continued to serve as the basis for artistic works and projects by modern and contemporary artists.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, starting with the arrival of the Portuguese at Malacca in 1509, the Malay Archipelago was gradually taken over by European colonial powers. During the 17th century, the early dominance of the Portuguese was challenged by the Dutch, who came to control most of the ports in the region, while colonial powers such as the British had a relatively minor presence. Sir Stamford Raffles, appointed as the Lieutenant Governor of the British colony at Bencoolen in 1818, arrived in Singapore on 28 January 1819 and soon recognised the island as a choice for a new port. Raffles sought to challenge the Dutch by establishing a new port along the Straits of Malacca, which served as the main ship passageway for India-China trade. A formal treaty was signed on 6 February 1819, ushering in Singapore's colonial period. The British concentrated on building infrastructure such as housing, roads, and hospitals in order to maintain a thriving economy, and did not set up an art academy. While Raffles did intend for the teaching of art, the first British art teacher, Richard Walker, would only arrive almost a hundred years after Raffles' death in 1923.
The visual art of this period was diverse, with travellers, itinerant artists, and migrants from places such as China, the Indian subcontinent, and the territorial West arriving in Singapore, all bringing different pictorial traditions and methods of image-making. From the 19th century, European perspectives of Singapore could be observed through the visuals created of people and landscapes, which often depicted "tropical" motifs such as palm trees, kampungs, and studies of local inhabitants. Such subject matter would later recur in the works of Singapore artists from the 1930s onwards.
Some of the earliest visual records of Singapore as a British Settlement exist as part of marine coastal surveying processes in the 19th century, which were employed by ships for navigational purposes. One of the earliest surviving depictions is Singapore from the Rocky Point, 1819, a wash drawing by John Michael Houghton, a midshipman who served on board the HMS Discovery as part of the naval escort accompanying Raffles on his journey to Singapore in 1819. Painted during the time Raffles first set foot on the island, it is one of 41 drawings belonging to the Houghton Album, which contains a compilation of views drawn by Houghton. Other early works include hydrographic sketches made by an unknown draughtsman on board one of the two marine ships accompanying Raffles in his survey of Karimun Islands, Sketch of the Land round Singapore Harbour, dated February 1819, alongside another work, Sketch of the Settlement of Singapore at anchor in 4 fathoms, dated April 1819, and Philip Jackson's A View of Singapore from the Sea dated 1823.
In this context, the 19th-century European artist was seen as an individual who possessed the technical skills to accurately depict what was seen, with draughtsmanship allowing one to record information about coastlines and harbours prior to the advent of photography. Such visual recordings, though meant as technical drawings, share formal similarities with later landscape works that were instead created purely for artistic expression. For example, Robert Wilson Wiber's watercolour painting, Panoramic View of Singapore from the Harbour (1849) depicts the island from a similar perspective, gazing upon it from the sea. Popular representations of Singapore in the 19th century often included harbour and port scenes, as Singapore was largely known as a British port. Singapore was often represented as a port-of-call in prints and illustrated expedition narratives produced in Europe, which focused on its commercial significance, also depicting scenes of the Singapore River, a continued motif as one of the impressions of Singapore in the 19th century. British officers who worked as surveyors, architects, and engineers in colonial Singapore were some of the early artists to create images of Singapore, such as Charles Andrew Dyce and John Turnbull Thomson who both painted views of Singapore.
In 1865, the German popular spreadsheet Die Gartenlaube would publish the article "Die Tigernoth in Singapore," which begins with an account of an escaped jaguar from a local zoo and continues with George Drumgoole Coleman's encounter with a tiger during a surveying trip near a jungle in Singapore in 1835. Accompanying the article was a lithographic print by Heinrich Leutemann, Unterbrochene Straßenmessung auf Singapore (Road Surveying Interrupted in Singapore) (c. 1865–1885), which depicts the dramatic moment when the tiger leaps out from the dense jungle and knocks over Coleman's theodolite. The work has been of significant interest to recent scholarship, which focuses on the historical and metaphorical significance of the tiger. It has further been suggested such an incident was exaggerated or did not truly occur, emphasising the imaginary surrounding the supposed dangers of the Southeast Asian jungle.
Scientific explorations in the 19th century led to artistic engagements with nature, the colonial drive to gather knowledge manifesting through categorisation of the flora and fauna of the Malay Archipelago. Natural history drawings commissioned by William Farquhar during his time as Resident of Malacca from 1803 to 1818 were some of the earliest visual practices of the region. The drawings served as an important aid for scientific study at the time, supporting the practice of preserving natural history specimens. While the artists who created these works are largely unknown, it has been observed that motifs such as rocks and trees in the landscapes of these drawings bear similarities to Chinese ink tradition, revealing traces of the unknown artist(s). Chinese artists have been present in Malaya from as early as mid-19th century, mainly as commercial artists who remain largely unknown in the history of art, though their activities may be observed through the production of such natural history drawings and ancestral portraits of the period.
Garcinia Mangostana; Booah Mangies; Boorong Merbo (William Farquhar Collection, 1819–1823)
Jasminum; Akar Benang; Pokok Akar Banang (William Farquhar Collection, 1819–1823)
Onka' Pootie (William Farquhar Collection, 1819–1823)
Boorong Antoo; Owl (William Farquhar Collection, 1819–1823)
Bentoorong (William Farquhar Collection, 1819–1823)
Lava Etam (Malay); Black Pepper; Piper Nigrum (William Farquhar Collection, 1819–1823)
Doorean; Durio stercorae; D. zibethina Linn (William Farquhar Collection, 1819–1823)
The earliest surviving photographic views of Singapore as a British settlement are Jules Itier’s 1844 daguerreotype of Boat Quay and Singapore River from Government Hill. By the 19th century, prominent studios were established by arrivals from abroad such as August Sachtler, G.R. Lambert, and John Thomson, alongside Japanese and Chinese photography studios. The presence of photography studios further shaped image-making processes and how Singapore was represented. A. Sachtler & Co.'s views of Singapore were taken 20 years after Itier's daguerrotype, illustrating the large advances in photography.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, commercial photography studios would produce photographs of locals to represent different ethnicities, establishing visual tropes associated with these identities. Also popular were photographs depicting different professions such as hawkers or barbers. While some photos were commissioned, some were also mass produced according to market demands.
August Sachtler, A Calladium - Tanglin, Singapore, c. 1860s, Black-and-white photograph, 10.4 x 6.1 cm, Collection of National Museum of Singapore
August Sachtler, Untitled photograph (portrait of man) from group of 20 cartes-de-visite portraits, c. 1860s, 10.2 x 6.2 cm, Collection of National Museum of Singapore
August Sachtler, Untitled photograph (portrait of woman) from group of 20 cartes-de-visite portraits, c. 1860s, 10.2 x 6.2 cm, Collection of National Museum of Singapore
While portraiture was employed to capture the power and social status of British authorities, it was similarly used in an ethnographic manner to record the appearance of local inhabitants and encounters with them. These Eurocentric perspectives of representing self and other observably manifest in natural history drawings and early photography.
It must be noted that the Straits Chinese communities had an established tradition of producing ancestral portraits. Ancestral portraits by Straits Chinese, also seen in Malacca and Java, were created for facilitating customary rituals for honouring ancestors. In the 20th century, prominent Straits Chinese personalities were early adopters of the medium of oil to represent themselves, such as in Portrait of Tan Kim Seng by Qu Chiqing (c. Mid 19th century). These practices of self-representation among the Straits Chinese communities extend across Malacca, Penang, and Singapore, suggesting a common engagement with portraiture.
A portrait of renowned poet Khoo Seok Wan from the album Fengyue qinzun tu (Painting of Zither Romance) (1898) by Yu-Tao demonstrates another form of portraiture, this time in the Chinese literati tradition of ink painting.
Qu Chiqing, Ancestor portrait of Tan Kim Seng, c. Mid 19th century, Oil on canvas, 98 x 78 cm, Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum
First published in 1849 is Munshi Abdullah's Hikayat Abdullah (The Tale of Abdullah), an example of Malay printed matter including a decorated frontispiece. It is one of the first Malay language books published in print and written by someone who identified as Malay. Abdullah was born in Melaka in 1796, though his work eventually brought him to Singapore where he served as secretary and personal Malay tutor to Raffles. Further examples of such visual forms include illuminated manuscripts and early illustrated newspapers.
By 1840, Singapore had a huge influx of Chinese migrants, partly due to the Opium Wars in the 1840s and growing Southeast Asian markets which increased the demand for labour. Within Southeast Asian Chinese immigrant society, there was an absence of the gentry class who usually bore the traditional aesthetic values and practices from which artists would come. By the late 19th century, only a small group of people, many of whom were cultural elites from the scholar-gentry class from China’s traditional imperial system, had the privilege to partake in and promote art activities in Singapore. One example is poet Khoo Seok Wan, a prominent figure in local Chinese literary circles, and the only person to have passed the Qing court imperial examinations among Chinese immigrants in Singapore. The album Fengyue qinzun tu (Painting of Zither Romance) (1898), which contains ink painting, calligraphy, and seal carving with literature, provides key examples of traditional literati art which these cultural elites circulated and promoted to the local community. Literati art was thus regarded as being distinct from works made by artisans or court painters.
Chinese calligraphy, considered a highly sophisticated art form, was commonly practiced in Singapore's context among the Chinese intelligentsia as a form of daily self-cultivation. Celebrated poet and scholar Pan Shou was very influential of the early generation of Singaporean and Malayan calligraphers. The early generation would teach the second generation of calligraphers, which includes figures such as Tan Siah Kwee, Lim Tze Peng, and Koh Mun Hung, whose practices are said to have matured post-World War II. Ink paintings by Nanyang artists Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee, and Cheong Soo Pieng from the 1950s onwards would also reveal modern variations in uses of Chinese ink, such as in Chen Wen Hsi's Playful Gibbons (c. 1980s).
The early 20th century marked the rise of art associations, art schools, and exhibitions pre-war in the 20th century. With the arrival of Europeans in Singapore and the region, new modes of perception and representation informed local artistic production. Now emerging were individualistic artistic impulses and ideas of art as self-expression, with art practices engaging with and contesting the European gaze from visual art produced in the 19th century.
In 1909, the Amateur Drawing Association was founded, led by its first president Tan Kok Tiong. It had a club house in Amoy Street and a membership of about 50 in its first year, its activities including "drawing, literary pursuits and physical culture," though there were few "drawing members" in spite of an exhibition of members' drawings held in February 1913. The Amateur Drawing Association suggests a social network of art enthusiasts who were associated with the Straits Chinese and British elite. The association fostered local art practices of figures such as brothers Low Kway Soo and Low Kway Song, the latter being one of the earliest professional artists to practise within the region and make a living through his photography studio and commissions. Low Kway Song's Lynx (1921) and Thai Temple (1923) are art historically notable as some of the few oil paintings from Singapore that can be traced to this moment of artistic production in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, the Kuala Lumpur-based United Artists Malaysia (Nanyang shuhua she) was founded in 1929, promoting ink painting and calligraphy as an embodiment of Chinese culture to a migrant society that was thought to be lacking in cultural enrichment.
By the 1930s, European artists from abroad would arrive in Singapore, staying for a short period of time, inspired by the sights and locals they encountered. Such figures include Dora Gordine, Karl Duldig, Rudolfo Nolli, Tina Wentscher, and Julius Wentscher, all who held exhibitions in Singapore, with some commissioned for various public works such as sculptures. Leaving significant lasting impact was Richard Walker, a British artist who was the art superintendent for the Department of Education in Singapore from 1923 to 1951. Responsible for the teaching of art in local British schools, Walker was expected merely to fulfil the colonial school system requirements by teaching watercolour in art classes, a matter which frustrated him greatly and denied the art scene further development. Walker later became a founding member of the Singapore Art Society in 1949, and further contributed to the development of watercolour in Singapore. Lim Cheng Hoe, one of Singapore's most prolific and renowned watercolourists, was a student of Walker's.
The visual art scene in 1930s Singapore could also be defined by its cosmopolitanism, with many artists who were trained overseas arriving during this period, particularly those who would become prominent in the history of Singapore's art such as Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, and Lim Hak Tai. Artists such as Xu Beihong, and later on in the 1950s, Georgette Chen, would have held exhibitions abroad and gained international recognition before arriving in Singapore. They would bring with them the visual practices of the School of Paris, which would further shape local painting styles. Xu Beihong visited Singapore seven times from 1919 and 1942, a prominent artist who participated in broader efforts to modernise art in China, and was admired by Singapore artists such as Chen Chong Swee. Xu painted Put Down Your Whip (1939) in Singapore, inspired by his encounter with a theatrical performance that dramatised the plight of refugees who had fled the war in China. Put Down Your Whip further expresses the political involvement of Chinese artists at the time, who, like Xu, were committed to fundraising efforts for refugees during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Lim Hak Tai, arriving in Singapore between 1936 and 1937, would found and become principal of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1938, now the oldest formal tertiary art institution in Singapore. Possibly one of the earliest still life studies in oil at present is Lim Hak Tai's Still Life – Flowers (1938). Lim Hak Tai would be active in the Society of Chinese Artists alongside Tchang Ju Chi, another artist trained overseas. The Society of Chinese Artists was founded in 1935, consisting mostly of alumni from Shanghainese art academies. Tchang Ju Chi's Still Life (c. 1930s) features a composition of tropical fruit such as mangoes, rambutans, and mangosteens, arranged before a piece of batik fabric, demonstrating an emerging interest in local motifs at this period in the 1930s. Works from this period show the early attempts of artists to capture local life and aesthetics in the region, incorporating tropical light and its motifs. During this time, Chinese-speaking writers and artists began using the term "Nanyang" to refer to the region of Southeast Asia where they had settled in, encouraging each other to explore localised forms of expression in literary and artistic practices.
In 1942, the arrival of World War II in Singapore led to a slowing down of the artistic activities that emerged in the 1930s. Art from this period reflected artists' experiences of the war, as seen in Richard Walker's Epiphany (1942). Epiphany, or the thirteenth day of Christmas, celebrates the revelation of Christ to the Magi. Painted in an allegorical style, the work portrays the Virgin Mary as an Asian woman to symbolise the universal truth of Christianity. Likely used as an improvised altarpiece in Changi Prison, the work reflects his internment during the war. Tchang Ju Chi's Untitled, Unfinished (c. 1942) also alludes to Tchang's untimely death in 1942 during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore. The small collection of works left behind by Tchang demonstrate his early engagement with tropical motifs, positioning him as one of the likely major proponents of the Nanyang style of painting had he survived the war. In 1946, just after the war had ended, Liu Kang would publish Chop Suey, a multi-volume series of sketches that depicted Japanese brutality during wartime Malaya.
The Japanese surrender to the Allies would take place on 15 August 1945. Much of Singapore's infrastructure had been destroyed during the war, including electricity and water supply systems, telephone services, as well as the harbour facilities at the Port of Singapore, leaving the populace with food shortages and high unemployment, the economy only beginning to pick up in 1947. The failure of Britain to defend Singapore had destroyed its credibility as a ruler in the eyes of Singaporeans, marking a political awakening with the rise of anti-colonial and nationalist sentiments, epitomised by the slogan Merdeka, or "independence" in the Malay language. The British were prepared to gradually increase self-governance for Singapore and Malaya in the following years, with the first local elections on a limited scale for several positions in the government of Singapore starting in 1948 after an amendment to the Constitution of Singapore. The search for national identity as Singapore and Malaya moved towards independence, with hopes of forming a unified Malayan identity that superseded distinct ethnic cultures embody the key artistic concerns of the period leading up to the merger. These ideas for creating a multicultural Malaya out of a largely immigrant society would thus fundamentally shape arts discourse for Singapore.
New artists and art associations would arrive and be founded as Singapore recovered from World War II. In 1949, Malaysian artist Latiff Mohidin would arrive in Singapore, enrolling in Kota Raja Malay School where his artistic talent would be discovered by his art teacher and headmaster. By 1951, a 10-year old Latiff would hold his first exhibition at the school, and he would be based between Singapore and Malaya until receiving the DAAD Scholarship in 1960, when he relocated to Europe to further his art education. Figures such as Abdul Ghani Hamid, Lim Cheng Hoe, and Singapore-based Nas Achnas, an artist, illustrator, and film director, would all be active at this point in time, also meeting and influencing Latiff's early art activities. The same year in 1949, the Singapore Art Society (SAS) would be established by Liu Kang, Richard Walker, and Suri Mohyani to promote art in Singapore and the exchange between different ethnic groups. Suri Mohyani would also later become a mentor to Latiff Mohidin. Meanwhile, artists Mahat bin Chadang and Mohammed Salehuddin would found the Persekutuan Pelukis Melayu Malaya (PPMM, Society of Malay Artists Malaya) on 1 May 1949. The founding of the society has been considered the beginning of collective artistic organisation for Malay artists in Singapore, fostering the practices of old and new artists. However, its activities began to decline in the 1950s. Artists such as the Indonesian-born Aman bin Ahmad (Pak Man), also a famous backdrop painter at Shaw Brothers Malay Film Productions, and M. Sawoot A. Rahman (Pak Sawoot) would be pioneering artists in Singapore during this period.
Amidst the sociopolitical upheavals in China, significant figures such as Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, and Fan Chang Tien would arrive in Singapore, setting the foundations for the emergence of a distinct, localised artistic identity for Singapore art by the second half of the 20th century.
Some of the most well-known visual practices from the history of Singapore art lies with the migrant Chinese artists painting in the Nanyang style from the late 1940s to 1960s, depicting local subject matter while drawing upon Western watercolor and oil painting, as well as Chinese ink traditions. The most famous are figures such as Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, Georgette Chen, and Liu Kang. As immigrant artists captivated by the novelty of tropical landscapes, the Nanyang artists characteristically depicted Southeast Asian landscapes and material culture such as tropical fruit, kampung scenes, and batik fabric while synthesising Western and Chinese painting techniques. The name of the movement draws from "Nanyang" (Chinese: 南洋; pinyin: nán yáng; lit. 'Southern Ocean'), a sinocentric Chinese term used to refer to Southeast Asia from the geographical perspective of China. Nanyang art holds great significance as a critical period in Singapore's art history, as it demonstrates some of the earliest conscious attempts by artists in Singapore to generate a local art discourse. Singapore's foremost art historian T.K. Sabapathy, alongside Malaysian art historian Redza Piyadasa are the first scholars who attempted to classify the artistic approaches of the Nanyang artists within an art historical framework, doing so in 1979 when they organised a survey exhibition of Nanyang art at the Muzium Seni Negara Malaysia.
The Nanyang artists are particularly known for embarking on a 1952 painting trip to Bali, with the resulting 1953 exhibition Pictures from Bali presenting paintings of Balinese and Southeast Asian material culture. The excursion to Bali introduced new sights to the Nanyang artists, and subject matter of these works included the women of Bali and imaginings of rural Balinese life. Georgette Chen would arrive in Singapore in 1953, having previously been based in locations such as Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Penang. Her paintings, which often depicted subject matter from the world around her, would reflect the changes in her environment, with paintings in Singapore and Malaya capturing the effects of tropical light. The 1965 painting Sweet Rambutans, for instance, is representative of Chen's interest in capturing a local subject matter such as rambutan fruit with her technique of oil painting drawing from the School of Paris.
While Nanyang art gained maturity in the 1950s and 1960s, its position would decline when challenged by the emergence of other artistic influences gaining currency amongst younger artists, such as Social Realism. While tropical landscapes attracted the early immigrant artists with their exotic novelty, the younger generation of Singapore-born artists who lived through complex periods of decolonisation and independence sought to be more reflexive regarding local social issues. Abstraction also offered another visual form of expression for artists who came into contact with international art scene through overseas studies and travels during the 1960s, a method that some Nanyang artists had begin experimenting with in the early 1960s.
The 1950s were particularly turbulent years for Singapore, with violent strikes and riots predominantly by students from the Chinese Middle Schools and Trade Unions. Demonstrations were held by Chinese students against the National Service Ordinance in 1954, followed by the Hock Lee bus riots in 1955, leading to injuries and death. Coming shortly after violence from the Malayan Emergency, communists were seen as having instigated the demonstrations, with fears continually stoked of a communist threat that threatened national stability. This would culminate in Operation Coldstore on 2 February 1963, where 113 people, many of whom were from left-wing groups that posed a challenge to the People's Action Party, were arrested as part of a security operation that "aimed at crippling the Communist open front organisation." On 16 September 1963, Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak were merged, and Malaysia was formed.
The competing ideologies of the time were a product of the Cold War, which further manifested in the realm of cultural production as contesting visual vocabularies for expression, such as the opposition between realism and abstraction that was expressed by proponents of each style. Amidst these tumultuous events, art societies would continue to be established. With the Persekutuan Pelukis Melayu Malaya (PPMM, Society of Malay Artists Malaya) on the decline, the Angkatan Pelukis Muda (Young Artists' Movement) was founded in 1956 and headed by Abdul Ghani Hamid, though it would be quickly dissolved. Six years later in 1962, the Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya (APAD, Association of Artists of Various Resources) was established with Abdul Ghani Hamid as its leader. In 1963, the Modern Art Society was launched with Ho Ho Ying as president.
After World War II, the burgeoning sense of nationalism and anti-colonialism instilled a greater desire within artists to reflect the ongoing social and political conditions of Singapore and Malaya. The movement of Social Realism gained currency in Singapore from the mid-1950s onwards, with artists intent on reflecting lived experience in Singapore through the use of realist-style painting and a socially-engaged practice that would directly involve their subjects to create works that commented on social issues. For instance, artists would interact with workers to understand and gain a lived experience of their problems, a means of conducting their own research into the struggles of the working classes. In 1956, the Chinese Middle Schools' Graduates of 1953 Arts Association (SCMSGAA), composed of students from local Chinese middle schools, organised a fundraising exhibition at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Championing Social Realism as a means of representing the realities of the working class and propelling social change, the exhibition catalogue would state their belief that "Art belongs to the people—it is the public, and should serve the public," further proclaiming that they were "prepared to commit all our efforts to help Malaya gain her independence and her process of nation-building." The SCMSGAA ceased activities after the exhibition, likely due to its perceived left-leaning politics and its strong criticism of colonial administration. On 22 June 1956, a new art society called the Equator Art Society (EAS), comprising many members previously from SCMSGAA, was registered.
In 1958, the EAS organised its inaugural exhibition, which featured over 400 works such as sculptures and paintings in oils, watercolours, and pastels. Works such as Chua Mia Tee's Portrait of Lee Boon Ngan (1957), Tay Boon Pin's Teh Tarik Seller (1969), and Lim Yew Kuan's Painting Class (1957) demonstrate the types of portraits shown at EAS exhibitions, depicting students and hawkers that represent familiar social groups woven within the social fabric of Singapore. Such influences could be traced to realist artists such as Gustave Courbet and Auguste Rodin from Europe, as well as Ilya Repin from Russia. One of the most well-known social realist paintings from the EAS is Chua Mia Tee's National Language Class (1959), a work that has been interpreted a reflection of emerging nationalist identity, with Malay language uniting the various ethnic communities. The painting depicts Singaporeans of different ethnicities attempting to free themselves from English, the language of their colonial masters, by learning Malay, the national language of Singapore, Malaya, and the Malay World. They are seated at a round table, a symbol of equality, with the Malay teacher posing two simple questions to his students: Siapa nama kamu? Di-mana awak tinggal? (What is your name? Where do you live?). These seemingly simple questions are loaded with political symbolism, illustrating the dynamics of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Malay language was a social bridge and major medium of communication in Singapore. Then, left-wing Chinese school students demanded that the study of Malay replace English in their Chinese medium schools in preparation for merger with Malaya.
Apart from portraiture painting, the emergence of the woodcut movement in the 1950s marked a significant decade in the history of Social Realism. The use of woodcut could be traced back to ideas from the woodcut movement from China, as propagated by Lu Xun. Woodcut prints, as accessible expressions of everyday life, could be disseminated through print media such as magazines and newspapers, allowing an alternative mode of exhibiting beyond the walls of an art gallery and raise awareness of sociopolitical issues. For instance, the woodblock print 13th May Incident (1954) by Choo Cheng Kwan would depict policemen ordered by the colonial administration to use force to disperse protesting Chinese middle school students who were against the National Service Ordinance. Coming into effect 1 March 1954, the students saw this as being forcibly conscripted to serve the interests of a Biritsh colonial government that discriminated against them in the past. Lim Yew Kuan's After the Fire (Bukit Ho Swee) (1966) depicts the aftermath of a landscape ravaged by fire, a common occurrence in Singapore estates such as Tiong Bahru and Havelock Road, with one of the most serious being the Bukit Ho Swee Fire of 1961.
Often seen in contrast to realist approaches to painting of this period were the pictorial schemas of abstraction, which were reminiscent to movements such as Cubism, American Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Surrealist practices in 1960s Taiwan such as the Fifth Moon Group. Artists who practiced abstraction tended to learn of such visual languages during their travels overseas, and were engaged in Internationalism, that is, the international proliferation of art movements and styles such as abstraction and Abstract Expressionism, seeking to develop a universal visual language and aesthetic that could ideologically function across global cultures. Early experimentations in abstraction could be observed in the work of the Nanyang artists, such as Cheong Soo Pieng and Ho Ho Ying. Artists such as Jaafar Latiff, Sarkasi Said, and Abdul Ghani Hamid from the Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya (APAD, Association of Artists of Various Resources), newly-founded in 1962, would explore abstract compositions in batik and oil painting. Artists such as Anthony Poon, Thomas Yeo, Goh Beng Kwan, and Kim Lim were influenced by their time overseas, with their work reminiscent of the visual language of Op Art, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism.
While Singapore artists who practiced realism believed that realist art was socially engaged, communicative, and humanist as it evoked empathy in its viewers, abstraction was criticised by detractors as anti-humanist, false, and violent, being a superficial, decadent, and decorative visual form that kept artists in the confines of an ivory tower. These competing visual vocabularies and ideologies would play out across art manifestos published in Singapore in the 1950s. For example, Lee Tian Meng's "Three Reasons against the Ideas of Pablo Picasso", published in a 1956 exhibition catalogue under the name of the SCMSGAA, would decry Cubism as a visual language which "denies the heritage of tradition, discards humanity and truth in art, and emphasises hypocrisy and anti-realism". Ho Ho Ying, who would found the Modern Art Society in 1963, would defend abstraction in 1958 in a debate with artist Chen Fan, who came from a social realist tradition. The founding of the Modern Art Society would further establish abstraction as a modern visual language, with MAS proposing form as a universal language. MAS posited that elements of colour, shape, and line did not need to carry culturally specific meaning, and was thus "effective and essential in promoting better understanding amongst the various countries of the world."
In Singapore the photographic movement of pictorialism marked the beginnings of the modern practice of photography as a fully self-conscious and autonomous art form. Photographers such as Lee Sow Lim, Lee Lim, Lim Kwong Ling, Tan Lip Seng, Chua Soo Bin, Foo Tee Jun, Tang Yao Xun, Chua Tiag Ming, Wu Peng Seng, and Yip Cheong Fun would be active during this period of time.
Singapore's short-lived union with Malaysia was strained with racial tensions and economic disagreement, and Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman decided to expel Singapore from the federation. On 9 August 1965, the Parliament of Malaysia voted in favour of a constitutional amendment expelling Singapore from the federation, leaving Singapore abruptly as an independent nation. With the Konfrontasi ongoing and the conservative UMNO faction opposing the separation, Singapore was left in danger of attack by the Indonesian military and risked forcible re-integration into the Malaysia Federation on unfavourable terms. Much of international media was skeptical of prospects for Singapore's survival, with the country facing issues of unemployment, housing, education, and the lack of natural resources and land.
Speaking in 1968 in response to an audience question after a speech at the University of Singapore, the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew famously stated that "Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford", instead citing technical education as being more important. Literature and more generally the arts were seen as needing to be deferred in the face of more urgently needed processes of industrialisation and nation-building after the fact of Singapore's abrupt independence. This stance only shifted in the 1990s, when cultural development was viewed as a necessity for the country to gain its status as a developed nation. In 1984, the LASALLE College of the Arts (then named the St Patrick's Arts Centre) was founded by Brother Joseph McNally. McNally had arrived in Singapore in 1946, spending almost 40 years teaching in the various affiliated schools of the De La Salle Order, such as St. Joseph's Institution and St. Patrick's Secondary School. The institution was funded largely through McNally's personal finances, with the low priority the state placed on the arts at that time.
By the 1970s, Singapore artists had begun to turn away from modernist ideas of painting and sculpture, exploring forms associated with contemporary art such as performance, installation, and video. Conceptualism could be seen in the work of artists such as Cheo Chai-Hiang and Tang Da Wu, both of whom were members of the Modern Art Society. Widely considered the earliest example of conceptual art in Singapore is Cheo's 5’ x 5’ (Singapore River), which he submitted in 1972 for the Modern Art Society's annual exhibition. Based in London for studies at the time, Cheo mailed to Singapore a set of instructions to create a square measuring 5 feet by 5 feet at the exhibition space, though the work was eventually not selected to shown for the exhibition. The same year, the society accepted Tang Da Wu's Space Experimentation, one of the earliest examples of installation art shown in Singapore. In 1979, Tang produced Gully Curtains, the first land art work in Singapore, shown at the exhibition Earth Work. The same year, Tan Teng Kee would organise The Picnic, an outdoor exhibition which featured a "fire sculpture" work that burnt as the night arrived, functioning both as critique of the notion of the art object as well as a performance. Artist-organised festivals and projects took place beyond the museum, demonstrating the shift towards independent networks that were unlike the formal organisation of societies such as the Modern Art Society and the Equator Art Society. Artists now came together and apart in loose formations, valuing experimentation and dialogue. Artists utilised diverse artistic languages spanning printmaking, textile, abstract painting, new media art, found objects, and batik, as seen in the practices of Chng Seok Tin, Eng Tow, Goh Beng Kwan, Lin Hsin Hsin, Mohammad Din Mohammad, and Jaafar Latiff, all of whom remained active during the period of the 1970s to 1990s.
While the National Museum Art Gallery would be inaugurated in 1976 with the pioneering curatorial work of Constance Sheares and Choy Weng Yang, it was the 1989 Report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts (ACCA) that would form the basis for cultural policy in the 1990s. The report would eventually spur the formation of the National Arts Council and the National Heritage Board in 1991 and 1993 respectively, as well as the founding of the first dedicated art museum in Singapore, the Singapore Art Museum, in 1996, altering Singapore's organisational and institutional landscape for visual art. Happening just before or while these institutional shifts played out, alternative art practices flourished from the late 1980s: Gatherings that would lead to Tang Da Wu's co-founding of The Artists Village began in 1988; the same year the joint exhibition Trimurti was held by S. Chandrasekaran, Goh Ee Choo, and Salleh Japar; theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun founded The Substation in 1990; and the 5th Passage art space would be launched by Suzann Victor and Susie Lingham in 1991.
Singapore art in the 1980s and 1990s may be characterised by flares of activity around particular spaces, exhibitions, and people, with The Artists Village (TAV), co-founded by Tang Da Wu, being one such instance. Returning in 1988 to Singapore from his studies in London, Tang started inviting artists to his home, a farm in Sembawang, to make and discuss art. Tang's ideas influenced many young artists, and the gatherings developed into an artist community that staged its first exhibition in January 1989 titled Open Studio Show, where the name "The Artists Village" was first used. Ten artists were involved in the first show, including Tang himself, Hazel McIntosh, Tang Dahon, Amanda Heng, Lim Poh Teck, Baet Yeok Kuan, Tang Mun Kit, Soh Siew Kiat, Vincent Leow, and Wong Shih Yaw. The activities of TAV and the number of artists involved would expand quickly, becoming a significant part of the local arts landscape by the end of that same year. Other figures from TAV would include Lee Wen, Koh Nguang How, Ahmad Mashadi, Ho Soon Yeen, and Juliana Yasin. TAV fostered a shift towards performance and installation, also returning to experimenting with figuration in painting and drawing instead of the abstraction of high modernism witnessed in the practices of earlier Singaporean abstract painters of the 1960s and 1970s.
Several significant works would be generated from TAV's activities, such as during A Sculpture Seminar in 1991, organised by Tang with many members of TAV participating. A two-week seminar on ideas about sculpture at the National Museum Art Gallery in the lead-up to the National Sculpture Exhibition, one of the most well-known works to emerge from the event was Study of Three Thermos Flasks (1991) by M. Faizal Fadil, then a young member of TAV. Faizal had bought the flasks from the Sungei Road flea market and stated that they were sculpture. While making a direct allusion to Dada artist Marcel Duchamp's earlier famous readymade, Fountain (1917), the work was significant for provoking significant public debate in Singapore, with writers in The Straits Times publishing opposing views about the work's artistic merit.
Beyond activity at the Sembawang farm, which was lost in 1990 to redevelopment, TAV staged their projects elsewhere. One of the most significant was a 1992 event, The Space, held at Hong Bee warehouse in Robertson Quay, which featured forty local and twenty international artists. Another was the Artists Investigating Monuments (AIM) series which were held at various monuments and historical sites.
In 1988, three recent graduates from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), S. Chandrasekaran, Goh Ee Choo, and Salleh Japar, refused to take part in their own graduation show. Instead, they staged the seminal exhibition, Trimurti, at the Goethe Institute in Singapore. Presenting paintings, installations and performances, the trio treated the gallery as a collaborative space rather than a curated selection of individual works, creating an exhibition that could be viewed as a single large installation. The trio sought to develop an artistic language inspired by Indian-Hindi, Chinese-Buddhist, and Malay-Muslim vernacular traditions and cultural values for Chandrasekaran, Goh, and Salleh respectively. For instance, the mixed media work Visayoni (1988) by Chandrasekaran draws reference from the Hindu concept of creation and preservation through deity Shiva and his consort Sakti, together manifesting Visvayoni, the womb of the universe.
The title of the exhibition takes from the Hindu concept of trimurti, the trinity of Hindu deities manifested as forces of creation, preservation, and destruction. NAFA's Fine Art teachers frequently conducted their classes in the Chinese language, making it significant that the name chosen for the exhibition was Hindu, particularly with Indians as a racial minority in Singapore. Whether ironically or not, the artists of Trimurti seemed to reproduce the then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's emphasis on preserving distinct racial identities in the country, aligning with the notions of "racial harmony" and "multiculturalism" often deployed in national visions. While the framing of Trimurti called out the cultural bias present in NAFA, particularly for the two non-Chinese artists of the show, Trimurti may also be critiqued for drawing upon essentialist affiliations between race and religion. Chandrasekaran would position Trimurti as being rooted in elements from this region, in contrast to the "Western-oriented body language" The Artists Village were seen as having inhabited.
The 5th Passage Artists Limited, an artist-run initiative and contemporary art space, opened in 1991 at Parkway Parade, a shopping centre in the east of the city. 5th Passage was co-founded in 1991 by Suzann Victor, Susie Lingham, and Han Ling, later joined by Daniel Wong, Henry Tang and Iris Tan. The initiative's programming emphasised an interdisciplinary approach, exhibiting performance art, installation, music, photography, and design, also organising public readings and forums.
From 26 December 1993 to 1 January 1994, the Artists' General Assembly (AGA) was held at the 5th Passage art space, an arts festival that the initiative co-organised with The Artists Village. During the 12-hour AGA New Year’s Eve show from 31 December 1993 to 1 January 1994, Josef Ng staged a performance work, Brother Cane, in protest of the arrest of 12 homosexual men and the publishing of their personal details in mainstream newspapers during anti-gay operations in 1993. During the final minutes of the performance, Ng turned his back to the audience and trimmed his pubic hair, a moment photographed by The New Paper and sensationalised as an obscene act in a newspaper article. Following the public outcry, 5th Passage was charged with breaching the conditions of its Public Entertainment License, blacklisted from funding by Singapore's National Arts Council, and evicted from its Parkway Parade site. Iris Tan, as the gallery manager of the 5th Passage, was prosecuted by the Singapore High Court alongside Ng. Described as one of the "darkest moments of Singapore’s contemporary art scene", the incident led to a ten-year no-funding rule for performance art, a ruling lifted only in 2003.
In 1994, 5th Passage received a ten-month offer to curate shows at vacant shop units in the Pacific Plaza shopping centre, which the initiative took up. Here, Victor's practice shifted from the performative body to the performative installation, grieving for the silencing of 5th Passage and all Singapore artists, with the work Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame being a kinetic sound installation of light bulbs gently tapping against mirrors positioned in a bed of crushed glass. Around a year after 5th Passage's programmes at Pacific Plaza, the founder-directors of the initiative left for further studies and the group disbanded. Later, Victor would perform Still Waters (between estrangement and reconciliation) at the Singapore Art Museum, a rare publicly-staged performance work between 1994 to 2003, described by Victor as a work responding to the de facto performance art ban and the loss of the 5th Passage space.
By the late 1990s, the landscape for the arts in Singapore had been significantly altered with the establishment of statutory boards and institutions for arts and heritage, as well as the de facto ban on performance art from 1994. In August 1995, at the opening of the Singapore Art '95, an exhibition and sale of artworks by Singapore artists, Tang Da Wu would perform a well-known artistic gesture. Tang wore a black jacket emblazoned on the back with "Don't give money to the arts" in yellow and walked up to the then President of Singapore Ong Teng Cheong, a guest at the opening. Tang handed the president a note that read, "I am an artist. I am important." Although Tang was prevented from speaking to the President by an aide-de-camp, he later told the media he wished to tell the President that artists are important and that public money funded the "wrong kind of art", that is, art that was commercial. Such ideas can also be seen directly in relation to the no-funding rule for performance art, a form that Tang was a strong proponent of.
Growing international recognition by curators and art historians in the art of Southeast Asia and Singapore meant that some Singaporean artists could develop their practices overseas in spite of the performance art ban, participating in major international art events like the Artists' Regional Exchange, Documenta, the Asia-Pacific Triennale of Contemporary Art, and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale. The National Arts Council would set up an International Relations Unit in 1997 to identify and set up artists with international events, and in 2000, the Renaissance City Plan was launched to provide a vision and plan for the promotion of arts and culture, famously seeking to position Singapore as a global city for the arts.
During the late-1990s and early 2000s, artists such as Amanda Heng and Lee Wen exhibited internationally, well-known for their performance artworks. Matthew Ngui would be the first Singaporean artist to show at Documenta X in Kassel in 1997, presenting the installation and performance You can order and eat delicious poh-piah', amongst other things (1997), which saw him performing by preparing the Singaporean dish of poh-piah for visitors who had to order food through a complex set-up of plastic pipes. The installation included Walks through a Chair, an anamorphic chair that relies on optical illusion to reconstruct itself from a deconstructed state depending on a viewer's perspective. This was accompanied by a video that shows the artist 'walking through' the chair. Ngui's work highlights the tension between reality and image, playing with notions of unstable, shifting perceptions, as well as the fallibility of a singular point of view.
In 2001, Singapore would participate in the Venice Biennale with its own national pavilion for the first time, with artists Henri Chen KeZhan, Matthew Ngui, Salleh Japar, and Suzann Victor exhibiting work. Singapore would continue its participation in the Venice Biennale with the exception of 2013, when the National Arts Council reassessed its participation in future biennales and resumed in 2015 after signing a 20-year lease on a national pavilion at the Arsenale in Venice. In 2009, Ming Wong would be the first Singaporean to receive an award at the Venice Biennale, receiving the Special Mention (Expanding Worlds) during the Biennale's Opening Ceremony for his work Life of Imitation. Documenta11 in 2002 would see the participation of Charles Lim and Woon Tien Wei as the internet art collective tsunamii.net, presenting the work alpha 3.4 (2002). After several years of hosting large-scale exhibitions such as the Singapore Art Show, the Nokia Singapore Art series, and SENI Singapore in 2004, Singapore would launch its inaugural Singapore Biennale in 2006.
The NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore would open in 2013 with Ute Meta Bauer as founding director, and the National Gallery Singapore would open in 2015. Singaporean art continues in its development, with artists such as Ho Tzu Nyen and Shubigi Rao making appearances on the on the 2019 edition of the ArtReview Power 100 list, which charts the most influential individuals working in contemporary art.
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