Biggest showcase of Singapore arts overseas opens on an upbeat note in Paris

The largest-ever showcase of Singapore arts and culture overseas opened on Thursday evening in Paris, France, with an estimated 2,000 visitors packing the Palais de Tokyo, a cutting-edge space for contemporary art.

It was the opening night of the Singapore in France Festival, a three-month season of events by Singapore artists in cities all over France.

In a sprawling, 2,000 sq m basement gallery, an expansive exhibition put together by former Singapore Art Museum curator Khairuddin Hori - now deputy director of artistic programming at Palais de Tokyo - featured brand new artworks by 37 South-east Asian artists, including 11 from Singapore. There is a wildness of sorts to the show, titled Secret Archipelago, where the work of one artist seems to flow into or overlap with the next.

One level above, white-clad performers roamed the halls and mingled with groups of audience members in theatre director Ong Keng Sen's multimedia visual feast, The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers, a six-hour work dealing with transnationalism and migration that will be performed in Singapore as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts later this year.

The evening began on a more sombre note, with Jean de Loisy, president of Palais de Tokyo, acknowledging the passing of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in his opening speech. Speaking in French, he said: "We join you in your pain, in your sadness as a Singaporean person, after the passing of your first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew."

Mrs Rosa Daniel, deputy secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, delivered the opening address on behalf of Minister Lawrence Wong, who could not be in Paris because of Mr Lee's funeral on Sunday. She said: "As Singaporeans grieve and reflect on our loss, we continue to honour Mr Lee's vision of establishing Singapore on the international stage, with this unique showcase of Singapore's arts and culture."

The festival celebrates the 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. It is co-organised by Singapore's National Heritage Board and National Arts Council, and Institut Francais, France's agency for international arts and cultural projects. Singapore's contribution the festival is about $6 million.

Mr Jean de Loisy had told reporters earlier: "Creation in South-east Asian countries is, firstly, not very well-known in Europe and, secondly, is a concentration of diverse topics. It has one foot in tradition, whether animist, Buddhist or Muslim traditions, and the other foot in a sort of hyper-developed feeling of what will be the future."

There are plans to continue this artistic discourse with an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore in November, featuring a mix of South-east Asian and French artists.

Perhaps most immediately visible to the French public is a large-scale wall mural at the entrance of the Palais de Tokyo, painted in Chinese ink by Singapore artist Farizwan Fajari, who goes by the moniker SpeakCryptic. Farizwan says that there has been a great deal of curiosity about the black-and-white work, which depicts versions of himself and interrogates his own identity. He recalls how a five-year-old French girl who saw him at work did not quite understand where he was from, and asked if he spoke French or Spanish.

He says: "I've had to generalise a couple of things, but so far the exchange has been wonderful.

"I think this exhibition serves as a good starting point - it's a good representation of South-east Asia as a whole, with many different styles, from the traditional to the contemporary. Hopefully people will talk, and conversation is important."

French jewellery designer Marie Laure Delaunay, who visited the exhibition on opening night, applauded its curation. She said: "The work here is really beautifully made. Also, it's a good idea to have this show in the Palais de Tokyo, because it's always been well known for contemporary art and young artists."

She declared: "Magnifique!"

corriet@sph.com.sg