“Artist and Empire” counters and encounters British colonial legacies in Asian art.
The National Gallery Singapore features an exhibition first presented at Tate Britain in 2015, shedding light on the art in Asia associated with the British Empire and contemporary artists’ critiques on colonialism.
“Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past” debuted at London’s Tate Britain in November 2015. Almost a year later, a slightly modified version of the exhibition is on at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS). Curated by Low Sze Wee, Melinda Susanto and Toffa Abdul Wahed at NGS, it takes a counter view of the Empire. Rather than facing Britain’s imperial past, it looks at countering and encountering colonial legacies, the art associated with the British Empire and how it has been represented and contested through time.
According to Dr Eugene Tan, Director of NGS, the exhibition is a “valuable counterpoint to reflect on the issues of post-colonialism and decolonisation” (PDF download). He explains in the press release that
unlike the London show, which took on a more British-centric perspective, we took Tate Britain’s narrative as a point of departure to shift the curatorial focus and perspective to the former colonies from the Asia-Pacific region, including responses to colonialism by contemporary artists.
The past colonies that the NGS has chosen to represent in greater detail are Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar, Australia and India. Over 200 artworks, 85 percent of which are from private and public loans, are on display and are divided into two sections: Countering the Empire and Encountering Artistic Legacies. The artworks date from the 16th century to the present.
Compared to the Tate Britain show, which showed contemporary works in a separate section under the sub themes of Out of the Empire and Legacies of the Empire, contemporary works at NGS have been interspersed throughout the exhibition and placed alongside the historical works in order to provide entry points for an alternate viewing to the audience.
The contemporary artists in the exhibition include Lee Wen (Singapore), Yee I-Lann (Malaysia), Hew Locke (Britain), Andrew Gilbert (Scotland), the Singh Twins (Britain) and Michael Cook (Australia) as well as two special commissions by Wong Hoy Cheong (Malaysia) and Erika Tan (Singapore).
Countering the Empire
On entering the Gallery, the first encounter is with Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of modern day Singapore. The life size portrait, painted by George Francis Joseph in 1817, depicts Raffles seated regally in formal attire, gazing directly at the viewer and is a classic example of historical portrait paintings of that time. Standing in front of it, the viewer is immediately confronted by the importance of the figure and what it represented.
Countering this work, is an equally large image and video of Singaporean artist Lee Wen’s installation, Untitled (Raffles) (2000), which also invites the viewer to engage with Raffles but this time on an equal footing. As part of the Artists Investigating Monuments project in 2000, Lee Wen constructed a platform alongside the sculpture of Raffles that stands at the Singapore River and invited the public to climb up and view the iconic figure at eye level. This alternate way of viewing or counter viewing is what this section of the exhibition focuses on.
Statues appear again further in the gallery, but this time in a contemporary work by British artist Hew Locke. Two works from his Restoration, 2006 series are included in the exhibition. One of them is a photograph of a statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) adorned with a variety of golden trinkets and cowrie beads. Colston, who is considered a founding father of Bristol and has buildings and schools named after him, is depicted as a thinking and enlightened man. However, in reality, he was a slave trader and Deputy of the Royal African Company, which held the trading monopoly and made Bristol a prime slaving port.
Locke adorns the statue with cowrie beads, golden chains and coins representative of the wealth that was amassed by him through the trade. The golden trinkets are similar to the devotional objects that were attached to images of the Madonna in Spain and Locke attaches them onto the photographs with screws that resemble the nails that are used in fetish figures and signify ritualistic power. Through this multi-layered series of work, Locke reveals what has become invisible and opens up alternative ways of viewing the history of the Empire.
The exhibition showcases many paintings that portray the sacrifices and hardship endured by those who went out into the colonies such as John Everett Millais’ The North-West Passage, 1874. There are also works that illustrate key historic moments like battles and the signing of treaties. What is noteworthy is that even in paintings that depict defeat, the bravery and valor of the British stands out.
General Gordon’s Last Stand portrays the heroic death scene of the General in Khartoum, Sudan while facing a nationalist rebellion. Standing in a commanding pose at the top of the stairs he looks down at the nationalists as they rush up to kill him. The positioning and body language of the General and the nationalists paints a picture of bravery and resilience which is how the Empire saw itself as then.
Countering the Empire’s practice of representing its conquered civilisations as exotic ethnographic material, Scottish artist Andrew Gilbert takes the British victory at the Battle of Ulundi in 1879 and turns it on its head. His work poses the hypothetical question: what if the Zulu army had won the battle instead of the British? Would they too have been put on display in an ethnographic museum in the Zulu Kingdom?
In his installation, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July 1879, Gilbert imagines what such a display would look like. British soldiers in their outdated uniforms and associated paraphernalia are exaggerated to a ridiculous effect: an awkward gait, awry hair pieces, a helmet with a pineapple on top, leather boots, feathers, animal skins, parasol, a nail-studded carrot stick dangling from a knife and the Union Jack.
There are many other contemporary works that counter the Empire’s historical art. The Singh Twins, EnTWINed (2009), which responds to Henry O’Neil’s Home Again (1858), examines the entwined history of the Indian and British cultures after 1857, when large numbers of Sikhs arrived on England’s shores bringing with them language and culture that has now become part of the English language and identity.
A grand painting that is unlikely to be missed by any visitor to NGS is Thomas Jones Barker’s The Secret of England’s Greatness. It portrays Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to a kneeling ambassador from Africa at the Windsor Castle. The imagined scene depicts the popular anecdote that when asked by the envoy for the secret to Britain’s greatness, the Queen handed him a Bible in response. The work depicts not only how the British Empire considered itself superior in military and economic terms but also how it viewed itself as morally superior and its sense of obligation to spread the Christian faith to the rest of the world.
Countering this overpowering work is Yee I Lann’s Study of Lamprey’s Malayan Male I & II. The artist counters the Empire’s practice of looking at the colony’s inhabitants through an anthropological lens and of classifying the racial groups into a hierarchy based on their biological differences. Yee notes that this pattern of studies carried its impact into the future, in particular, in Malaysia, where native-born Malays are still favoured over other ethnic groups. In this work, Yee takes the image of a Malayan male by anthropologist John Lamphrey and digitally manipulates it to relook the colonial gaze.
Encountering Artistic Legacies
The second section of the exhibition is Encountering Artistic Legacies and explores how artistic practices developed in the colonies. It examines how local artists took on the influences of Western art as well as how they incorporated indigenous practices into their art as they progressed towards independence and nationhood. Included in this section are artists such as Jamini Roy and Gaganendranath Tagore from India, Cheong Soo Pieng and Lim Cheng Hoe from Singapore, Hoessein Enas and Chuah Thean Teng from Malaysia, and U Ba Thet U Ba Nyan from Myanmar.
Expressing the Nation
Cheong Soo Pieng’s Portrait of Khoan Sullivan depicts the wife of Professor Michael Sullivan sitting with a fan and dressed in a traditional Chinese cheongsam. The artwork, though a Chinese ink painting, carries hints of Western art within it. The colour palette of black, grey and brown as well as the brush strokes are elements of Chinese ink painting, however, the use of colour to produce shadows and depth is a western technique which Cheong applied in this work.
This hybridity of local and western techniques can also be seen in the works of Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin, who trained at the Royal Academy Schools in London under artists such as John Singer Sargent and Solomon J Solomon. Fyzee-Rahamin’s initial works were mainly portraits in the European style but later, when he returned to India in 1908, he incorporated the miniature style of painting into his works in a bid to revive the tradition. This can be seen in Raagni Todi, where he combines Western naturalism with the finesse and intricacy of miniature painting. The depth of the landscape in this work points to his European training, while the details of the trees and animals comes from the miniature technique.
Subject and Form
Gaganendranath Tagore’s My Love of my Country Is as Big as I Am illustrates how artists began to comment on society and culture as they progressed towards nationhood. This pen and ink drawing is a caricature of a rich Bengali man dressed in Western attire, proclaiming his love for the country to the artist who is sitting in a corner dressed in traditional Indian clothes. The rich man, who dominates the painting, smokes a cigar while Tagore holds a hookah. By showing such contrasts, Tagore critiques the hypocrisy of the elite at that time who proclaimed their patriotism to the nation but aligned themselves to the Empire through their way of life. The stylisation of the work is European but Tagore also incorporates the Japanese ink wash technique of sumi-e in this work.
Chuah Thean Teng was one of the earliest artists in Malaysia to incorporate traditional batik into fine art. His artwork Two Women and A Child shows a local rural scene where fruit is being gathered by women. It portrays a romanticised view of life in Malaya and Chuah uses batik not only to dress one of the women but also as the technique to produce the artwork.
The exhibition also features works by Australian artists like Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin who were known for their paintings of the Australian landscape. These group of artists now known as the Australian Impressionists advocated painting in plein air and were known for capturing the colour and light of the Australian bush.
The NGS’ version of “Artist and Empire” seems to have responded to some of the criticisms of its first show at London’s Tate Britain. By displaying the contemporary works that respond to the Empire’s art alongside the historical ones, it has made it easier for the viewer to follow the narrative of countering the Empire. In addition, the inclusion of a section that traces the beginning of modern art in the colonies, and its development as they progressed towards nationhood, is relevant and valuable. This opens up more areas for critique and discussion, on a show that has travelled from the western shores of the old Empire to its eastern gates, centuries later to present more than 200 works of art from west and east, the past and the present.
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