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6 long-underrated artists get the spotlight

National Gallery's latest socially-conscious exhibition showcases artists who, despite their talents and innovations, are seldom featured.

In recent times, cultural institutions across the world have been attempting to give due recognition to artists overlooked by the establishment. They include women artists, older artists and the so-called artists “of colour” (denoting non-white artists).

A most recent example is the Oscars, which gave out its biggest awards to a Chinese woman (Chloe Zhao for Best Director), an African-American man (Daniel Kaluuya for Best Supporting Actor) and a Korean septuagenarian (Yuh-Jung Youn for Best Supporting Actress) – a signal of its commitment to inclusivity following decades of bias towards white men.

National Gallery Singapore has chosen to be equally socially-conscious. Its new exhibition opening on May 7, 2021, features six post-independence Singapore artists who, despite their talents and innovations, frequently don’t find the spotlight. They are Chng Seok Tin, Mohammad Din Mohammad, Goh Beng Kwan, Eng Tow, Jaafar Latiff and Lin Hsin Hsin. Of the six, three are women and two are Malay – an uncommonly enlightened composition as far as museum shows in Singapore go.

Each artist has been honoured with a solo presentation that explores their practice over the years, and the works run the gamut from ink paintings and batik art, to digital art and poetry. Although the exhibition as a whole is slightly uneven due to the varying strengths of the artists, there are sections of it that are really quite spectacular.

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Curated by a team led by Dr Seng Yu Jin, the exhibition opens with two extraordinary late artists, Chng and Mohammad Din, whose works are so fiercely vivid, emotional and dense with meaning, they leave an indelible mark on the psyche.

Chng was a trailblazer when an accident in 1988 left her visually impaired. The loss of vision altered but did not end her practice. This presentation showcases her dazzling early works as well as her later ones, largely inspired by Buddhism and i-Ching.

  • National Gallery

    Chng Seok Tin’s Variations on I-Ching (1982–1992), made of twine, stones, wire and paint fixed on card and mounted on a 174 ×174 cm canvas. 

Matching her feral spirit is Mohammad Din who, like Chng, found inspiration in spirituality. His Sufism-infused work is exemplified by his large wall assemblages made up of wood, shell and animal bone, which he believed held healing properties. There’s a feverish intensity even in his small paintings; they thrum with movement and life.

The exhibition opens so strongly that the next four artists struggle to meet the high bar set by the first two. Eng’s textile art is comparatively quiet, conveying meaning through nuance and texture instead of iconography and imagery. Goh’s abstracts are boldly chaotic and materially wide-ranging, but less easy on the eye and sometimes harder to decipher. Jaafar is credited for introducing new techniques and abstraction into batik traditions, but his characteristic patterns of swirling swaths tend to recur repeatedly.

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The show ends with Lin Hsin Hsin, a publicity-reluctant figure whose art nevertheless speaks volumes. For her showcase, curator Adele Tan darkened the room and put spotlights on her delicate abstract paintings, making them glow like mother of pearl. Lin is a voracious learner, with broad interests that include classical music, literature, astronomy and computer technology. That versatility lends itself to a varied range of abstractions, each one brimming with mystery and metaphor. Hers are works to revisit again and again.

The entire exhibition is titled Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporean Artists After 1965, based on the words of artist and critic Ho Ho Ying who wrote in 1963: “Strictly speaking, Realism has passed its golden age; Impressionism has done its duty; Fauvism and Cubism are declining. Something new must turn up to succeed the unfinished task left by our predecessors”.

Something new always does turn up, but history – already teeming with names and notations, not to mention bias – doesn’t always make room. Kudos to the National Gallery for dusting off neglected narratives and redressing under-representations in the Singapore canon. Every art lover should catch this show – it may be many years before you see some of these splendid works in the flesh again.

Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporean Artists After 1965 runs from May 7 to Aug 22 2021 at National Gallery Singapore.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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