A long long back at Malayan art

NUS Museum curator Ms Chang Yueh Siang (left) with Dr Lai Chee Kien from the NUS School of Design and Environment. Dr Lai is co- curator of the two-year-long exhibition titled, Between Here And Nanyang, which is on at the NUS Museum.

If you fancy, you can take as long as two years to walk through the exhibition, Between Here And Nanyang, at the NUS Museum.

The show at the National University of Singapore, which runs till 2015, marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark book A Brief History Of Malayan Art by the late arts writer Koh Cheng Foo.

Koh, who wrote under the pseudonym Marco Hsu, offers a view of Singapore's incipient art history in his 1963 treatise and challenges the thinking that the region at the time, mainly a place of commerce, was a cultural desert.

The show brings to life his writings using more than 80 artefacts, paintings and sculpture, which are displayed in a loosely chronological manner that mirrors the narrative of the book.

From 19th-century woven baskets from Malaysia to the works of pioneer Singapore painters such as Liu Kang and emerging artists in the late 1950s such as Ng Eng Teng, the pieces in the exhibition underscore Koh's defence that the region's art and culture is long and rich.

While hardly labyrinthine, the exhibition and its intent is best grasped through repeated visits during its run, which stretches until the year of Singapore's golden jubilee.

Assistant Professor Lai Chee Kien, 48, who is with the NUS department of architecture and co- curator of the two-year-long show, says the exhibition is a way of "spatialising the book".

"It returns to the 1963 moment, 50 years later, when Singapore became independent from Britain and it parallels the two years Singapore was part of Malaysia," he says.

Prof Lai, who translated Koh's book from Chinese to English in 1999, adds that the exhibition also serves as a space for viewers to "ask questions about the period from 1963 to 1965 and Singapore's role in that time", before it became a nation itself.

A point of curiosity, he says, is that Koh chose to refer to the art he surveyed as Malayan art even though the book was published on the cusp of the merger of peninsula Malaya and Singapore, and the identity of Malaya would soon give way to that of Malaysia. Prof Lai asks: "Was he then suggesting this is the accomplishment of the period of Malaya that would somehow not continue?"

The book, which comprises Koh's columns in the Chinese-language Nanfang Evening Post from 1961 to 1963, also raises overarching issues such as the search for identity through art and culture in a time of geopolitical anxiety.

Museum curator Chang Yueh Siang, 37, who co-curated the exhibition, says: "Before the Malayanisation movement of the 1950s, artists and art historians didn't think of themselves as Singaporean or Malayan artists. It's only when you have this notion of nation building that people began to think of themselves as local, Malayan artists." She adds that such issues are still relevant today, "especially with increased globalisation and countries having to make sense of what constitutes the local landscape".

The museum's head, Mr Ahmad Mashadi, 47, says the exhibition, besides being a timely re-look at history, also allows the institution to "recast its permanent collection in ways that are fresh".

For the show, the curators mostly picked works by artists who were mentioned in Koh's writings and in the museum's collection. These include seldom exhibited paintings by prominent 20th- century Chinese ink painters such as Zhang Daqian and Xu Beihong.

New works will be added to the show to refresh it periodically throughout the two years.

The exhibition also embodies the present in four works by Singapore contemporary artist Michael Lee. He was invited to produce models of spaces that were important platforms for art exhibitions in the 1950s and 1960s such as the British Council, to provide the context and presentation of art then.

Of Lee's "intervention" with the historical show, Ms Chang says: "We don't want to glass case art history in the past."

lijie@sph.com.sg

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BEYOND HERE AND NANYANG

Where: NUS Museum, University Cultural Centre, 50 Kent Ridge Crescent

When: Till 2015, 10am to 7.30pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), 10am to 6pm (Sundays), closed on Mondays and public holidays

Admission: Free

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