Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Who are we? Art asks and shows

By Akshita Nanda, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 May 2015

WHEN the new National Gallery Singapore opens in October, among the paintings on display will be Chua Mia Tee's National Language Class (1959), showing a group of Chinese students learning Malay ahead of the expected merger of Malaya and Singapore.

This brief period of time has been forgotten by many, though its legacy lingers in daily life, with the National Anthem being sung in Malay, for example. National Language Class is an important reminder of the road to Singapore's independence and shows how art captures history, connects viewers today to the past and forms the basis for us to think about the future.

For example, how would inter-racial understanding change in Singapore if everyone spoke more than only English and just one of the official mother tongues of Mandarin, Malay and Tamil? This was a question explored by theatre group spell#7 in the play inspired by Chua's painting and staged in 2006 and 2008.

Who are we? Where have we come from? Who have we become? These are all questions artists in Singapore have asked over the years and continue to ask in various ways - in paintings, plays, poetry, novels, sculpture and song.

Artists respond to their circumstances, so art can provide a record of history that remains easily accessible to later generations. The 1946 book of cartoons Chop Suey by Liu Kang depicts the cruelty of Japanese armed forces during their World War II Occupation of Singapore. In 1991, a researcher from Waseda University translated the book into Japanese and had it published in her country to counteract what she saw as increasing forgetfulness about Japan's invasion of Asia.

For present-day Singaporeans, Chua's National Language Class is a reminder of the sociopolitical climate of the 1950s, when it was uncertain that Singapore could survive as an independent nation. A decade later, the late Goh Poh Seng published what is considered the first Singaporean novel in English, If We Dream Too Long (1968), which reflected the uncertainty of citizens in the newly independent country, struggling to find meaning in life and in an identity away from the British colonial umbrella.

Chua belonged to the Equator Art Society, which existed from 1956 to 1972, and whose members saw it as their duty to reflect society and record social problems and evils.

While later artists may not have felt this to be their primary goal, their work still provides arresting snapshots of and commentaries on the evolution of Singapore. Take theatre: Kuo Pao Kun's Mama Looking For Her Cat (1988) had dialogue in English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil as well as dialects such as Hokkien and Teochew, and illustrated the gap between a dialect-speaking mother and her children who had been educated in English and Chinese, a typical state of affairs for inter- generational communication, given the pragmatic educational policy. Equally powerful when seen today, it was restaged in 2012 by Paper Monkey Theatre.

Issues of language and alienation have become more and more important to residents of Singapore in recent years because of the rising numbers of immigrants. The conflict between residents and newcomers has inspired works such as The Necessary Stage's Model Citizens (2010), in which a rich Chinese woman is at odds with her aspirational Indonesian maid, as well as Claire Tham's novel The Inlet (2013), based on the real-life tragedy of an immigrant worker from China who drowned in a private swimming pool. In both play and novel, the creators offer sympathetic portrayals of Singaporeans, who feel outnumbered, as well as the immigrants, who only want a better life, just like the pioneers who shaped the country.

Art gives voice to social issues and questions but art and culture are also crucial elements of a nation's identity. It is easy to connect kabuki theatre to Japan, bharatanatyam dance to India, Beijing opera to China but then what of a multicultural, multi-ethnic society like Singapore? We enjoy a thriving arts and cultural scene with expert exponents of various traditions - the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Singapore Chinese Orchestra are internationally known for their Western classical music and Chinese orchestra respectively, the latter often featuring crossover performances with American soul singers or British drummers.

Theatre flourishes here in multiple languages, from the English- language-centred Singapore Repertory Theatre, known for its Shakespeare In The Park series, to contemporary Malay drama troupe Teater Ekamatra and the multilingual and socially conscious works of The Necessary Stage. More works of poetry and fiction in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil are being published and many are being translated for readers at home as well as overseas.

So is Singaporean art that which is influenced by more than one tradition? Is it art exploring universal ideas but created in Singapore or by Singaporeans?

There are no easy answers but these questions and others about identity and culture will be asked at the upcoming Singapore International Festival of Arts from Aug 6 to Sept 19. Appropriately timed for celebrations of Singapore's 50th year as an independent country, the theme of the arts festival is "post-empire" and what happens in countries after the end of colonial regimes or other authoritarian forms of government, such as dictatorships and communism.

The question of how we define Singaporean art is intriguingly posed through works such as Homecoming by dance pioneer Goh Lay Kuan, who will capture three generations of Chinese, Malay, Indian and contemporary dance in Singapore through the large-scale production.

Bhaskar's Arts Academy and Kerala Kalamandalam are recreating a performance of Kathakali dance first staged at Victoria Concert Hall in 1954. The academy's doyenne, Santha Bhaskar, told The Straits Times that the work Smriti Padha (Memory Route) is also a retelling of the arts troupe's journey and a homage to the country and social climate which allowed a minority art form to flourish.

Questions of identity and what it means to be Singaporean, to co-exist as the population swells in land-scarce Singapore, are all explored in works such as festival director Ong Keng Sen's The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers (true stories of immigration); Kumar's Living Together (stand-up comedy about being good neighbours) and Chinese theatre troupe Drama Box's two-part work It Won't Be Too Long (about how the need for redevelopment means sacrificing landmarks like Bukit Brown Cemetery).

As the commissioned works from Drama Box show, art which openly speaks of public dissatisfaction with the status quo has appeared more prominently over the past decade, notably since the 2011 General Election that saw opposition politicians make significant gains.

Recent political plays include Fear Of Writing, a play about censorship staged by TheatreWorks in 2011, and Cooling Off Day by Wild Rice, which documented the stories behind the votes and was staged in both 2011 and 2012.

Even the play Square Moon was eventually staged at the University Cultural Centre Theatre in 2013, though a planned reading at The Substation a year earlier was cancelled, reportedly over its content. The play was written by Wong Souk Yee, one of the people detained in the 1987 Marxist conspiracy arrests, and is about detention without trial.

The 1987 detentions are lampooned in Epigram Books' just-released graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, one of many alternative narratives of Singapore's past to be mulled over as we contemplate the future.

Note that these works are being created and made public even amid fears of increased censorship, given new arts licensing regulations which require some institutions such as the arts festival and the Singapore Art Museum to apply for permits for their shows since February, when they were previously exempt. However, some bodies, such as the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, remain exempted from licensing.

Some artists worry that these new rulings will clamp down on their freedom of expression, even as they explore topics previously taboo or considered out of bounds, such as racial fault-lines or the wealth gap in society - both were addressed in The Necessary Stage play Poor Thing last year, as well as in novels like Confrontation by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed (Malay 1999, English translation 2013).

But art exists in part to pose these difficult questions in all their complexity, and to focus the attention of the audience on issues that matter.

Who are we? Where did we come from? What will we become? These are the questions artists have always posed and are able to pose more boldly now, in part because there is an audience willing to consider the difficult and controversial.

Ten or 50 years from now, these may still be the questions artists will frame in their works but the answers then, as now and in the past, will continue to require audience participation and engagement. Art provides connections to past and present but it is eventually the audience who will shape the future.

Evolution of the Singapore identity in the arts
By Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times, 4 May 2015

AMONG the earliest examples of a Singaporean identity in visual art are the paintings of pioneering artists such as Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Chong Swee. All immigrants from China, their works combined Western techniques with South- east Asian sensibilities and topics in what is called the "Nanyang style" of painting.

Theirs was not a deliberate movement to establish a definitive style but it is easy to spot paintings of the Nanyang School.

The label was first given to a 1953 exhibition of paintings the artists put up after a trip to Bali the previous year, which showed definite evolutions in style. Liu, for example, moved away from a sober palette towards using brighter colours in works such as Artist And Model, showing Chen Wen Hsi painting a Balinese woman.

Writers of poetry and fiction established an identity unique to the region as early as the 1930s, though this was interrupted by World War II and the Japanese Occupation. Still, it is known that a Singaporean known as Teo Poh Leng wrote a book-length poem, F.M.S.R., about a railway journey from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur on the Federated Malay States Railways. It was published by Arthur H. Stockwell in London.

Early English-language writing from Singapore can be read as burdened by the post-colonial dilemma faced by those educated under the British umbrella. This affected both the style and topics of, for example, Goh Poh Seng's If We Dream Too Long, the first local novel and self-published in 1968. The mostly grammatical, upper- class English is very different from the rhythmic Singlish of Arthur Yap's 2 Mothers In A HDB Playground, a poem first published in 1980.

Similarly, the first local play staged in Singapore, Mimi Fan (1962), by the late Lim Chor Pee, about an English-educated Singaporean Chinese man who returns to take charge of the family business, did not reflect the idiosyncrasies of Singaporean English as did Robert Yeo's Are You There, Singapore? (written 1968, staged 1974 and remembered by author Suchen Christine Lim as the first time she heard people speak "the way we did" in theatre).

Today, Singlish and multilingualism are common in local theatre. The Necessary Stage mixed Bahasa Indonesia, Mandarin and English in its 2010 play Model Citizens, Singlish speckles the annual pantomimes put up by Wild Rice and dialect jokes are part of the fun in parody show Chestnuts put up regularly by writer and actor Jonathan Lim.

The ground-breaker in the field of music was the late Leong Yoon Pin, who wrote more than 100 works for choral and instrumental ensembles, including Dayong Sampan Overture (1980), inspired by a Malay folk tune, and two symphonies inspired by Indian labourers' chants and Chinese poetry, respectively. He also composed the music for Singapore's first Western-style opera, Bunga Mawar (The Rose), performed in 1997.

Today, this multicultural influence remains in young Singaporean composers making the island's voice heard at home or overseas: chopsticks snap in Emily Koh's Jia[K], performed at Victoria Concert Hall last month, while Malay and Chinese drums infuse Syafiqah 'Adha Mohamed Sallehin's award-winning Dance Of The Merlions (2013).

Over the past five decades, the arts in Singapore have found their voices and it will be interesting to hear the chorus develop further in the future.

This is the seventh of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, published as part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

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