Lee Wen bags award for Freedom of Art

Performance artist Lee Wen made his name with the Yellow Man series. In 2005, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to Singapore art.
Performance artist Lee Wen made his name with the Yellow Man series. In 2005, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to Singapore art.ST FILE PHOTO

Pioneering Singapore performance artist Lee Wen - who stood firmly by his chosen mode of expression, even when performance art came under a decade-long no-funding policy here - has won the 2016 Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art.

He made the shortlist last year, but was pipped by Indonesian artist FX Harsono, whose work explored issues in Indonesia, like pro-democracy dissent and the experiences of minorities.

This year, Mr Lee, 58, beat two other finalists - performance artist Aye Ko from Myanmar and film-maker Nguyen Trinh Thi from Vietnam - to walk away with a cash prize of US$15,000 (S$22,000).

He received his award at a ceremony at the residence of US Ambassador Kirk Wagar last night.

The award, presented by contemporary art fair Art Stage Singapore and the Embassy of the United States in Singapore, honours a South-east Asian artist, or curator, whose work is actively committed to advocating freedom.

Mr Lee, who studied at Lasalle College of the Arts, made his name with the Yellow Man series, in which his entire body is painted yellow in an exaggeration of ethnic stereotypes.

In 1994, following an outcry over a controversial performance, the Government started a 10-year no-funding policy on performance art events. But Mr Lee continued his work, despite the lack of sponsorships and grants. He received the Cultural Medallion in 2005 for his contributions to Singapore art.

Mr Lee told The Straits Times last night that he plans to split the cash prize with the other two finalists. "I want to help artists who are working within constraints," he said.

The three finalists were shortlisted from 22 nominated artists and curators by a jury comprising Professor Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore; Ms Luckana Kunavichayanont, director of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre; and Mr Enin Supriyanto, an independent art curator and writer from Indonesia.

The award is named after Joseph Balestier, the first American diplomat here, who was appointed US Consul to Singapore in 1836.

Correction note: An earlier version of this story stated Professor Ute Meta Bauer's title as director of Singapore's Centre for Contemporary Art. She is actually founding director of the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Lee Wen bags award for Freedom of Art'. Print Edition | Subscribe