Tale of two tropics

Tale of two tropics

Singapore gallery joins the dots from SEA to Latin America

Tale of two tropics
Mother Nature's Bounty Harvest, a collaboration between Victorio Edades, Galo Ocampo and Carlos Francisco. National Gallery Singapore

Despite being far apart, Southeast Asia and Latin America share similarities as they are both located in tropical zones. Presented by the National Gallery Singapore, the art exhibition "Tropical: Stories From Southeast Asia And Latin America" reveals connections between the two regions through over 200 artworks, sculptures, drawings, performances and immersive installations by more than 70 artists.

Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, a senior curator at the National Gallery Singapore, explained that the objective of the exhibition is to bring the stories of art and artists from Latin America and Southeast Asia closer together.

"When curators, artists, critics and other visitors walk through the exhibition, they cannot identify which work is from Southeast Asia and which one is from Latin America. There is an aesthetic connection between the artworks from these two regions," he said.

The exhibition, which extends across three sections in the National Gallery Singapore, explores distinct themes -- "The Myth Of The Lazy Native", "This Earth Of Mankind" and "The Subversive". While there are many artworks from various countries, not every country is represented in the exhibition.

"The exhibition is not about being comprehensive. It is more about creating 'touch points' as a meeting point for two worlds to come together and hopefully something new will emerge from that meeting," the senior curator said.

Since the National Gallery Singapore is a modern art museum, the curators have focused on artworks and artists from the 1980s to the 20th century which they believe marks the beginning of the movement.

"It is very clear that the 20th century is one of the most significant and momentous periods in human history which encompasses not only colonialism, but also the downfall of colonialism and the beginning of independent movements," said Mustafa.

The first section, "The Myth Of The Lazy Native", presents artworks which challenges colonists' stereotypes popularized by famous artists, especially Paul Gauguin, the French painter. In 1891, Gauguin had sailed to Tahiti, a French colony. His paintings usually ignored the realities of colonial oppression and portrayed images of a paradise with carefree "natives" and lush landscapes. By the 1920s, Gauguin's exotic images had gained widespread exposure through books and exhibitions.

Fuelled by anti-colonial sentiment, artists from Southeast Asia and Latin America embarked on a transformative journey to challenge and reshape the alluring yet distorted depiction of the native figure. Instead of exoticising their subjects, they sought to paint a more truthful representation, portraying labourers, fruit sellers, freedom fighters and even their own mothers.

Paintings in this zone include Mother Nature's Bounty Harvest (1935) which is an iconic public mural in Manila painted by Victorio Edades, Carlos Francisco and Galo Ocampo. The mural portrays people collecting fruits against a natural landscape backdrop.

Created by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, La Molendera from 1924 depicts a woman in a white dress on her knees, grinding maize.

"After Paul Gauguin promoted the misleading idea of a tropical paradise, many artists in Southeast Asia and Latin America from the 1920s to 1930s tried to challenge that image. Rivera's paintings had an impact on his fellow Mexican artists and others. His paintings demonstrated that they could paint things that they knew and were familiar with.

"La Molendera portrays a strong female figure in the village. David Alfaro Siqueiros, another Mexican artist, painted portraits of his wife including Pressagio. Hendra Gunawan, an Indonesian artist, created paintings inspired by freedom fighters. Instead of going out to faraway places, artists considered painting things around them," explained Mustafa.

The second zone, "This Earth Of Mankind", presents artworks from the 1940s when many regions under colonial rule were either gaining independence or on the brink of transformative change. Artists from Southeast Asia and Latin America turned to self-portrait in order to imagine a new world that was democratic and prosperous where everyone was equal. Mustafa said that painting a self-portrait helped artists to understand themselves a little bit better.

Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, a senior curator at the National Gallery Singapore. Leila Shirazi

La Molendera by Diego Rivera. National Gallery Singapore

Right after the entrance, visitors will come across self-portraits by two artists -- Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist, and Patrick Ng Kah Onn, a Malaysian artist. These self-portraits are hung side by side on a grid-like structure. The design is a tribute to the Brazilian architect, Lina Bo Bardi, who designed a grid system using locally sourced wood for a painting exhibition in 1970. This structure allows multiple artworks to be viewed from various vantage points.

The painting Hanuman (1973) by the late Thai national artist Thawan Duchanee is displayed in this second section. Mustafa explained that the painting was inspired by the story of Hanuman, a monkey deity in Thai Ramayana, known as the Ramakien. The story narrates that Hanuman feels hungry and tries to consume the Sun because he misunderstands it to be a fruit.

"The influence of Southeast Asian artists who incorporated narratives from the Ramayana and other sources into modern art is powerful for us. If viewers examine this section of the gallery, they will notice that all the artists approached storytelling in their own ways. Some artists explored stories, such as the tale of Hanuman. Others delved into craft and the creation of craft objects. Some focused on textiles and fabrics, while others observed communities around them. Thawan appeared to be a leading figure in making a change," explained Mustafa.

The third section, "The Subversive", exhibits how Southeast Asia and Latin American artists emerge as figures who have worked to reclaim their own image amidst the lingering effect of colonialism. On their journey, they utilised modern painting, sculpture, film and writing to inspire change, challenging the notion that 20th century artistic endeavours were predominantly influenced by Western art conventions.

"The Subversive" was designed in a dark aesthetic. Tumbuhan Tropika by Latiff Mohidin, a Malaysian modernist painter and poet, is the highlight of this section.

From left, Pressagio and Angústia by David Alfaro Siqueiros. National Gallery Singapore

Self portraits by Patrick Ng, left, and Frida Kahlo. National Gallery Singapore

"Mohidin never uses the word tropical. Instead, he uses the Malay word tropika which represents a kind of attitude, consciousness and knowledge of the self. He believes that the only way that you can truly build art is to know yourself first. Tumbuhan Tropika reflects the growth of that consciousness," the curator explained.

Pieces by three Thai artists -- Black Stupa and Story Of Metamorphosis In The Farm by the late artist Montien Boonma; The Orchardman's Smile by Pratuang Emjaroen; and Fireworks by filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul -- are displayed in this third section. Story Of Metamorphosis was specially reconstructed by Montien's former assistants based on his original design. Mustafa mentioned that pieces by these artists are in the third section because they explored metamorphosis and change.

The curator hopes that the exhibition will facilitate the exchange of ideas regarding these two regions.

"Hopefully, this will lead to a shift in ideas about these places and people, but I can only hope. The exhibition will become a sign for exchange and be a social function of the museum," said Mustafa.

Hanuman, centre, by Thawan Duchanee. National Gallery Singapore

Tumbuhan Tropika by Latiff Mohidin. National Gallery Singapore

"Tropical: Stories From Southeast Asia And Latin America" runs at the National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road, until March 24.

Admission is SG$25 for international visitors and SG$15 for residents. To purchase tickets, visit nationalgallery.sg/tropical.

For more information, visit facebook.com/nationalgallerysg.

From left, Story Of Metamorphosis In The Farm and Black Stupa were created by Montien Boonma. National Gallery Singapore

The grid-like structure is a tribute to Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. National Gallery Singapore

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