In 1963, the year Singapore declared de facto independence from British rule, modern art pioneer Ho Ho Ying issued a rallying cry to his fellow artists.
“Realism has passed its golden age; Impressionism has done its duty; Fauvism and Cubism are declining. Something new must turn up to succeed the unfinished task left by our predecessors.”
After Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965, and in the years of rapid urbanisation that ensued, “make it new” was what many of Ho’s contemporaries strove to do with their experimental, multi-disciplinary practices.
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The National Gallery Singapore is now spotlighting six of these artists who remain relatively underrated: printmaker Chng Seok Tin, abstract artist Jaafar Latiff, Sufi mystic Mohammad Din Mohammad, collage artist Goh Beng Kwan, interdisciplinary artist Eng Tow and information technology visionary Lin Hsin Hsin.
Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporean Artists After 1965 opens on Friday (May 7) and runs till Aug 22. With more than 300 works including collage, batik, sculpture and digital art, as well as more than 100 archival materials, the massive showcase is not so much a group show as it is six solo exhibitions.
The works span decades and explore urbanisation, spirituality, ecological concerns and the emergence of computer technologies.
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And there are plenty of gems.
The first section features an arresting selection of works by the late artistic heavyweights Chng and Mohammad Din.
Chng, who lost most of her eyesight after an accident in 1988, is best known as a printmaker. But here, there are also installations such as Rolling Red Dust – a series of red banners flapping in the breeze from electric fans – as well as mixed-media works like the geomancy-inspired Variations On I-Ching, first shown in the 1980s.
Sufi mysticism looms large in Mohammad Din’s works, which include earthy wall assemblages of wood, shell and animal bone.
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Taking centre stage is The Pyramid Of Soul: Celebrating Alif, an installation put together based on an old sketch by the artist. Here, various assemblages he had built from 1995 appear alongside more than 200 coconut shells.
Like Chng, Mohammad Din had an accident that would alter the course of his artistic practice in the 1980s. A nasty motorcycle mishap meant his leg almost had to be amputated. But he recovered after his silat masters treated him, which made him more keen to study traditional healing techniques.
Besides being an artist, traditional healer, martial arts master and writer, he was also a collector of South-east Asian artefacts. Some of these, such as Islamic manuscripts and keris (dagger) hilts, have been hauled out from his flat for display.
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The second part of Something New Must Turn Up spotlights the practices of digital media pioneer Lin, as well as the late abstract artist Jaafar, who married the batik technique with abstract, expressionist styles.
Lin’s works are informed by her training in mathematics and computer science. Dreamy abstract paintings inspired by outer space gleam gently under the spotlights in the darkened room. A dendrogram on the wall charts her artistic contributions, while an antechamber plays host to her poetry and music works.
Lin, who loves the scalability, speed and security of digital media, set up a virtual museum in 1994. Around this time, she discarded traditional ways of painting in favour of new technologies.
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The third and final exhibition space explores Tow and Goh’s practices, ranging from the former’s quiet, meditative “cloth reliefs” to the latter’s Urban Renewal series of paintings, which respond to the city’s rapid development and loss of heritage.
Something New Must Turn Up is curated by Dr Seng Yu Jin, 41, and a team of seven other curators.
Dr Seng, the gallery’s deputy director of curatorial and research, notes that Independence in 1965 spawned cultural anxieties, which “were mainly to do with, ‘What is a Singaporean culture and identity?'”
Artists played a key role in shaping these cultural identities, and the six in the show were chosen for their diverse backgrounds and practices, he says.
“Out of the six, we have three women artists whom we want to feature because they have been so underrepresented,” he adds.
“When we look at (all six of) these artists comparatively, we realise that their practices are pluralistic, multidisciplinary and form connections between the histories of modern and contemporary art in Singapore.”
Works to catch
WANDERING SERIES 8/79 (1979) BY JAAFAR LATIFF
Tradition meets modernity in this batik painting, which integrates the traditional technique of wax-resist dyeing with an abstract style.
The self-taught artist started this series after a study trip to Nagoya, Japan.
ECLIPSE (1983) BY ENG TOW
Gradations of spray-painted grey and warm hues hint at the transience of an eclipse. The artist, whose works are often shaped by a connection with nature, has created the effect of “relief” in cloth using sewing techniques like tucking and ribbing.
VARIATIONS ON I-CHING (1982-1992) BY CHNG SEOK TIN
Each of these 64 squares corresponds to a hexagram in the I-Ching (or Book Of Changes). Someone seeking guidance from the ancient Chinese divination text tosses three coins six times. Each toss determines one line in a hexagram, which is looked up and interpreted to give an answer. In this work, Chng has used materials such as twine, sand and wire to form elemental shapes based on her interpretations.
EARTH ENERGY (1994) BY MOHAMMAD DIN MOHAMMAD
This assemblage of wood, shell and animal bone features colours thought to have therapeutic properties. The artist, who harnessed Sufi mysticism in his work, was also a traditional healer and used his Earth Energy panels to engage patients in conversation about wood’s talismanic properties.
CONVERSATION (1982) BY LIN HSIN HSIN
Man’s dialogue with the cosmos is explored in this work featuring oil on canvas with mixed media. It belongs to Lin’s Man & His Universe series and is part of a group of paintings from the late 1970s to early 1980s about the laws and phenomena of outer space.
GEOMANCY (C. 1980S) BY GOH BENG KWAN
This circle, divided with threads into four quadrants, is a nod to the luopan compass used in geomancy. Goh’s Geomancy piece uses tea-wrapping paper, Chinese calligraphy and dramatic reds and blacks to suggest a sense of ritual. In the 1970s, the artist had begun to capture the rapidly changing cityscape in his works, taking particular interest in Chinatown where he lived and worked.
View it/ Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporean Artists After 1965
Where: Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, Level 3 City Hall Wing, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Road
When: Friday (May 7) to Aug 22, 10am to 7pm daily
Admission: Free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents
Info: Go to this website for more information. Audio tours in English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil will be available on the Gallery Explorer app. Also, look out for upcoming talks and tours
This article originally appeared on The Straits Times