November 24 marks a new chapter for the visual arts landscape in Singapore and Southeast Asia. 10 years after the announcement of plans to conserve and convert the former Supreme Court (1937) and City Hall (1929), the National Gallery Singapore will open its doors. This exciting new art destination will feature two permanent galleries, two special exhibition spaces, a library, an arts centre and six restaurants.
The two historic buildings have been meticulously conserved, with two archaeological digs revealing artefacts dating as early as the 14th Century. The Tympanum and frescos on the former Supreme Court have been preserved, while studioMilou Architecture has worked architectural magic with its award-winning design around the two structures. On the façade, the fluid design looks as though gold filigree has been delicately placed in between the two buildings, adding a beautiful contrast to the masculine grey stone façades. Perhaps the most stunning addition is the connecting bridge between the two buildings, supported by giant contemporary tree-like structures.
National Gallery Singapore may be the first museum to undertake the mammoth task of displaying and comparing the various artistic styles that have made an impact in Southeast Asia’s art history. The gallery carries out this mission through its UOB Southeast Asian Gallery and the DBS Singapore Gallery.
Housed in the former Supreme Court Wing, UOB Southeast Asia Gallery displays a presentation of art from the 19th Century, covering the region’s artistic development in four parts. Southeast Asian modern art is first introduced in ‘Authority and Anxiety’ (19th Century to early 20th Century), with key artists like Raden Saleh curated to show the influence of colonial influences in both political and cultural context. The second section, ‘Imagining Country & Self’ (1900s to 1940s) examines artists like Wakidi, who were beginning to show an increased sense of awareness as modern artists with a stronger sense of place. The curation leads to the third development, ‘Manifesting the Nation’ (1950s to 1960s), showing works with socio-political context, by artists like Chua Mia Tee and S. Sudjojono, reflecting the anxiety and vulnerability of the region’s unstable political environment. Finally, ‘Redefining Art’ (1970s to Present) looks at artists like Jim Supangkat and FX Harsono, whose works are shaped by the commercialisation and globalisation of art, making the artists question their identity and push the boundaries of traditional art.
“We’re relatively in uncharted territory when we compare the various art histories of each Southeast Asian country. Southeast Asia is complex when you consider the impact of colonisation because the idea of ‘art’ developed at a different pace in each country. This in turn, affected their respective aesthetic development. For example, the Vietnamese were first influenced by the French Academy style of paintings, while the Malayan (Malaysia and Singapore) artists showed a distinct British influence in the early part of the 20th century. This makes us reflect that Southeast Asia cannot be neatly or conveniently categorised,” states Syed Muhammad Hafiz, one of the curators for the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery.
Highlights of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery include many important works like Raden Saleh’s Wounded Lion, Gregorius Sidharta Soegijo’s Lengkung Dinamika and Hendra Gunawan’s War and Peace.
In the City Hall wing, the DBS Singapore Gallery provides a comprehensive overview of art in Singapore from the 19th century to the present day. Divided into six broad parts, the exhibit starts with ‘Tropical Tapestry’ (19th to early 20th Century), a display of prints, photographs, watercolours and oil paintings. ‘Nanyang Reverie’ (1920s to 1950s) presents the beginnings and peak of the Nanyang School. It starts with works by key Nanyang artists like Georgette Chen and is followed by a highlight section of the Bali expedition undertaken by Cheong Soo Pieng, Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Cheong Swee, which resulted in a joint exhibition in 1953. “Many view the Bali expedition to be a major event in Singapore visual arts and in some ways it is, but the way we have curated this section is also about situating Nanyang art within the broader development of art in Singapore from the 19th century onwards,” says Melinda Susanto, one of the curators for the DBS Singapore Gallery.
‘Real Concerns’ (1950s to 1970s) is about how art making in Singapore was shaped by changing socio-political contexts, including works like National Language Class by Chua Mia Tee. The curation then leads to ‘New Languages’ (1960s-1980s) presenting the emergence of abstraction in Singapore, with artists exploring different mediums and engaging with debates of modernism. This section also includes a study on ink titled ‘Tradition Unfettered’ (1940s to 1980s).
Finally, ‘Shifting Grounds’ (1980s to present) tracks the emergence of contemporary art practice and presents the development of installation art, performance art, video and photography. The gallery documents artists’ experiments with abstraction, sculpture and mixed media, including conceptual performance art.
Highlights of this gallery include the work of Georgette Chen, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chua Mia Tee. Self Portrait by Georgette Chen is perhaps one of the most symbolic paintings by the artist. Georgette portrays herself here with a disciplined approach to technique while captivating her audience with a single gaze that is so telling of her keen sense of determination and purpose. You can’t help but hear the happy chatter of the figures in Cheong Soo Pieng’s Drying Salted Fish, such is his ability to capture the simplicity of daily life. This iconic image can also be seen on Singapore’s $50 note.
Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya is a good study of the socio-historical context when Malaya included Malaysia and Singapore. The keen observation made to the facial expressions and body language of the figures forms significant context and is an example of social realist art and Chua’s innate need to capture the essence of a person in his work.
Other attractions at National Gallery of Singapore include two additional art spaces – the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery in the City Hall wing and the Wu Guangzhong Gallery.
Younger visitors can also look forward to unique offerings at the Keppel Centre for Art Education, specially designed and programmed for school children and families. A multi-sensory space for all ages, this is made up of art and play spaces for young audiences, wet/dry activity workshops and also features educational activities for different age groups.
National Gallery Singapore is also promising to be a dining destination in its own right with a choice of bars and restaurants. These include Aura Restaurant and Sky Lounge by ilLido Group, National Kitchen by Violet Oon, Odette by The Lo & Behold Group, Saha and The Altimate by The Padang FNB, and Yàn and Smoke & Mirrors by Park Hotel Group. Gallery & Co., a new F&B and retail concept, will complement the five restaurants to feature specially designed products for the museum as well as a quick-service, casual dining venue.
With so much art and culture for visitors to enjoy, housed in such a grand historic setting, National Gallery Singapore is sure to be one of the most important openings in the art world in recent times. A landmark, a museum and a cutting-edge modern gallery all rolled into one dynamic destination, National Gallery Singapore should definitely be at the top of everybody’s travel itinerary.
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