Designer-turned-artist Benny Ong honours weavers and craftsmen in solo exhibition

The textiles in Walking The Thought were designed by Benny Ong (above) and produced together with P. Mai Gallery, a clan of weavers from northern Laos.
The textiles in Walking The Thought were designed by Benny Ong (above) and produced together with P. Mai Gallery, a clan of weavers from northern Laos.PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Fashion designer Benny Ong's exhibition highlights the industry's oft-forgotten weavers

The glittering world of high fashion may seem a distant stretch from the spare tenets of Buddhism, but it was through the former that Singaporean fashion designer Benny Ong came to embrace the latter.

The crux of fashion is its impermanence, says the 67-year-old, for whom design is a process akin to the Buddhist practice of meditation, pushing aside flurries of random thoughts to achieve a streamlined peace.

"Fashion, like Buddhism, is about constant change - yet this change is valuable and, through it, we look for what will last."

A solo exhibition at The Private Museum, Walking The Thought, which opens on Thursday, revisits Ong's silk textile works from a decade ago, created together with a group of traditional Laotian weavers and inspired by his Buddhist beliefs.

Ong, a celebrated designer who made waves in the London fashion world in the 1980s and has dressed the likes of Princess Diana, Queen Noor of Jordan and the Duchess of Kent, decided to leave the world of couture for contemporary art in the early 2000s.

This was partly because he wanted to return to Singapore to care for his ageing parents, who are in their 90s, and partly because he felt he had begun to "move in circles" in his fashion career.

  • VIEW IT / BENNY ONG: WALKING THE THOUGHT

  • WHERE: The Private Museum, 02-06, 51 Waterloo Street

    WHEN: Friday to Sept 24, 10am to 7pm (weekdays), 11am to 5pm (weekends), public holidays and other timings by appointment. Opening reception: Thursday, 6.30pm; artist talk: Saturday, 11am

    ADMISSION: Free. E-mail mail@theprivatemuseum.org or call 6738-2872 to register for opening reception and artist talk

Lacking the infrastructure in Singapore to continue his trade, he turned to art instead.

"Art is a platform of empowerment, a means to live a more positive life," says the winner of the 2015 Singapore Design Golden Jubilee Award.

Walking The Thought comprises 15 textile pieces featuring Buddha figures. Most are taken from his inaugural textile exhibition, ReWoven: A Celebration Of Lives, which was held at the Singapore Art Museum in 2007.

The Private Museum curator Aaron Teo, 27, decided he wanted to work with Ong after seeing his exhibition of hand-woven art, Women.Shoes.Freedom, at UOB Art Gallery in March, which traced the emancipation of Chinese women who had their feet bound since they were young.

Like that exhibition, says Ong, Walking The Thought intends to empower - in this case, the weavers who make the creations of fashion designers possible. "I have always decried how these beautiful artisans are forgotten."

The textiles in Walking The Thought were designed by Ong and produced together with P. Mai Gallery, a clan of weavers from northern Laos whom he discovered after combing through Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar for collaborators, but to no avail. He has worked with the group for more than 10 years.

Each piece takes between two and four months to complete. "If the weaver spills coffee or the weather is lousy, we have to start all over again," he says.

He describes his design process as being like the "conductor of an orchestra", pulling together the skills of many different experienced musicians and letting each one shine in his own way.

He wants to bring the richness of such traditional crafts back into the spotlight for a younger generation, a process he calls "making your grandmother beautiful".

"Your grandmother may be old, but she has lots to tell you," he says. "You should not forget to listen."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'Weaving a show for artisans'. Print Edition | Subscribe