Ezzam Rahman (Photo: Athirah Annissa)

The Substation is still championing and incubating artists. It’s just no longer at 45 Armenian Street, the iconic power station-turned-arts venue which embraced artists, performers and arts-goers since its founding by theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun in 1990. Having reversed its initial decision to close permanently when the building was taken back for renovation works by the National Arts Council (NAC) in end-July 2021, The Substation evolved from an arts centre into an arts company focused on original programming over the last year.

Helping chart the course of Substation 2.0 – one that is independent of a physical home – is Artistic Director Ezzam Rahman, who succeeded Raka Maitra in September. The multi-disciplinary artist, art educator and recipient of the NAC Young Artist Award (2016) spoke with The Peak.

You weren’t yet with The Substation when it was announced last year that it would vacate Armenian Street and even close for good. As an observer, what was your reaction?

I was in a state of denial. The iconic Armenian Street building was for me one of the most important independent art spaces we had. It’s home for a lot of artists whose careers began at The Substation. So there will always be an attachment to the building. However, we are a cosmopolitan city, and change is part of our culture. The space itself will still be there, and I’m excited to see it evolve into the future. 

When The Substation was revived and the Artistic Director position came up, what made you say yes?

My love for the arts. I live and breathe the arts. It’s almost like a second religion for me. I’m a sculptor and multi-disciplinary artist, but I also enjoy theatre, dance, music, literature and film – anything to do with the arts. I made the arts my career 20 years ago. Now with my appointment, I’ve entered a new phase in my practice. It’s about giving back to the community. I welcome this challenge to re-introduce The Substation in its new form and I hope the audience is as excited as me. 

The Substation Agnes Christina Lizzie Wee
Ongoing online exhibition Female Gaze explores the exchanges between Indonesian artist and dramaturg, Agnes Christina, and Singaporean artist, curator, and designer Lizzie Wee. (Photo Lizzie Wee/substation.org)

What is this change that we’ll see? 

First thing first, we continue to support the artists. That’s our main motto. We want to help arts practitioners realise and present their ideas and to create dialogue between them and the public. 

Under my direction, The Substation itself will be programme- and festival-driven with a focus on SeptFest, our annual month-long celebration of art, culture, and community. Now is the time to really bring art to its audience. We are also finding new ways and formats of presenting art in physical and digital forms. I think change can be good.

(Related: Done at last, Taipei’s arts centre is a geometric marvel)

Will The Substation return to Armenian Street?

We have no plans to be rehomed there, or anywhere else. We’ll have to wait and see.

When you joined The Substation, you said, “Art allows us to lose and find ourselves, time and again. That’s why The Substation is still here today and will continue to support artists.” Tell us a little bit about the artist mindset and also the challenges of practising art in Singapore. 

The process of art making can make you lose yourself. You disappear into your own mind and into the material you are handling as you find ways to present your ideas to an audience which you can only hope gains something out of the experience you are putting out there. 

Just like any other occupation, the artist has a responsibility to the community, to themselves, and to the audience. It can be hard, especially here in one of the most expensive cities in the world where space is at a premium. For me, when I work on a sculpture for example, I have to be mindful of its size and about not creating waste. So I do understand a practitioner’s dilemmas in art-making. 

(Related: Independent arts centre The Substation knocks down walls in wacky experiment)

The Substation Ezzam Rahman
Ezzam Rahman, Artistic Director of The Substation (Photo: Athirah Annissa)

What is your hope for Singapore’s arts scene, say by 2030?

It is important to me that our art is respected internationally. I want Singaporeans to be proud of the work being born here, and I want our artists to be household names. It’s our responsibility — yours, my mother’s, my neighbour’s — to take pride in our artistic talent, to support it, and to make it a reality.

You’ve been an arts educator for a long time. What’s one advice you always give students?

Sounds cliche, but I love these three words: You do you. It’s something I tell all my student artists at the end of the semester. It’s about you. If a narrative is important to you, pick up the responsibility of not allowing it to disappear and be buried. 

Like what filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar said, “Anything that is not autobiography is plagiarism.” I completely agree. That’s why we are artists, art-makers and art-creators. We tell stories that others don’t. We need to share these narratives, we need to continue to address issues that can be difficult at times, but through art.

(Related Read: Han Sai Por shapes rural Singapore into art)

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