The Jakarta Post
Affandi’s Self-Portrait ( 1975 ) (National Gallery Singapore/File)
A new exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore, titled “(Re)collect: The Making of our Art Collection”, chronicles stories and legacies — unveiling untold stories behind the world’s largest institutional collection of modern art from Singapore and Southeast Asia.
Running until Aug. 19, the exhibition displays over 120 out of the gallery’s 8,630 artworks, including those from Indonesian masters S. Sudjojono and Affandi.
The gallery’s director, Eugene Tan, said it was an ongoing process for the gallery to delve deep and uncover stories behind its artworks.
The diversity and inclusiveness, he added, characterized and differentiated its collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian works as they opened up possibilities to connect artistic practices beyond national boundaries.
“This has allowed us to continue the endeavor in questioning and re-imagining what constitutes Southeast Asia through art, and through this, come to understand our region’s heritage better,” Tan says.
Read also: Sudjojono's sketchbook unveiled in Singapore
Building up the collection is challenging, considering the market for art in Asia and Southeast Asia is quite high and the prices are high, according to the gallery’s deputy director of curatorial and research Russell Storer.
“There’s a lot of demand, there’s not a lot of work around. So as collecting institutions trying to acquire major works, it’s challenging,” he says.
Building trust with a range of collectors and institutions that allow them to donate or lend their best works from the region is no less crucial. “That takes time but it’s very important,” Storer says.
With seven sections, the exhibition’s visitors are taken on a journey that begins during post-war Singapore when art took a backseat to nation-building to important milestones that led to the crystallization of Singapore’s visual arts collection, as well as how it developed as its custodianship shifted from the National Museum Art Gallery (NMAG) in 1976 to Singapore Art Museum in 1996 and to the present day National Gallery Singapore, which opened in 2015.
The exhibition’s curator, Lisa Horikawa, said the collection all began when Dato Loke Wan Tho, a leading philanthropist and co-founder of the Cathay Organization, donated more than 110 works from his personal collection to Singapore in 1960, with the wish they would eventually be housed in a new art gallery.
“This donation formed Singapore’s seedling collection of visual art,” she told invited media during the press viewing.
The first registered artwork is Self-Portrait, a batik painting by Chuah Thean Teng, a Chinese-Malaysian considered a pioneer in incorporating batik into the fine art medium.
“His family was running a batik business. Anecdotes say there were so many unsold batik that he kind of made use of it. I’m not sure whether [the story is] true,” said Horikawa, laughing.
Chuah Thean Teng’s Self-Portrait ( 1950s ) (National Gallery Singapore/File)
Several works from NMAG’s inaugural exhibition donated by artists are also on display at the exhibition, including And Miles to Go before I Sleep by Singapore artist Cheo Chai Hiang, a fascinating conceptual work comprising a log and a wooden laundry board bearing an excerpt from a renowned poem by Robert Frost.
The exhibition also displays the gallery’s latest acquisitions, such as Singaporean artist Kim Lim’s Abacus ( 1959 ), Pegasus ( 1962 ) and Naga ( 1984 ) which are shown together for the first time; as well as early works by Malaysian artist Latiff Mohidin, the first Southeast Asian artist to have a solo exhibition at the renowned Centre Pompidou’s In-Focus Gallery in Paris as part of National Gallery Singapore’s inaugural traveling show.
The gallery’s senior curator, Seng Yu Jin, said Indonesian master Affandi personally donated his Self-portrait ( 1975 ) that he painted on the spot when he went to Singapore to receive his honorary doctorate from the University of Singapore.
He said Affandi’s daughter, Kartika, recalled that her father was very proud to receive an honorary doctorate from Singapore because at that time he had yet to receive any from Indonesia.
“And actually, it’s still very rare for the University of Singapore, now it’s called the National University of Singapore, to give an honorary doctorate to an artist. It’s so rare. Even today,” Yu Jin says.
“Ibu Kartika was telling me, ‘look at the painting’, it looks like a split two face, one part of his face is smiling and the other part is kind of sad. Then she was explaining to me ‘it shows his feeling, Affandi was so happy to receive this honorary doctorate from Singapore, but he was sad because he had yet to receive one from Indonesia’.”
Indonesian works rank third at 4.57 percent out of the gallery’s 8,630 artworks after Singapore and Malaysia respectively. Raden Saleh’s Forest Fire, the largest painting by the artist known to date, is arguably the most important work in the collection.
Yu Jin said the gallery does not collect based on breadth for countries outside Singapore since there are very comprehensive collections already in respective Southeast Asian countries.
“But what we try to collect is kind of in-depth of certain artists that are important in terms of the narrative of Southeast Asian arts as a region,” he said.
He cited the gallery’s latest acquisition of the works by Emiria Sunassa, one of the earliest Indonesian woman artists, as an example.
“Emiria’s art is historically important, we see her as historically important, because we want to view the narrative of women artists in Southeast Asia,” Yu Jin says.
Horikawa said the exhibition was the gallery’s first attempt at coming face-to-face with the history of its collection, opening up its acquisition practice, and in the process, enabling visitors to appreciate the national collection and inspire interest in the layers of history and memories.
“As a custodian of the world’s largest collection of 19th and 20th century of Southeast Asian art, we have an important responsibility to conduct research into our collection, understand where we come from, and identify the ways in which we can build the collection further for generations to come.”