Cover Photo from nationalgallery.sg
Even before its doors officially open on Nov 24, the National Gallery Singapore has been making waves thanks to culinary heavyweights like Julien Royer, Beppe de Vito and Violet Oon adding star quality to the gallery.
And it is only set to get bigger in stature. Besides housing some of Singapore’s hottest new restaurants, the gallery will also be the first to serve as a permanent home to over 400 pieces of Singapore art, amassed over 200 years.
“We have never had this kind of permanent place for these artworks before, and it is long overdue,” says Low Sze Wee, director of the curatorial and collections department at National Gallery Singapore.
“If you want to build up the kind of awareness that the Mona Lisa in the Louvre has, these works need to be permanently on display to be constantly talked about and discussed,” says Low, who believes Singapore’s art history has not been as well documented as that of the French or Italians.
“Many locals are more likely to have read books on European artists than our own; you’ll be hard-pressed to find even five books on Singapore art history. But we too have a story to tell, one that is actually quite complex,” says Low.
For instance, he notes that audiences might be surprised to discover Asian art history follows a different trajectory from the Western model. While the art culture in the West typically began with realism, slowly moving towards abstract and modern art, the reverse happened in Asia.
“Singaporean artists like Liu Kang (who was a founding member of the Singapore Art Society) were influenced by international names like Picasso, and enjoyed using abstraction in their works,” says Low.
“You would think the next generation of artists, like Chua Mia Tee (who was recently awarded the Cultural Medallion, the nation’s highest artistic accolade, last month), link: would be even more daring and explore abstraction further. But they turned to realism in their art instead,” he says. This was largely due to a period of nation building that followed after World War II, where artists like Chua began painting more realistic figures “to create works that could speak to men on the street.”
But while Low and his team are gearing up to shine the spotlight on local art history, he is not averse to leaning on big names like Tate Britain and Centre Pompidou to draw the crowds.
“Singaporeans are very well-travelled now, and a brand name always attracts visitors, which is great for what we want to achieve,” says Low.
“What we will do is craft a more local storyline and show the connections between local and foreign works so people can relate and see these for themselves.”
For instance, an upcoming collaboration with Tate Britain titled “Artist and Empire” is set to open in the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery next year in October, and will examine the types of work that were produced during the British Empire, with a major focus on Southeast Asia and the contributions of artists in British Malaya like Low Kway Song, Abdullah Ariff and Chuah Thean Teng.
“Low Kway Song is a particularly interesting artist to include because he was also a Peranakan (Straits Chinese) and moved around a lot in the British circle then. To examine and question a portrait Low did of an English official would give one a very different perspective,” says Low.
“The result of working with an established name like Tate and reconfiguring the exhibition is twofold; it draws in crowds and adds a different dimension to the story that makes it directly relevant to our audience here.”