Culture Vulture

Insights from a museum marathon

Art sheds light on what joins mankind in its differences when politics seeks to divide

In a year of political turmoil, polarising divisions and increasing xenophobia, I gained new perspectives, thanks to pottery, a painting and the tale of a 17th-century Dutch-Japanese tai tai.

The process reminded me once again of the necessary roles art and history play in challenging our perceptions and giving us context.

The rather random grab bag of items came courtesy of a leisurely Saturday I spent recently rambling through the galleries of the National Gallery and Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM).

The day began with Kembara Tanah Liat (Clay Travels), a wide-ranging retrospective of potter Iskandar Jalil's works at the National Gallery. Then continued through to the National Gallery's Artist And Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies exhibition, with Cheong Soo Pieng's Portrait Of Khoan Sullivan, and ended with the ACM's Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums Of Asia (1500-1900), which contained the extraordinary tale of Cornelia van Nijenroode.

Kembara Tanah Liat was a delightful, sensuous experience because Iskandar's pottery offers a riot of textures and colours. But the exhibition, spanning his lengthy practice from the 1960s to the present, also offered an illuminating view of an artist's dialogue with his world and himself. In remaking a tiffin carrier and a satay set in clay, he asserts his identity and aesthetic as an artist rooted in the Singaporean context. In adopting the Japanese sensibility of wabi-sabi and the Scandinavian love of blue, he personifies the cosmopolitan Singaporean with a magpie's casual penchant for borrowing cultural shreds and patches.

Artist And Empire was a much more self-conscious and cerebral exhibition in which the National Gallery, as an artistic institution in a post-colonial country, offers a curatorial riposte to an exhibition put together by Tate Britain last year.

Tate's exhibition, titled Artist And Empire: Facing Britain's Imperial Past, looked at an empire's art or, in balder words, its propaganda. Borrowing the works highlighted in that show, the National Gallery adds works created by post-colonial and modern artists that critique the concept of empire.

While I found this sprawling exhibition more intellectually ambitious than aesthetically fulfilling, one painting and its accompanying caption stuck with me. Cheong Soo Pieng's Portrait Of Khoan Sullivan was annotated with a little background on art academic and critic Michael Sullivan, whose wife was the subject of this elegant study in ink.

According to the caption, Sullivan was a fan of Cheong's and characterised his work as "modern and international in technique, Chinese in feeling and Malayan in subject". And the British collector thought it was natural for a "young community who, for the first time, have become conscious of themselves as Malayans with their roots in the past and their eyes on the future" to be "searching for the means to express, in their own way, what they feel about the land and people of Malaya".

This little caption was about as accurate a precis of the Nanyang style and its intentions as I have seen. And it struck me with no little irony that sometimes, the "white man's burden" also means that the "white man" as an observer is sometimes more attuned to the cultural shifts in the colonials' mindset than the colonised peoples themselves might have been.

The exhibition also reminded me that Cheong had come to Singapore as a war refugee - he fled China during the upheavals of the Sino-Japanese war. But having chosen to make a life in Singapore, he threw himself into an artistic exploration of the Nanyang (South Seas) identity, travelling throughout the region to capture its sights and colours.

Between Iskandar and Cheong, I was prompted to consider the peripatetic streak in Singaporeans. Was it bred into us since, as an island nation, we were born of migrants? Was it created by necessity as Singapore, with its lack of natural resources, has always been forced to look outside its boundaries for survival?

Like any migrant culture, Singaporeans have begged and borrowed scraps from other cultures and reinterpreted and reshaped these patches to suit our needs, forging a fresh new identity in the process. Looking at Iskandar's pots and Cheong's paintings, I see shades of other peoples' cultures, but delivered in voices that are wholly Singaporean. Would these voices be any clearer, any purer had Iskandar not learnt from the Japanese or Cheong been born in this country?

This question of purity, much bandied about in the noisy clamour of xenophobia, is nothing but an illusion. And this little epiphany of the day coalesced at the ACM's Port Cities exhibition, in which one particular story, accompanying a family portrait and a letter handwritten in Japanese, gripped my imagination.

Cornelia van Nijenroode was the daughter of a wealthy Dutch merchant - based in the Japanese port of Hirado - and a Japanese geisha, who was his concubine.

Most intriguingly, this 17th-century Eurasian, who was taken to Batavia to be raised as a Christian after the death of her father, wrote Japanese letters to her mother, became a wealthy widow after her first husband died and created a scandalous sensation when she took her second husband to court for assuming control of her fortune after their marriage. She was expelled from the colony for this scandalous bid for independence and fought her case all the way to the Hague.

Her story was only the most spectacular example in Port Cities of the literal, and metaphorical, intermarriage of cultures that has been happening for millennia in the world.

Think that globalisation and trade protectionism are 20th-century phenomena? Think that product piracy and cheap labour are modern-day problems? Think again. Port Cities contains examples of all these issues dating back to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, from the Japanese demand for Indian cotton textiles, to the regionwide movement of artisans and labourers, to the cheap French printed knock-offs of Indian chintz which eventually killed the Indian weaving industry.

The exhibition was an absorbing and valuable reminder that humans seem doomed to repeat the lessons never learnt from history. As I contemplated my day at the exhibitions and the multiple strands of thoughts it had inspired, I also realised that my museum marathon was a timely reminder of why we need to return again and again to works of art and places of history. Iskandar's pots and Cheong's painting are beautiful exemplars of how different influences can be melded into a harmonious whole that transcends the sum of its parts. Port Cities reiterated that clashes of civilisations may have not only resulted in bloodshed and mayhem, but also meshed cultures in surprising new ways that enriched and enhanced human civilisations.

In a year when cultural, philosophical and political divides seemed to become wider and the language of difference more virulent, it is timely to remember that humans do possess the emotional intelligence to understand and appreciate otherness. And this is where art and museums are more vital than ever.

So, for the coming year, I will make it a point to visit the museums more often, to remember what unites mankind in its differences and how art can express our unity when politics seeks to divide us.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2016, with the headline 'Insights from a museum marathon'. Print Edition | Subscribe