What’s wrong with an “empire” ball?

Written By ArtHop

22nd Sep 2016

Category: Feature

The National Gallery Singapore made the big mistake this week of naming one of their fundraising galas "The Empire Ball”.

Image from National Gallery’s Gallery Guide (July – September 16 issue).

There is no question that the naming of the event was in unutterably bad taste, failing to take into account the connotations of exploitation, violence, and disempowerment that often accompanied colonialism. By making a ball out of the Empire, the National Gallery Singapore—and, following that, its plea of ignorance and unintentionality in its statement to The Straits Times (it “did not plan” for the theme of the gala to “glorify colonialism”)—showed an utter lack of recognition of the experiences and issues of communities that are still affected by the colonial experience. In fact, there are many things that Singapore itself has to hand to colonialism, racism—in all forms: institutionalised, casual, and everyday—being one of them. By pleading ignorance, it also points to a deeper issue inherent in Singapore’s national institutions: one of self-reflexivity and sensitivity. Or, the lack of it.

We need to recognise that Singapore is in a somewhat unique position in Asia. We are, perhaps, the only country that has managed to construct a national historical narrative that has made colonialism seem like a good thing. We can uncover narratives within the region itself that are, undoubtedly, more than covered in blood—indeed, India’s (once called the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire) experience under colonialism and its fight for equality and independence is often retold as one of bloodshed and brutality. The mainstream historical narrative of Singapore—the so-called “Singapore Story”, however, does not overtly acknowledge such problematics of colonialism. In some ways, the Singapore Story even hints that the raison d’etre of Singapore can be attributed to colonialism and the landing of Raffles on his fabled site. As a nation, we have managed to cover up our scars of colonialism very well, refusing to recognise, or even explore, in mainstream discourse the kinds of problematics that our own colonial experience has brought to us. This insulation, insularity, may have somewhat made Singapore less sensitive to the critical dialogues surrounding colonialism on a broader scale.

The Secret of England's Greatness' (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor), by Thomas Jones Barker (died 1882). Image: National Potrait Gallery.

The naming of the Empire Ball (or, shall we now say, the National Gallery Singapore Gala) was probably made with the assumption that a connection to the good-old-days of colonial yore would make the event “exciting” and “glamorous”. It is not hard to connect this perception with the very insularity raised above. In many ways one can blame the many years of dominance that the “Singapore Story” has enjoyed. And yet, one needs to ask: what does it take for an institution—particularly one that aims to be a leading regional force—to be self-reflexive, to look beyond the biases of its own borders?

One way of examining the issue of self-reflexivity is to examine the very corporate structure of the institution itself. After all, the naming of the event “Empire Ball” is not a decision made in a vacuum. In an era of bureaucratic structures and corporate hierarchies (of which the institution in question also functions by), these decisions are often made in boardrooms, passed through layers of management and leadership before coming to fruition. Institutions are, very often, only as good as the collective decisions of their management—which means, of course, taking a close look at the often human element that accompanies decision-making. More often than not, institutions comprise of management that have homogeneous socio-economic status, demographics and sociographics. One has to ask if there were any other voices in the dominantly Singaporean Chinese board—voices that spoke from the experiences of other communities and peoples—sitting around that boardroom table during the fateful meeting of the Empire Ball to say that it was not a good idea; that it disrespected the very visceral legacies of colonialism that can still be felt by people in other areas of the region. It took the voice of a Sabahan Bornean artist to remind the National Gallery Singapore that it was doing an insensitive thing.

This is the reason why there are so many people actively fighting for workplace inclusiveness and equality. Because institutions need a kind of in-built system to counter the often personal insularities that accompany decision-making.  And this is not an issue that is merely confined to the handling of the issue of colonialism—it is an issue that extends to the protection of every kind of marginalised community there is: women, people of different cultures and ethnicities, socio-economic classes, and sexual orientations that do not always enjoy the same kinds of realities and privileges as others. It is an issue of ensuring that our national institutions have some kind of inbuilt, systematic way of dealing with the individual insularity of each of its members. We cannot fight our own personal biases: after all, we experience our own realities—how much of another person’s reality can we ever hope to understand? But an institution has to find a way of working around it, and even more so the National Gallery Singapore. As a cultural institution, the Gallery has to be aware of its own position as a generative force: it is a maker, and a keeper of discourse. And how discourse is shaped, shapes lives and realities.

The New York Times recently ran an article that spoke about how women staffers in Obama’s administration used the tactic of amplification to get around their own workplace inequalities. It is an informal, tacitly-agreed-upon kind of strategy for them to negotiate the politics of the bureaucracy. But we need more than informal structures to guarantee that voices are heard. A bureaucracy systematises the curtailment of the agency of the individual worker. If your title or rank doesn’t entitle your opinion to be heard, it is so easy to slip into the ether of apathy and silent dissatisfaction. And this can be very alienating if one’s superiors collectively refuse to consider and acknowledge that one’s reality as an “other”—a woman, a minority member, a member of the LGBTQ community—has equal weight with theirs. So far, the National Gallery Singapore has revealed that it does not have that capability, throwing into question their ability to adequately take into consideration the complexities of the region that it so badly wants to be cultural leader of. For now, the Gallery appears still somewhat fearful of engaging with critical dialogue, releasing a reply to Yee I-Lann on Facebook peppered with somewhat trite platitudes by way of comfort.

But that is not what our institutions need. Our institutions need to recognise the importance of self-reflexivity in an age that refuses to uphold the same principles as that so defined the colonial epoch: racist, side-lining, and exclusive as it was. The refusal needs to continue—and with that, a recognition that internal structures have to change and that spaces for inclusivity need to be opened up in decision-making processes. How these spaces can be opened administratively, managerially remain to be seen: but more often than not we find ourselves fighting for recognition of the problem in the first place before the conversation can be started.

All this, of course, with somewhat spectacular marketing to the upcoming Artist and Empire exhibition—it will be interesting to see what the exhibition has to offer, and if it can undo some of the damage that has been done. The conversation has yet begun.


Artist and Empire opens on 6th October 2016 at the National Gallery Singapore. Admission fees apply. More information here


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