National Gallery Singapore drops 'empire' theme for its gala

The National Gallery Singapore has dropped the theme, The Empire Ball, from its upcoming fund-raising gala after having drawn flak from the public for it.

Those who spoke out against the theme say the use of the politically fraught term, "empire", which carries with it the idea of colonial oppression, is in poor taste for a celebratory event.

The fundraiser is now known simply as the National Gallery Singapore Gala.

The theme of the gala, to be held on Oct 7, had taken its reference from the title of the museum's special exhibition, Artist And Empire, which opens a day earlier on Oct 6.

The exhibition, organised in association with the Tate Britain museum, looks at ways in which the British Empire has been represented and contested through art. It also explores how the colonial experience influenced the rise of modern art in former colonies such as Singapore.

The gala's theme was publicised on its Facebook page earlier this week and since Tuesday, it has drawn public feedback, including comments from artists and curators, about the theme being insensitive and dismissive of the violence and scars of imperialism.

Artist-curator Alan Oei, 40, who is also the artistic director of the independent arts centre The Substation, wrote to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth on Tuesday, urging that the museum reconsiders how the gala is framed.

He said in the letter that the historically fraught term "empire" is usually associated with the "shameful, oppressive epoch" of imperial rule, although there are some such as historian Niall Ferguson, who recognise that "Empire has also been a positive force".

However, he said the term should not be used carelessly by the museum, which "aspires to shape and canonise the art history of the region" and he called for a more "nuanced approach" to marketing the fundraising gala.

Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann, 45, who is showing as part of the Artist And Empire exhibition, says in an e-mail interview that marketing the museum's gala in association with the exhibition as The Empire Ball, "negates the careful thinking" behind the exhibition by its curators, as well as the works by artists who are shown in it.

She says that as an artist participating in the exhibition, her intention is to be a part of "conversations about our colonial histories and legacies, which still have direct bearing on daily life in Singapore and South-east Asia" and her move to call out the gala's insensitive marketing is intended as part of that conversation.

Singapore artist Milenko Prvacki, 65, who is among the guests of the gala, says: "You can find different connotations to many things and I don't think the museum intentionally did it to provoke, but museum galas often attract attention.

"The artist Marina Abramovic had nude performers for the Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art's gala in 2011 and many considered it provocative."

The museum says it "did not plan for the event's dress code, decor or entertainment to glorify colonialism".

In its reply to media queries from The Straits Times, it says: "We agree that the term 'Empire' is a contested one. This is precisely the reason for putting together the exhibition Artist And Empire, which will examine the art that came out of the British Empire."

It adds that it "deeply appreciates the community's feedback", which it has taken in.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2016, with the headline 'National Gallery Singapore drops 'empire' theme for its gala'. Print Edition | Subscribe