Art collection at National Gallery tells story of Singapore

The DBS Singapore Gallery will display 400 artworks in a long-term exhibition titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What Is Your Name?). The show offers a rare glimpse into the many influences that have helped to shape art here.
The DBS Singapore Gallery will display 400 artworks in a long-term exhibition titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What Is Your Name?). The show offers a rare glimpse into the many influences that have helped to shape art here. ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN
The DBS Singapore Gallery will display 400 artworks in a long-term exhibition titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What Is Your Name?). The show offers a rare glimpse into the many influences that have helped to shape art here.
The DBS Singapore Gallery will display 400 artworks in a long-term exhibition titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What Is Your Name?). The show offers a rare glimpse into the many influences that have helped to shape art here.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN
The DBS Singapore Gallery will display 400 artworks in a long-term exhibition titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What Is Your Name?). The show offers a rare glimpse into the many influences that have helped to shape art here.
The DBS Singapore Gallery will display 400 artworks in a long-term exhibition titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What Is Your Name?). The show offers a rare glimpse into the many influences that have helped to shape art here.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

1,750 sq m National Gallery showcase shows how art has marked historical moments here

For the first time, art lovers will get to see the sweep of Singapore art - from the 19th century to the present - in one venue.

The National Gallery Singapore on Monday (Oct 19) offered the media a first look at the DBS Singapore Gallery, which showcases pieces such as an 1865 engraving of Singapore and works of home-grown artists, such as Tang Da Wu's 1991 installation Tiger's Whip. The mixed-media piece is among the most representative works of Singapore's contemporary art history.

Spread over a sprawling 1,750 sq m and supported by a generous $25 million donation from DBS Bank, the DBS Singapore Gallery will show 400 artworks in a long-term exhibition titled Siapa Nama Kamu? (What Is Your Name?). Situated on one floor in the City Hall wing, it opens along with the rest of the National Gallery on Nov 24.

 
 

The exhibition's title is drawn from another iconic artwork in the show, National Language Class by Cultural Medallion recipient Chua Mia Tee. This was painted in 1959, the year Singapore gained self-governance from the British. It depicts a night class of Chinese men learning Malay in a Singapore classroom. It was a time when Singapore was preparing for merger with Malaya and nationalistic feelings were running high.

Dr Eugene Tan, director of the Gallery, said: "It is my hope that this exhibition will foster a greater understanding of art in Singapore; that it will raise as many questions as it will answer about the development of art here and the role that art has played in the development of Singapore."

The early works in the show prove that, while Singapore has been an independent nation for 50 years, the island has been a draw for artists for much longer.

The exhibition uses six broad themes - Tropical Tapestry; Nanyang Reverie; Real Concerns; New Languages; Tradition Unfettered; and Shifting Grounds - to document significant moments of art development.

These themes have allowed the team of four curators, led by curatorial and collections director Low Sze Wee and senior curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, to uncover what, for long, have been significant gaps in the artistic discourse. The curators said this is because never before have so many works been presented collectively.

Once the Gallery, housed in the refurbished City Hall and former Supreme Court buildings, opens, art lovers can see how seminal works have marked different periods of art-making. These include Chinese master Xu Beihong's much referenced Portrait Of Lim Loh, painted in 1927; pioneer artists Georgette Chen's exquisite 1970 oil-on-canvas Lotus In A Breeze; and Cheong Soo Pieng's fine documentation of everyday life as seen in the 1975 painting Returning From Market .

While writing the history of modern art here is not a new endeavour, Mr Mustafa calls the opening exhibition "a question and an invitation" for further dialogue.

He admitted "this is by no means an exhaustive survey", but it is indeed a rare glimpse into the many influences that have shaped art in Singapore for nearly two centuries.

In addition to the $25 million donation, DBS Bank has gifted 26 artworks by several leading Singapore artists. These include works in various media by artists such as multi-disciplinary artist Tan Swie Hian, watercolourist Ong Kim Seng and painter Thomas Yeo.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2015, with the headline 'Art collection tells the story of S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe