Singapore artist Lee Wen in running for the Joseph Balestier Award for second consecutive year

Performance artist Lee Wen at his first solo exhibition of paintings and drawings.
Performance artist Lee Wen at his first solo exhibition of paintings and drawings. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Homegrown artist Lee Wen is once again in the running for the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art.

The award, which is presented by contemporary art fair Art Stage Singapore and the Embassy of the United States in Singapore, was launched last year to recognise an artist or curator from South-east Asia who is actively committed to advocating freedom and who expresses this through his or her work. It is named after Joseph Balestier, the first American diplomat accredited to Singapore when he was appointed US Consul to Singapore in 1836.

Lee is one of three finalists for the award, which has a cash prize of US$15,000 (S$21,553), up from US$5,000 last year. The other two are performance artist Aye Ko from Myanmar, who was also nominated last year; and film-maker Nguyen Trinh Thi from Vietnam.

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

"The members of the jury had embarked on a fresh selection process to select this year's finalists. The fact that two artists from last year's award, Aye Ko and Lee Wen, are among the finalists, bears testament to the strong resonance of the work and their commitment to use their art to give freedom a voice," says Art Stage founder and president Lorenzo Rudolf.

He will be jointly selecting the winner of the award, along with US Ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar.

One of the pioneer performance artists here, Lee, 58, was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 2005, and is best known for his Yellow Man series, where his entire body is painted yellow in an exaggeration of ethnic stereotypes.

Mr Enin says Lee is an artist "who is not only creating art works for art's sake" but has relentlessly and courageously made his voice heard. "He constantly reveals the irony and wryness that persist in his social surroundings, especially in the context of Singapore's social, cultural, political conditions."

Lee's gallerist, Helina Chan of iPreciation Gallery, says: "His strong and independent spirit, not only as an artist but as a person, is something I admire greatly. I hope he wins this time."

All three finalists "have shown bravery in their works and all have taken personal risks in speaking truth to power", said Mr Wagar.

Aye Ko criticised the authoritarian regime in Myanmar through his body-based performances, while Nguyen's films highlighted the issues confronting marginalised communities in Vietnam.

Indonesian artist FX Harsono, who documented pro-democracy dissent and minority experiences, particularly of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, won the prize last year.

The winner will be announced during an award ceremony on Jan 19.