Painting our own canvas

Interactive displays at the National Gallery, which brings together about 8,000 works of art from the 19th century to the modern day. Some 800 of these works are displayed at any one time in its permanent galleries: the DBS Singapore Gallery and UOB
Visitors checking out the National Gallery Singapore when it opened its doors to the public on Tuesday. The $532 million museum is the country's first large-scale building dedicated to Singaporean and South-east Asian art. ST PHOTOS: YEO KAI WEN, KEVIN LIM
Interactive displays at the National Gallery, which brings together about 8,000 works of art from the 19th century to the modern day. Some 800 of these works are displayed at any one time in its permanent galleries: the DBS Singapore Gallery and UOB
Interactive displays at the National Gallery, which brings together about 8,000 works of art from the 19th century to the modern day. Some 800 of these works are displayed at any one time in its permanent galleries: the DBS Singapore Gallery and UOB South-east Asia Gallery. ST PHOTOS: YEO KAI WEN, KEVIN LIM
Interactive displays at the National Gallery, which brings together about 8,000 works of art from the 19th century to the modern day. Some 800 of these works are displayed at any one time in its permanent galleries: the DBS Singapore Gallery and UOB
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong taking a picture of pupils from Greenwood Primary at the "Social Table" - which allows users to view and share artworks with one another - during his visit to the National Gallery on Monday.ST PHOTOS: YEO KAI WEN, KEVIN LIM

At last, Singapore has got its own magnificent National Gallery. Located in the restored City Hall and Supreme Court buildings, it is a showcase of South-east Asian art. Insight looks at why Singapore is putting local art in the spotlight, and what this signals about cultural identity.

Singapore tourists, when they go overseas, make a beeline for landmark institutions such as Paris' Louvre, The National Gallery in London, or New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But when tourists come to Singapore, the Merlion is their more likely must-see monument here.

The fictitious half-lion, half-fish creature, introduced by the Singapore Tourism Board several decades ago and one of the most recognised symbols for Singapore, has faced challengers to the pre-eminent role it enjoyed - most recently by the Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands.

That could well change, with last Monday's opening of the $532 million National Gallery Singapore, the country's first large-scale building dedicated to Singaporean and South-east Asian art.

STEEPED IN HISTORY

We occupy two very commanding, prominent buildings in Singapore which have a lot of historical significance, and have not been accessible to the public for a long time. The two buildings themselves will be a big draw for visitors.

DR EUGENE TAN, director of the National Gallery

t brings together about 8,000 works of art from the 19th century through to the modern day, belonging to Singapore's national collection, and donated by artists and private collectors, with some borrowed from galleries around the region.

Some 800 of these works are displayed at any one time in its permanent galleries - the DBS Singapore Gallery and UOB South-east Asia Gallery.

These include paintings by pioneer Singapore artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen, and forerunners of modern art in the region such as Indonesia's Raden Saleh Sjarif Boestaman.

Some of these pieces were formerly seen in smaller museums here, such as the older Singapore Art Museum set up in 1996.

But the 64,000 sq m National Gallery dwarfs the older institutions, and is the first to have permanent exhibitions of regional art on such a scale. Its director, Dr Eugene Tan, describes it as "a museum set up by the country, like a national art museum".

At its opening last Monday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he hoped that through the new gallery, "we will all appreciate better where we come from, discover new perspectives of who we are".

Why is pragmatic Singapore bringing local visual arts to the fore? And what does this signal in terms of cultural identity?

Insight takes a look.

ARTS COMING OF AGE

Many countries have national galleries, and Singapore's is not the first.

But for a country better known for its economic success and gleaming skyscrapers - just a week ago, United States President Barack Obama hailed the "incredible progress that Singapore has made in creating prosperity and opportunity for its people" - some are asking why, and why now.

Ambassador-at-Large and founding chairman of the National Arts Council (NAC), Professor Tommy Koh, has an answer to that: "Because we recognise that man cannot live by rice alone. We also need food to feed our hearts and our souls. To read, to sing, to dance, to love a great story and to be moved by a great work of art is to be human."

Indeed, it signals a new era as the country comes of age in its jubilee year and looks beyond economic success to build its identity.

Mr Baey Yam Keng, Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth and a keen champion of the arts, says the gallery will hopefully help to "develop a deeper appreciation for art in Singaporeans, fostering a greater sense of national and cultural pride".

The renovation of the colonial- era buildings also speaks of the solidity of independent nationhood and of confidence in the future, a departure from the narrative of the past, which painted a picture of a Singapore built on shifting sands, where citizens must be ever vigilant and striving.

In his speech on Monday, PM Lee hoped the gallery and its art would tell the history of Singapore, and also inspire Singaporeans to "paint our own canvases in many mediums for the future".

Some pieces of artwork will no doubt deliver on the former.

For instance, oil paintings by one of Singapore's leading realist painters, Chua Mia Tee, 84, give a snapshot of people's daily lives in bygone days.

One such work by the Cultural Medallion winner, titled Workers In A Canteen, depicts shipyard workers having lunch at Jurong Shipyard, and is meant to highlight the contribution of the working class to Singapore's economic development.

The museum also has prints made from wood engravings depicting scenes of what Singapore was like in earlier times, when it was still a Straits Settlement under British rule. One such print shows workers rolling logs from a jungle into a river.

Then there are the buildings that house this repository of history and evolving national identity.

Few other buildings embody the Singapore story better than the old City Hall and Supreme Court.

Built by the British in the 1920s and 1930s before independent Singapore came into being, the buildings first housed the offices of the British colonial government and, later, the Singapore government.

It was also in the City Hall Chamber that the Japanese surrendered to Allied forces on Sept 12, 1945, and where the first independent government of Singapore, led by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was sworn in.

And the Supreme Court, with its Corinthian columns and imposing dome, was one of the last major neoclassical buildings built by the British in its colonies.

It is not surprising, then, that the buildings were chosen to house the gallery, even at its $532 million cost.

Now, the two structures, joined by a light and airy metallic "veil" - meant to invoke finely woven rattan - have been transformed from symbols of political power to a powerhouse of art.

The significance is not lost on the museum's director, Dr Tan, who describes the buildings as the gallery's "secret weapons".

"We occupy two very commanding, prominent buildings in Singapore which have a lot of historical significance, and have not been accessible to the public for a long time. The two buildings themselves will be a big draw for visitors," he notes.

GLOBAL HUB AMBITION

In the balance is also Singapore's ambition to be an international arts hub.

Dr Tan says introducing art from the region to the rest of the world is one of the gallery's more fundamental missions.

It has, for a start, embarked on a project with the University of Sydney's Power Institute to foster research into South-east Asian art.

As the gallery becomes a "key museum destination", it can also help project Singapore's soft power internationally, reckons Bukit Batok Member of Parliament David Ong, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Culture, Community and Youth.

Recent years have seen a renewed effort to build on this - for instance, in the promotion and celebration of Singapore's food and hawker heritage.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu hopes the gallery can one day occupy the same spot that hawker centres do in peoples' hearts.

"Like how we have special feelings for hawker centres, we hope this gallery will (become such a place)," she says.

Writing about cultural diplomacy in a column for The Straits Times in July, Ambassador-at-Large and current NAC chairman Chan Heng Chee said: "When Singaporean arts and icons are admired and loved overseas, then it's soft power."

It must then come as a relief to the champions of the gallery that Singapore's newest cultural space is already drawing accolades - a first-day visitor, Australian gallerist Bess O'Malley, 48, said: "I've been to museums in Australia, the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and this is up there."

WILL IT SUCCEED?

But even as praise pours in, there are those who wonder if the gallery's selection will pull in the visitors.

It has ambitions to attract up to five million visitors annually, more than the three million or so that the seven National Heritage Board museums, combined, bring in for a year.

Even as it aspires to be the Louvre of Singapore, its selection of Singapore and South-east Asian modern art does not yet have the cachet of European or American art in the eyes of many art connoisseurs.

Dr Tan says that this is by dint of art from the region having a shorter history. But having a permanent space for the artworks now will go some way in correcting the imbalance. He tells Insight: "We've never had these permanent exhibitions, so the selection has never been shown and it's hard for people to appreciate (the artworks). Hopefully, in time, they will become as well known as the Mona Lisa."

Some, too, feel the gallery's selection could be more representative of an artist's entire body of work.

Chinese ink painter and Cultural Medallion winner Tan Kian Por, 66, says he is slightly disappointed that he will not get to show his newer works at the gallery. Curators have chosen one of his older works - a painting of a Balinese textile vendor - from the 1970s for the collection.

"All artists have works from different periods, but because this is supposed to be a representative exhibition of Singapore art, I was hoping it would show how my art has evolved over the years," he says.

"In the early days, my work was more traditional, but now, it's more unrestrained and I paint more from my heart."

Another painter, Dr Lai Kui Fang, though, feels the exhibition should have more older pieces on display.

One of the 89-year-old's paintings, of a construction scene in Beach Road, is in the gallery. Best known for his photograph-like paintings of key historical moments in Singapore, Dr Lai says: "It's about telling the Singapore story, so the younger generations can see how the country came to be."

Yet others wonder if the gallery has arrived on the scene too late.

But Prof Koh says he is happy with the way things are developing. He points out that since the 1990s, the Government has poured billions of dollars into building arts infrastructure, such as the Esplanade, the key venue for performing arts in Singapore.

It has also supported arts education, progressively broadened artistic freedom and the intellectual space, and used tax incentives to promote cultural philanthropy.

One small quibble: He feels that "our regulations and funds are too conservative".

As a result, artists here are not as creative and daring as those of Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, he says, adding: "We should grow the culture of tolerance and the acceptance of diversity."

Mr Chua, the acclaimed social realist painter, meanwhile, says the recent developments and opening of the National Gallery is an encouragement for artists like himself.

The gallery has some 20 of his artworks - among them a portrait of his wife, painter Lee Boon Ngan, 74, which has been blown up and projected onto a screen on the gallery's front steps.

Mr Chua, who visited the gallery a few times last week, says: "In the past, there was not as much attention paid to art and our paintings, but now, things have changed. The gallery will bring more attention to our work."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'Painting our own canvas'. Print Edition | Subscribe