By Syed Muhammad Hafiz
(1,823 words, 7-minute read)
Recently I was asked by a friend, “How come I don’t see any local Malay artists in the current show at National Gallery Singapore (NGS)?”. My immediate response was, of course, that it simply wasn’t true. I was thrown off-guard, but then I started asking myself what could have prompted such a question:
– Why was there a need to specifically ask about Malay artists?
– Was it really necessary to exhibit Malay artists in National Gallery Singapore?
– How does one define a Malay artist anyway?
The question has disturbed me since. It brought back memories of my time working at not just NGS, but also the Singapore Art Museum where I began my fledgling curatorial career a decade ago. Being a curator in Singapore almost always elicits an interesting response from friends and relatives outside what is generally known as the ‘art world’. Responses range from excitement to confusion about what curators exactly do. On average I spend about five minutes each time I’m asked about what I do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. In fact, I enjoy explaining how curators function in a museum (or a gallery), simply because there is no definite answer – and I think I have enough analogies to fill an entire book.
Working in a niche industry already sets one apart, but being a Malay curator in one of the public museums in Singapore grants you access to an “exclusive” club – a membership usually only numbering a handful at any one time, at least in the last decade. Does this matter, one might ask? In a way, it’s the only thing that matters.
Curating in many ways is about representation. Messengers, middlemen, storytellers – these are just some of the terms used to describe us. A curator can be like a chameleon, balancing his or her allegiance according to the context of the working environment, i.e. museums or whoever is their paymaster. In the context of a public art museum in Singapore, it is a heavy responsibility. Being part of the Malay curators club can come with an overwhelming responsibility – such as being subject to loaded questions like the one posed by my friend.
Perhaps one way of answering it is to invest some time in a visit to NGS. Choose a quiet weekday afternoon. Skip the ongoing blockbuster exhibitions and fancy restaurants and instead head to the Singapore permanent galleries, currently titled Siapa Nama Kamu (or ‘What is Your Name’) Art in Singapore Since the 19th Century. Billed as forming ‘a critical component of Singapore art education endeavours and an important platform for studying and presenting the cultural and aesthetic identity of Singapore’, the permanent galleries – with about 400 artworks in each of them – are meant for repeated visits. Sidenote: I don’t know if the general visitor can spare an hour or four, but I need my hourly breaks. Artworks within the permanent galleries are also replaced occasionally because of various reasons, for example, for conservation (artworks need to ‘rest’ too) or due to the end of a loan agreement (the national collection is not exhaustive, thus museums often rely on the generosity of fellow museums and private collectors).
Going back to Siapa Nama Kamu, the Singapore permanent gallery exhibition was inspired by a painting titled National Language Class, by local artist Chua Mia Tee. Produced in 1959, the year Singapore achieved self-governance from the British, the painting depicts a teacher (presumably Malay-speaking) teaching a group of students (who appear to be Chinese) the Malay language.
– Siapa nama kamu? (What is your name?)
– Di-mana awak tinggal? (Where do you live?)
These are the visible sentences scrawled on the blackboard, a familiar sight for those of us old enough to have had our hands chalked white in school. The painting is considered a masterpiece and has been written about extensively in local art history publications. It has been displayed in numerous exhibitions and even inspired local theatre company spell#7 to stage various performative interpretations of the painting since 2005. Never has a local artwork been so enigmatic and lauded in the same vein.
Hence it might be apt to address the question at the beginning of this essay with this iconic painting. Chua’s painting was produced at a time when questions about Singapore’s cultural identity manifested amidst strong nationalist sentiments. What should the direction for Singapore be, a country made up of mostly immigrants from within the Malay Archipelago and beyond? In the gallery just before this work, the curatorial text titled ‘Being Here’ mentions:
This sense of belonging is seen especially in these artists’ mature works, representations of landscapes full of life, hope and activity. By the late 1960s, Nanyang art came to stand for an idealized vision of local identity and place, which formed a marked contrast to the tumultuous developments in Singapore and the world then.
This text frames the internal negotiations that the Nanyang artists went through, and examples of these ‘mature works’ include paintings featuring kampong scenes and scenes depicting local Malays going about their daily activities. The section before this, ‘Bali and Beyond’, features works inspired by the Nanyang artists’ fabled 1952 field trip to Bali – think coconut trees and bare-breasted women in sarongs.
And what about artworks by Malay artists themselves? On a recent visit to Gallery 1 of Siapa Nama Kamu, I counted just two Malay artists – S. Mahdar and M. Salehuddin – with their works Still Life and Malay House, Malacca respectively. The count fared slightly better in Gallery 2, with five Malay artists out of the entire gallery of artists. The low count of Malay artists is subject to various reasons – one of the most convenient being the survival and availability of artworks – but the more interesting fact to note, at least for me, is the current inclusion of Malay artists from Malaysia in these two galleries. Gallery 1 features M. Salehuddin and Gallery 2 features Ibrahim Hussein. A previous iteration of Gallery 1 featured an early Latiff Mohidin (another Malaysian) work titled Aku – a tribute to the famed Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar.
The obvious question would be: why the inclusion of Malaysia’s artists in a Singapore permanent gallery? But that would be short-sighted, since Singapore used to be part of the Federation of Malaya prior to 1965. In fact, S. Mahdar and M. Salehuddin were members of Persekutuan Pelukis Melayu Malaya (Society of Malay Artists of Malaya), which was established in 1949 and included members from the whole of the Malay Peninsula. This fact is also stated in the sectional text for ‘Bali and Beyond’, but I feel like the curators’ usage of the abbreviated name ‘Society of Malay Artists’ seems to deprive the narrative of the wider membership of artists from both sides of the Causeway.
The inclusion of Kedah-born artist Ibrahim Hussein in a section titled ‘New Languages’ of Gallery 2 is a bit more curious. Ib, as he is fondly remembered by, studied at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) briefly before leaving halfway for the United Kingdom to further his art education. Beyond that anecdote, any further relations between the artist and the rest of the local artists in this section seem tenuous. In fact, his biography has scant mention of NAFA beyond the fact that he used to skip classes.
Therein lies the problem of the Siapa Nama Kamu gallery. While NGS has invested much effort in trying to expand the Singapore art story, there are still some obvious gaps, and one of these is the closer-to-home narrative of the Malay artists. Even the inclusion of works by artists such as Abdul Ghani Hamid, S. Mohdir, Iskandar Jalil and Sarkasi Said feel like a mere footnote in the overarching narrative of the permanent gallery. And, rather than sparking a genuine conversation about the two cultural siblings, the inclusion of Malay artists from Malaysia seems like a band-aid plastered to cover these gaps in the collection.
Why is this important, one may ask? Let us go back to the painting by Chua Mia Tee itself. The very fact that the bahasa kebangsaan or national language of Singapore is Malay speaks much of the embeddedness of Singapore within the Nusantara or the Malay world – and yet we do not see much of this in the pre-1965 narrative of the permanent gallery, which is billed as presenting the ‘cultural and aesthetic identity of Singapore’. What we get instead is the constant reminder of the Nanyang story and the ensuing gaze on its local inhabitants and landscapes. While the formalist discourse of the works may delight those of us invested in the aesthetical appreciation of the works, those looking for deeper connections between Singapore and its surrounding neighbours may find something lacking. Instead, these connections are constantly being backgrounded to privilege the more glamorous ‘global’ or the ‘international’.
Of course, there is no one way of reading the Singapore story and the task of writing art history is a thankless one. Having been there myself, I understand that curators in a public institution face limitations, especially in terms of resources like time and funding. However, the problematic Singapore art story speaks of a larger problem, which is the uneasy relationship of Singapore and its archipelagic siblings. As mentioned recently by Singapore academic Dr Sharon Siddique, “many Singaporeans know London and New York better than, say, the neighbouring Indonesian cities of Palembang and Pekanbaru”.
Some might point to the very separation of the two permanent galleries – Siapa Nama Kamu for Singapore art and Between Declarations and Dreams for Southeast Asian art – as emblematic of the identity issues of Singapore art history, and perhaps currently, there is no better curatorial strategy to highlight art from Singapore. However, in highlighting Singapore art the way it has been shown since NGS opened in 2015, the disjuncture from the region, especially when considered in relation to Singapore’s maritime history, is becoming too glaring. One hopes that the curators of NGS are already re-thinking the current curatorial framework, since permanent galleries are never meant to be permanent anyway.
It seems opportune to recall this saying about the peoples of the Nusantara which goes: when one travels to another place or a country within the archipelago, it is said that he or she is just changing rooms (tukar bilik), and not houses. If we can all start to visualise that analogy, then the region wouldn’t feel so culturally or geographically distant from our imaginations. Rather than the anxieties or aspirations to connect the Singapore art story to a global narrative, I think we should start looking more to our archipelagic neighbours. Beyond new ways of understanding our own art history, this can perhaps spur new paradigms and frameworks to understand the idea of art itself. Going back to my friend’s question, perhaps this is the best answer I can think of for now.
 The other permanent gallery titled Between Declarations and Dreams features art from Southeast Asia, and similar to Siapa Nama Kamu, the timeline starts from the 19th century right up to the 2000s.
 While ‘Nanyang’ is a geographical term, i.e. the region to the south of China, in Singapore art history, the term has come to be synonymous with the aesthetics of a group of Chinese migrant artists who moved to Singapore in the first half of the 20th century. ‘Nanyang Art’ or ‘Nanyang Style’ is popularly understood to be a synthesis of their Western art training and the adoption of local subject matter in their landscapes or figurative paintings.
 Abdul Ghani Hamid (1991), An Artist’s Note, Singapore: Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya.
 Eddin Khoo and Alia Ibrahim Hussein (2010), IB, a Life: The Autobiography of Ibrahim Hussein, Petaling Jaya, Selangor Darul Ehsan: Pentas Seni Pustaka.
Syed Muhammad Hafiz used to work in the curatorial departments of the Singapore Art Museum and National Gallery Singapore. He is currently a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore. Recent projects include curating for A+ Works of Art, Segaris Art Center and being the lead writer for Hati & Jiwa: The Zain Azahari Collection Vol.3.