Forgotten histories head for Venice

Artist Zai Kuning and curator-art historian June Yap will present a show at the Singapore Pavilion for the 57th Venice Biennale.
Artist Zai Kuning and curator-art historian June Yap will present a show at the Singapore Pavilion for the 57th Venice Biennale. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Artist Zai Kuning's explorations of coastal nomadic communities and a 7th-century historical figure will be showcased at the Venice Biennale next year

Artist Zai Kuning, who has spent more than 20 years delving into Malay culture and history in South- east Asia, will represent Singapore at the prestigious Venice Biennale art exhibition next year.

The 52-year-old multi-disciplinary artist and curator-art historian June Yap, 43, have been appointed by the National Arts Council to present a show at the Singapore Pavilion for the 57th Venice Biennale.

The contemporary art extravaganza, which attracts top artists and curators from around the world, runs from May 13 to Nov 26 next year. The upcoming edition will mark Singapore's eighth time at the biennale since 2001.

The body of work that Zai will show in Venice builds on his artistic explorations of the Orang Laut - nomadic communities living on the coastlines and waterways of the Riau archipelago - and the historical figure Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa.

The 7th-century character is widely regarded as the first Maharaja of the kingdom of Srivijaya, which occupied many parts of South-east Asia and lasted until the 14th century.

Zai's research and art on the two subjects probe the history, language and cultural heritage of the region, as well as the transmission of such knowledge.

The Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate from Lasalle College of the Arts-Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology says he hopes his work for the biennale will expand the "sense of space" and time that Singaporeans have of their history and identity, as well as share these forgotten stories with an international audience.

The show in Venice will likely incorporate sculpture, drawing, photography and audio, and the artist will be working on them in a studio at the Gillman Barracks art enclave.

The arts council's director of visual arts, Mr Low Eng Teong, 47, says there are plans to let the public glimpse what goes on behind the scenes of this high-profile art show and have a first look at the works in the studio - without disrupting the working process - before they show in Venice.

Ms Yap, who was also the curator for Singapore artist Ho Tzu Nyen's show at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, says the biennale is "an exciting platform to showcase artists from Singapore" and it is timely to show Zai's work, "given its iterations and development over the years".

"The timing is right for it to evolve to the next stage," she says.

Zai's proposal for the biennale was picked from six entries by the seven-member commissioning panel, co-chaired by Ms Kathy Lai, chief executive of the arts council, and NUS Museum head Ahmad Mashadi.

Other members of the panel include National Gallery Singapore director Eugene Tan and Professor Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.

Ms Lai, 51, says in a press statement: "Zai's proposal stood out strongly as it spotlights forgotten stories of a people whose culture influenced what we recognise as South-east Asian today. The uncovering of forgotten histories will, I believe, strike a chord with the international audience at the Venice Biennale."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2016, with the headline 'Forgotten histories head for Venice'. Print Edition | Subscribe