In Conversation | Review of Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies

Written By Michelle Liew

13th Oct 2016

Category: Review

Entering the room, you hear threads of conversations intertwining, overlapping and entangling; indistinct sounds coalesced into a din. The acetic smell of perspiration immediately clogs your nose, informing you of agitated persons in argument. Streamlining your way through the warm and moist air, you approach the roundtable where the squabbles spew. Men—burly, lean and opulent—are engaged in heated conversations. Finger-pointing, maniac gestures, table slamming, feisty pounds. Those who are hollering are fastened in embittered altercations; but there are also gentler personalities—although by no means less resolute or dogged—locked in intense negotiations. All are engaged in a dialogue that seems to have no end.

Michael Cook, UNDISCOVERED #7, Inkjet print Collection of National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer.

Elizabeth Butler, The Remnants of an Army, 1879. Gift of Sir Henry Tate, 1897 Tate Collection © Tate, London 2016.

One can liken Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies to a roundtable discussion featuring conversations and power play. The exhibition is bold and forthcoming. Deft curatorial decisions bring works—each possessing their own histories and representing their own body of knowledge—into conversation with one another.

Wong Hoy Cheong, Re:Looking, 2002–2003 (with a simplified installation in collaboration with National Gallery Singapore, 2016), Mixed media. Video in the collection of Singapore Art Museum.

EMANUEL EDWARD GEFLOWSKI (b. 1834, Warsaw, Poland – 1898, Sussex, United Kingdom), Statue of Queen Victoria, 1888. Marble Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

A collaboration between National Gallery Singapore and Tate Britain, the exhibition first debuted at London’s Tate Britain with the title Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past from November 2015 to April 2016. National Gallery Singapore takes the British exhibition as a point of departure and shifts the curatorial perspective from the British empire to its former colonies, with two key directions in their rendition—Countering the Empire (Gallery 1 and 2) and Encountering Artistic Legacies (Gallery 3). The former features art produced for the empire juxtaposed by contemporary artworks in each theme while the latter examines art produced during the transitions from colony to nation-states. The collection is diverse: from Tate’s collection of grand history paintings and portraits,  to an assortment of indigenous works from the Asia Pacific region, to commissioned pieces of works like Wong Hoy Cheong’s Re:Looking, and commemorative pieces like the Statue of Queen Victoria in the National Gallery’s courtyard. An intricate ensemble has been woven together in National Gallery’s debut collaboration with Tate Britain.

Lee Wen, [Not titled](Raffles), Artists Investigating Monuments series, 2000. Video of 4:41 duration. Collection of National Gallery Singapore (Resource Centre). Image courtesy of Ken Cheong.

George Francis Joseph, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, 1817. Collection of National Portrait Gallery, London © National Portrait Gallery, London.

The most definitive feature of this exhibition comes from the first section, Countering the Empire, in the move to use contemporary perspectives as a counterpoint to artworks produced for the empire. The approach is presentist, and overtly so. In every cluster of artworks, there is a penetrating insertion of contemporary artworks (highlighted with a shrieking yellow border) to contrast with the narratives of the past. The attempt to situate the discussion in the present is evident—the contemporary artworks tend to be the first visuals you would encounter in every cluster, and the conversation that follows surround the contemporary response. Upon entry to the gallery, one is confronted with an image of Lee Wen’s interactive artwork from 2000—a temporary scaffolding allowing for a leveling, literally and metaphorically, between visitors and the statue of Raffles. This image is enlarged beyond life-size, splayed on the walls and arranged to loom over the painted portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles.

Likewise, in the Resistance and conquest cluster for instance, the work of Andrew Gilbert is commandingly visible. It is placed in the middle of the space and flanked by works from the Tate’s collection.

Andrew Gilbert, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879, 2015. Collection of the artist © Tate, London 2016.

British Infantry Advance toys with the alternative imagining of a Zulu victory over the British in the Battle of Ulundi. The gaudy figures representing British soldiers are decoratively adorned with their cultural trappings—dangling tea bags, tea cups, the Union Jack—as if they were put on ethnographic display. Gilbert inverts the situation and imagines the British as exotic curios, crude and primitive in their dress and gestures. Directly juxtaposing Gilbert’s work are the history paintings of Saburo Minamoto and George William Joy.

George William Joy, General Gordon’s Last Stand, 1893. Illustration: Leeds Museum and Galleries.

Miyamoto Saburo, The Meeting of General Yamashita and General Percival, 1942. Image by Garth O'Connell from Australian War Memorial.

Both of these works portray the British defeat in intentional ways to serve different agendas. William Joy’s piece communicates a sense of heroism, while Minamoto’s piece delivers humiliation for the British army. In the first case, General Gordon was brutally massacred. That grisly fact is packaged as heroism as he takes his last stand in the artwork—a fashion more palatable to the British audience’s taste. Minamoto’s painting on the other hand, was lauded as a moving depiction of Japanese triumph and regarded as emblematic of equivalency of Japanese art with Western art.

The implication of taking the present as the starting point is twofold. Firstly, the retrospective power of the present is accentuated. For Gilbert to invert the relationship of the coloniser and the colonised first requires an awareness of the problematic and unstable structures that underpins the empire—in this case, the monopoly over knowledge and perceptions towards the colonised. Only with this awareness can there be power to subvert old narratives and create new ones. This awareness, coupled with the historical distance and the discursive space to articulate alternative narratives, illuminates the power of knowledge in the present.

Secondly, the contemporary approach taken by the curatorial team produces a levelling effect between the different narratives—we are forced to recognise their flaws, reminded of the present, and entreated to consider the narratives on the same plane. All three aforementioned works are imaginations and reconstructions, with their attendant historical inaccuracies (both William Joy and Minamoto did not witness the scene and had to recreate the image; Gilbert’s work is hypothetical). What this juxtaposition achieves is a compression of time and space, by disregarding the period the works were made and the places they were shown, and exposing the inherent subjectivity in art. Rather than engaging in an embattled wrangle over a “definitive” perception one should take towards a colonial past, these perspectives are characterised as bodies of knowledge, none more valid than the other. The point then, is to compel viewers to consider how these bodies of knowledge compose our present experience, facilitate dialogue, and deepen understanding of ourselves.

Chuah Thean Teng, [Not titled](Two Women and a Child), c. 1955. Gift of the estate of Loke Wan Tho. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy of National Heritage Board.

Unlike the preceding section, the conversations in the second part of the exhibition, Encountering Colonial Legacies, take on a quieter tenor. Conversations in this part of the exhibition can be characterised by a series of pensive questions. This section is a survey on the relationship between the colonial experience and its impact on art. For the artists, the aesthetic concerns of form were intimately tied to their identity. Art became indirect expressions of nationhood. However, there is an inextricable position of the British as patrons and teachers of art. In some ways, colonialism offered exposure to styles of expression, but also created a dilemma in the appropriation of Western aesthetic traditions. At the heart of this is the issue of contextualisation of foreign elements—when does something alien become your own? In other words, when can one lay claim and exercise power over an appropriation? When does that knowledge become your own?

Bereft of palpable curatorial presence, the second section arguably pales in comparison to the introduction, though notes of interest are inflected with observations personal to the artists. The cluster of works by Chuah Thean Theng reveal a flair for ratifying various influences as one’s own. China born and trained in Malaya, Chuah is known as the father of Batik art in Malaya, as he turned his unsuccessful Batik factory into a canvas and technique of his own. Also of interest are several of Jamini Roy’s paintings. The array of Roy’s works might appear puzzling at first glance—they all take on different stylistic qualities. In Portrait of of Rabindranath Tagore and Cat with Crayfish, the subjects are embellished with a decorative quality. Krishna and Balarama features the artist’s appropriation of Kalighat style lines and Bengali folk style (the Hindu deities are rendered flatly, delineated with thick curvilinear lines, and infused with a mechanical and geometric quality). On the other hand, Santhal Girl possesses none of the harsh rhythmic outlines or the solid colours. Instead, contours are softer and colours are given more texture. Truth is, Krishna and Balarama came to be Roy’s distinctive style and a clear departure from the Western tradition he was trained in. However, the display of different artworks indicates the process and experimentation undertaken in the endeavour to define a “modern” yet “national” aesthetic.

Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, Tempera on card, 20 x 39 cm, Image Courtesy: Nirmalya Kumar. Image source.

Cat with crayfish. Tempera on paper. Size: 77 x 65 cm. (30.3 x 25.6 in.). Image courtesy of artnet

Untitled (Krishna and Balaram). Tempera on card, 36.8 x 62.2 cm. (14.5 x 24.5 in.). Image source.

Santhal Girl. From the collection of National Gallery of Modern Art. Image source.

While worthy questions are posited, the second section seems to lack the rigour of the preceding section. Spatially speaking, that the first section took up two galleries should be indicative of the preeminence wagered on the curatorial approach of contemporary juxtaposition. Perhaps it is an issue of space, or perhaps it is an issue of relativism (a visitor is likely to peg the quality of the latter with the former part of the exhibition). If anything, Gallery 3 possesses tremendous potential to match the rigour of the first, unfortunately left untapped.

Artist and Empire initiates sharp conversations, hammers out the different facets of colonialism, and brings into high relief the structures of power in colonialism. To push this inquiry even further, perhaps as visitors, we too are caught in the structures of power. Our experience of particular artworks might be organised according to the curatorial direction—in other words, our knowledge is an organised and filtered version of the curators’. Though empires and colonialism may be a thing of the past, power exists in the everyday, perennially. The dialogue on colonialism is and should be an endless one as narratives are but different bodies of knowledge, none worthy of less consideration than the other. As new narratives continue to emerge—following our engagement in this exhibition for example—whether through heated discussions or meditative questioning, this conversation does not relent.

Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies is on show at the National Gallery Singapore till 26 March 2017. More information on tickets and opening hours may be found here

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