Museums go places

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 21, 2013

Singapore is well known as a global financial powerhouse, a gastronomic wonderland and a shiok holiday haven.

But as a key player of art and heritage on the international museum scene?

Not quite, just yet.

But it certainly is on the ascendant as its relationships with museums overseas deepen and the reputation of its curatorial expertise and extensive collections grows.

In the last three months, major museum exhibitions featuring Singapore contemporary art and Peranakan (Straits Chinese) heritage have opened in Japan, China and South Korea.

More than 50,000 people have visited these shows and the numbers continue to climb.

There are more shows in the pipeline, including one next month at the cutting-edge contemporary art institution Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Singapore Art Museum curators Khairuddin Hori, David Chew and Naomi Wang will present a project that features home-grown artists Randy Chan, Lee Wen, Zaki Razak and Joel Yuen.

The project was picked from among 700 proposals by curators around the world to be part of Palais de Tokyo's group exhibition on contemporary art practices.

A total of 21 curators from 13 countries were selected for the show.

That the Singapore Art Museum proposal made the cut is "a feather in the museum and Singapore's cap", says the museum's director Tan Boon Hui, 44.

Palais de Tokyo curator Marc Bembekoff, 35, tells Life! in an e-mail interview that the Singapore project was picked by the jury because it is original and the artists involved are not widely known in France.

"It will raise the curiosity of visitors as it has already done for the Palais de Tokyo team and the jury," he says.

Singapore art has long ventured abroad where it often shows in gallery exhibitions and art festivals, with individual artists in the spotlight.

The new wave of overseas exhibitions, however, is unfolding on a bigger scale in museums and institutions, and carrying the banner of Singapore.

This, in turn, helps to raise the international profile of Singapore artists, curators and museums.

The Singapore contemporary art show that recently opened at Suzhou's Jinji Lake Art Museum is an example.

It was curated by renowned Chinese art critic Feng Boyi with the assistance of veteran Singapore gallerist Chua Soo Bin and home-grown art consultancy Silver Rue Art Consulting.

Mr Feng, 60, in a telephone interview from Suzhou, says in Mandarin: "Singapore artists such as sculptor Han Sai Por have, on their own, shown works here more than 10 years ago, but this is Suzhou's first large-scale exhibition dedicated to Singapore art."

Singapore sound artist Zulkifle Mahmod, 38, who is among the 15 artists featured in the Suzhou show, says being included in the museum exhibition has "added weight" to his practice in China.

While he has participated in art shows there in recent years, they were of a smaller scale in galleries or public art events.

He adds that having been the only Singapore artist in his previous exhibitions in China, the chance to show alongside fellow Singaporeans this time will allow Chinese viewers to have a "more layered" understanding of his artistic practice and work.

The push behind such overseas museum exhibitions has likewise evolved over the years.

Previous shows, including the Peranakan Museum's Baba Bling, which opened at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris in 2010, were mainly brokered between governments on grounds of cultural diplomacy.

The recent shows, however, have resulted from growing networks and deepening relationships between Singapore museums and curators and their foreign counterparts.

The Peranakan Museum exhibition, The Peranakan World: Cross-cultural Art Of Singapore And The Straits, at the National Museum of Korea, for example, was born out of active networking.

The Peranakan Museum's director Alan Chong and chief curator Pedro Carvalho mentioned the museum's selection of travelling exhibitions to the National Museum of Korea's director, DrKim Youngna, when they met at international conferences last year.

The talks quickly led to the specially curated exhibition on the myriad influences on Peranakan aesthetics.

And while cultural diplomacy is no longer a primary driving force in Singapore exhibitions overseas, the shows continue to build cultural ties between people.

For Japanese graphic designer Yasuko Aoki who visited the recent Singapore Art Museum exhibition, Welcome To The Jungle, at the Yokohama Museum of Art, the show marked her first encounter with Singapore art.

In an e-mail interview, she says: "The show has a lot of thought-provoking works and it's tough to say, but the piece Electricity (Neon) by Singapore artist collective Phunk is perhaps the most impressive. It is not complicated yet it is powerful."

The increasing prominence of Singapore art and heritage in international museums has also been aided by the stature of Singapore museums and its curators.

Indeed, it was the Singapore Art Museum's rich collection of art and extensive knowledge of works that led to its first major travelling exhibition to Japan.

Yokohama Museum of Art curator Eriko Kimura, 38, says in an e-mail interview that the museum in Japan, which specialises in Japanese and European art from the mid-19th century till today, has in the last decade slowly introduced visitors to contemporary South-east Asian art.

But it wanted to step up efforts and felt that "the Singapore Art Museum is the best and only museum in the region to be our collaborator and teacher", she says.

Welcome To The Jungle offers an introduction to contemporary art in South-east Asia and it features 25 artists, seven of whom are Singaporeans.

Singapore Art Museum senior curator Khairuddin Hori, 38, who was the guest curator of the show, says the partnership meshes with the Singapore museum's commitment to promote its collection as well as South-east Asian art to a wider audience.

These overseas exhibitions of Singapore art and heritage will each eventually close, but the doors for future exhibitions are likely to stay open.

As Ms Kimura of Yokohama Museum of Art says: "We hope this collaboration marks the starting point of a relationship that continues into the future."

What more can home-grown museums do to help grow Singapore's art status globally? E-mail


Where: National Museum of Korea, Seoul

When: March 19 to May 19

What: Treasures from the Peranakan Museum are used to tell the story of Chinese, Malay and European influences on Peranakan culture, tradition and the arts.

The 230 objects on display, such as jewellery, porcelain ware and embroidery, are from the golden age of Peranakan art, which spans from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The exhibition catalogue is the first book on Peranakan culture in Korean.

The show is curated by Peranakan Museum curators Pedro Carvalho and Jackie Yoong, and National Museum of Korea curator Park Sunghye.


Where: Yokohama Museum of Art and Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, Japan

When: April 13 to June 16 and Oct 4 to Nov 24

What: The first major travelling exhibition by the Singapore Art Museum, the show draws inspiration from the complex ecosystems of rainforests in the region to offer an introduction to contemporary art and urban life in South-east Asia.

It features 28 works from Singapore’s national collection and 25 artists, seven of whom are Singaporeans, including painter Hong Sek Chern and home-grown artist collective Phunk.

The show is curated by Singapore Art Museum senior curator Khairuddin Hori, Yokohama Museum of Art curator Eriko Kimura and Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto curator Aki Ashida.


Where: Palais de Tokyo, Paris

When: June 20 to Sept 9

What: Nouvelles Vagues is a large-scale group exhibition organised by 21 international curators from 13 countries, who were selected by a jury from more than 500 candidates.

The project, File Not Found, by Singapore Art Museum curators Khairuddin Hori, David Chew and Naomi Wang was among those picked to show.

The project aims to critique the forms and models of art institutions today and it will feature works by home-grown artists Randy Chan, Lee Wen, Zaki Razak and Joel Yuen.


Where: Jinji Lake Art Museum, Suzhou

When: May 9 to Aug 18

What: This is the first large-scale exhibition of Singapore contemporary art in Suzhou and it offers an overview through the works of 15 acclaimed artists, including Cultural Medallion recipients Milenko Prvacki, Amanda Heng and Lee Wen.

It is part of arts and cultural celebrations in the Chinese city to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park.

The exhibition is helmed by renowned Chinese art critic Feng Boyi, who was assisted by veteran Singapore gallerist Chua Soo Bin and homegrown art consultancy Silver Rue Art Consulting.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 21, 2013

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