SINGAPORE - They began by observing a moment of silence before performances and by delaying or cancelling shows but the arts community in Singapore is now commemorating Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the way it knows best: with artists expressing themselves.
Artists are initiating discussions of the founding Prime Minister's legacy and creating new art, from poems to pictures inspired by the late politician's life and shared on social media.
Although some of these artists' Facebook profiles now sport an icon being used to denote mourning for Mr Lee - a black ribbon framing his face - this has not held them back from critiquing his politics and policies.
"People will respond in whatever way fulfils them emotionally. As writers, we respond by writing," poet Alvin Pang told The Straits Times. "Like it or not, he was such a big part of life. It's like you wake up and the mountain is gone. It's us responding to this great shift... to our personal feelings about the situation."
He has posted his reactions to Mr Lee's death - from a poem after the news broke, to a Facebook response yesterday to an opinion piece by former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng.
Mr Cheng criticised the view in the Western media that Singapore had sacrificed certain freedoms to attain wealth and security. Pang, 43, disagreed, writing that Singaporeans must acknowledge the trade-offs made to get the country to where it is today.
"Compulsory military conscription. Censorship. The list goes on... To be able to discuss these soberly, from different informed, constructive perspectives: that IS democracy, IS civilisation, and furthermore, does honour to (Mr Lee's) memory," Pang wrote.
Creative writing inspired by Mr Lee is rare, though Epigram Books published last May and this February two picture books summarising Mr Lee's life for children aged three to eight. A Boy Named Harry: The Childhood Of Lee Kuan Yew and Harry Grows Up: The Early Years Of Lee Kuan Yew by Patrick Yee have nearly sold out at local bookstores.
The artist is rushing to finish a third instalment, Harry Builds A Nation, and on hearing of Mr Lee's death also created on his cellphone a short clip-art video commemorating "the love story of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Madam Kwa Geok Choo".
"He was the founder and the spirit of our home. He's a hero," said Yee, 51, who exhibited the art from the books at the National Library Board building last month.
Separately, there are two ongoing exhibitions featuring portraits of Mr Lee, one at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts by China- born Singaporean artist Fan Shaohua until April 8; the other by Lebanese-British artist Laudi Abilama at Sana Gallery until April 26.
Abilama, 29, created 11 screen prints on linen and paper based on historic press footage of Mr Lee. She told The Straits Times she has long admired Singapore's success and Mr Lee as the strongman who united an island of diverse cultures. Her works are priced between $6,000 and $14,000 and half have already been sold.
Among the recent art events inspired by Mr Lee was last year's The Father by Boo Sze Yang. Boo sold several pieces priced at $9,000 and above even before the show opened.
In performing arts circles, tributes to Mr Lee included a moment of silence before Monday's concert by the Philharmonic Winds ensemble and Tuesday's performance by the visiting Choir of St John's College, Cambridge.
Mr Ong Keng Sen, festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015, extended his condolences to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Lee family, saying: "You have lost a father, father-in-law and grandfather - we, the people of Singapore, have lost a leader who inspired us to stretch out and reach for the stars. Now we have to chart our own destinies."
The National University of Singapore cancelled all its arts festival events from March 25 to 29, while Yavuz Gallery at Gillman Barracks postponed an exhibition of South-east Asian artists from March 28 to April 18.
The well-known Bhaskar's Arts Academy also delayed a landmark concert. Raga Sandhya, originally scheduled for March 29 and meant to highlight the Indian arts group's little-known youth orchestra, will now be held on April 3.
"We felt this was necessary as our relationship with the nation's leader goes way back and his vision and policies have made it possible for us to call Singapore our home," said a spokesman for the group, which was set up in 1952.
Meanwhile, humorists Colin Goh and Felix Cheong have been inspired by the snaking queues to Parliament House, where Mr Lee's body lies in state. On Facebook, film-maker and comics creator Goh, 45, posted a cartoon of the queue with the quote, "Keep Calm And Harry On", a nod to the famous "Keep Calm And Carry On" poster used by the British government to reassure its citizenry during World War II.
Writer Cheong, 51, who is known for his short fiction satirising life in Singapore, compared the current mood to that in Britain after the sudden death of Princess Diana in 1997. His Facebook post reads: "If this is hysteria, so be it. A good cry is as powerful and needed as a good shouting match. Every country deserves a Diana moment. This is ours. And we do it our way."
This article was first published on March 28, 2015.
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