Inspired by Chinese opera

The first time Lakshmi Mohanbabu watched a Chinese opera was in Chinatown in 2001. She had just moved to Singapore from Delhi.

She recalled being "extremely fascinated with the characters' elaborate expressions". That inspired the theme for her first solo art exhibition SG50 Expressions to be held at the Art Space @ Suntec City Mall from Nov 2 to 8.

As a tribute to Singapore, she painted the various expressions of Singaporeans over the last 50 years as she felt that these expressions would give the spectator a "pulse of the nation".

"Performing arts was the first thought that came to my mind when I thought of Singapore and expressions-wise, Chinese opera was it," said Ms Mohanbabu, who is from Trivandrum, Kerala.

Most of the expressions in the series of 12 paintings come in pairs, which she describes as the yin and yang of emotion. "With joy, comes sorrow, with agony comes ecstasy. Only if you have experienced one feeling would you know the other. I was inspired when I realised how Singapore was a swampland before it emerged as a modern nation and how it went from rags to riches.

"The journey of Singapore spans 50 years and we will surely experience more emotions in the coming 50 years as well. I wanted something that is eternal and relevant long after I am gone, thus the Expressions SG50," she said.

Ms Mohanbabu graduated with an architecture degree from the Manipal Institute of Technology in Karnataka in 1991. The next year, she pursued fashion design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi (NIFT). She then taught at NIFT before coming to Singapore in 2001 to teach at LaSalle College of the Arts.

Said the 47-year-old who is now a Singapore citizen: "Teaching and studying the history of art, architecture and fashion and jewellery helped me to visualise and incorporate cross-cultural elements in my paintings."

She spent several years researching Chinese opera before deciding on incorporating the performing arts concept to her paintings. She used "elements of calligraphy in a minimalist modern stylistic approach" to paint the various expressions.

She also credits her broad understanding of various cultures to the fact that she lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, for nine years when her father was working on a United Nations mission there. "Living in a war-torn country made me more understanding and aware of the intricacies of different cultures all around me."

Ms Mohanbabu has done over 300 paintings in various mediums such as pen and ink, pencil, charcoal, acrylic and watercolour. While she doesn't consider one medium harder than the other, she is most comfortable with the pencil as she can draw with more precision, compared to oil pastel where she doesn't have much control over the flow of colours.

She has also done illustrations in pencil for a book by the World Health Organisation called Disabled Village Children, released in 1994.

The illustrations were created to explain how disabled people living in rural areas of India can cope with their disabilities and day-to-day living.

Aside from illustrating and painting, Ms Mohanbabu also designs jewellery, furniture and shoes.

She considers both designing and painting to be her first love as they have a meditative quality for her. "The thrill of being able to see an idea through to what I believe is its logical conclusion is extremely rewarding," said Ms Mohanbabu, who likes to visit museums and look out for sources of inspiration to design and paint.

"What is life without design is the mantra I live by," she said.

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