By Ng Yi-Sheng
(1,585 words, eight-minute read)
In the assembly hall of Chatsworth International School hang six statues of Sir Stamford Raffles. However, these aren’t your typical heroic effigies of Singapore’s chief colonist. They’re headless, legless, composed of patchwork fabric with Javanese words stitched into their skins, dangling from the ceiling at odd angles, as if participating in an erotic rope bondage scene.
This is Seamstresses’ Raffleses, an installation by artist Jimmy Ong, ritually punishing the supposed founder of our city for his sins: principally, his role in the 1811 invasion of Java, an act which cost thousands of lives. Downstairs, the artist and his sarong-clad assistants engage in another exercise of postcolonial vengeance: Open Love Letters, a performance in which kueh kapit—love letter biscuits—are grilled in a sawn-apart statue of the founder.
Both works are presented as part of OH! Emerald Hill, an art tour set in the charming shophouse enclave of Emerald Hill, running every weekend from 3 to 25 March 2018. It’s the seventh edition of OH! Open House, which has been filling diverse Singaporean neighbourhoods with contemporary art since 2009, but it’s the first of these tours to have an overarching theme: colonialism.
“Colonialism is a set of ideas, attitudes and institutions that still haunts us,” says curator Alan Oei in our programme guide. For some time, he’s puzzled over the irony that we, as an independent nation, still fetishise our colonial icons; how, instead of tearing down our bronze statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, we erected a duplicate in polymarble and turned his name into a luxury brand.
And indeed, colonial apologism has been on the rise of late. In the past few months, we’ve seen essays holding up Singapore as evidence that British colonialism was benign, and the announcement of the Singapore Bicentennial, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Raffles’ arrival. It feels more necessary than ever to challenge that narrative; to remind people that it is fundamentally wrong to take control over other lands for political and economic benefit.
But there’s a catch. The OH! Open House tours have always been crowd-pleasers, ideal vehicles for engaging with the public. This edition is no different: in fact, it’s better designed than its predecessors. The experience is broken down into three 40-minute tours, each involving small groups of five or six visitors, and all the sites are conveniently close by. Easy on the feet, and little danger of art fatigue.
Driven by this desire to gratify audiences, the show’s creators seem to have prioritised aesthetics over politics. Too many works glory in the visual splendour of colonialism with little consideration of the violence behind it.
Consider Daughter of the Soil, which celebrates the legacy of 19th century horticulturalist Agnes Joaquim to illustrate the erasure of women from history: it’s an installation of doilies, dried flowers and crinoline hoop skirts, the accoutrements of the wealthy white memsahib. Also, The Mad Dog Singers, a quartet of young white men and women in dapper Edwardian clothing who chant a song titled “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Midday Sun” as they lead tour groups between sites. The performance comes across less as a critique of English culture but a demonstration of the largesse of the singers, who’re evidently magnanimous enough to indulge in self-mockery.
Interestingly, one of the three tours specifically seeks to undermine the colonial project through an illustration of its follies. The Moral Hazards of Growing Nutmeg in a Faraway Land investigates the history of Orchard Road as a failed nutmeg plantation. We’re introduced to the colonial promise of riches in works like Nabilah Nordin & Nick Modrzewski’s The Nutmeg Dream, a bric-a-brac construction of banners and found objects, as well as Anthony Chin’s Your Touch Turns to Gold, a statue of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg’s foot which glows gold when touched with warm hands—a beautifully theatrical interpretation of his promotion of nutmeg in the colonies. The story ends with Alison M. Low and Ho Wai Kit’s Arcane Root, which exposes the downfall of the plantations due to beetle infestations: oversized sculptures of beetles are accompanied by projected images of ghostly Victorian children.
Yet this narrative too has its problems. By highlighting the tragedies of white plantation owners, it downplays the exploitation of Asian labour. The issue is not completely erased: we see photographs of workers in Robert Zhao Renhui’s installation White Rubber, though they are dwarfed by other colonial knickknacks: statues of tigers and tropical fruit, a coconut pearl in a glass case. Our guide also gives a brief history of the cruelties behind the nutmeg trade: how Dutch colonists had annihilated entire islands to ensure a monopoly of the crop. Still, these stories are the background, not the foreground, of the art tour. In this version of history, white fortunes matter more than Asian lives.
Perhaps it’s unfair of me to judge OH!: Emerald Hill by my own political standards. Oei never promised an anti-colonial tour; his aims are “to give voice to the forgotten, posit the histories constructed, and trace the tenuous lines that spell of the boundaries and legacies of the region.” His artists “reimagine colonialism”, which does not mean that they oppose it.
Yet I cannot help but be frustrated at how seldom Singaporean artists unequivocally condemn colonialism. True, it shaped our city in terms of development and population, and many individuals of all races managed to benefit from the power structure. But the cost of this was the enslavement, displacement and deaths of millions, including some of our own ancestors. Not to mention the fact that it’s simply wrong to seize control of a government for profit, whether it’s happening in the 19th or the 21st century.
This being said, many works manage to avoid the glorification of colonial ruling classes. Several are more enraptured by the wonders of nature, such as Chris Chong Fan Hui’s ENDEMIC, a robotically twitching orchid, and Weixin Chong’s Exponential Taxonomies, which superimposes botanical sketches commissioned by William Farquhar with photographs of the plants themselves. I’m particularly fond of Kent Chan’s To the Eastward, a video work which shows Raffles, Farquhar and Sultan Hussein dressed in plain black baju, meeting in a jungle so lush that it makes human affairs look petty in comparison.
A precious handful of works highlight the ravages of colonialism. Zarina Muhammad’s not terra nullius is a favourite: in a Chatsworth International School classroom, surrounded by flowers, incense and fruit, she commemorates the forgotten folk spirits and ghosts of the past—especially the comfort women of World War II, once housed in that very building, victims of a Japanese attempt to ape European imperialism. We’re then invited to create murti, or ritual offerings, for whoever we wish to remember; once completed, we lay them out in the garden beneath a sculpture of coloured string. It’s a stirring reminder of how colonialism has cut us off from our cultural histories—and how the process of forgetting continues, as we align ourselves with religious and cultural movements that bring us further from our pasts.
This theme is further developed in Lenne Chai’s Salvation Made Simple. The work is based on a fascinating premise: what if there was a forgotten, pre-colonial religion in Singapore, and its followers took pains to revive it? On top of an altar, a video plays, centering on the acolytes of a crowned, fishtailed Goddess, mass-producing schlocky media, souvenirs and social media events to encourage her worship. Nearby, two vending machines offer holy water, blessed fidget spinners, and T-shirts printed with The Goddess’s image. Chai hints that though we might have nostalgia for the pre-colonial, this doesn’t mean it’s pure—it could be just as crassly capitalist as anything we’ve inherited from the Brits.
Then there’s Evil Empire’s Tea Revives the World, a working teashop that exposes the violent history of tea, marketing its blends under names such as “Stolen Scents” and “Oolong Oppression”. This in itself could be dismissed as an edgy marketing scheme, yet it’s paired with a truly unsettling performance: a woman wakes in a darkened room and glares at us accusingly, while her portrait is painted and repainted in a projection behind her. It’s a brief, simple staging, but it’s emotive enough to shake us out of our cold intellectualism. Oolong oppression isn’t a joke. Real people suffered on plantations.
I’m describing these three pieces in some detail because I believe they exemplify what needs to be conveyed when making art about colonialism—an issue that’s relevant right now, given that cultural workers are already planning events for the Singapore Bicentennial.
In a way, these artworks are all acts of mourning. They commemorate loss and suffering, or else they lament the impossibility of reconciling the past with the present. Just as fundamentally, they do not praise the privileged and powerful. Yet this does not prevent them from being entertaining. They boast interactive elements, inspiring humour and warmth.
OH! Emerald Hill is definitely worth a trip: it’s an enjoyable ramble through a lovely district, with a volunteer guide by your side to fill you in on the stories behind the area. The art’s also varied and plentiful enough that you’ll almost certainly find something to adore.
However, it only marks the beginning of a larger conversation we’re all about to have about art and colonial history. How can we do justice to the past? Is it possible to commemorate 1819 without romanticising it? And—given that our lives are moulded by colonial projects, past and present—how much must we change ourselves?
OH! Emerald Hill runs from 3 to 25 March 2018. Tickets are available here.
Guest contributor Ng Yi-Sheng is a writer, researcher and PhD student at Nanyang Technological University. His books include the poetry collections A Book of Hims and Loud Poems for a Very Obliging Audience and the non-fiction work SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century. He tweets and Instagrams at @yishkabob.