Artist and Empire: (En)Countering Colonial Legacies National Gallery Singapore

 

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a British colonial officer working on behalf of the East India Company, declared the founding of what would become modern Singapore on February 6, 1819—and, after apparently deftly negotiating with both the Malay and Chinese populations of the land, he promptly departed, on February 7.

Raffles’ legacy remains relatively favorably preserved there. As the past two centuries have shown a wave of colonies reclaiming their sovereignty, tearing down the statues attached to their former rulers’ cultural and political impositions, in the nation state of Singapore Raffles is still known as the author of The History of Java (1817), as well as an enthusiast of native plant and animal specimens, and of Javanese shadow puppets (his collection of these items remains in the holdings of the British Museum). George Francis Joseph’s 1817 oil portrait of Raffles is printed in Singaporean school textbooks, and namesake landmarks on the island include the silver skyscraper complex Raffles City and the five-star Raffles Hotel, a sanctuary known to glamorize the lifestyle of this 19th-century slaveholder.

Joseph’s towering painting opens the exhibition Artist and Empire: (En)Countering Colonial Legacies at National Gallery Singapore, an icy, startlingly new arts institution housed in the former colonial-era Supreme Court and City Hall buildings of downtown Singapore. The expansive survey, featuring close to 200 works convening from many international and regional collections, is a companion exhibition to Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, which opened at Tate Britain in late 2015 (and was reviewed in ART PAPERS’ May/June 2016 issue). Whereas the Tate show was organized under self-imposed limitations of culling exclusively from British collections—acquired under

imperial rule—and mapping out geopolitical developments from the distant perspective of London, (En) Countering was less restricted, and less Eurocentic in its approach, drafting a regional history through visual art that resides in or near the place it represents.

Joseph’s oil on canvas is arguably the star at the center of the exhibition’s introductory constellation; also included is a contemporary analogue intervention: Untitled (Raffles) (2000), by Lee Wen. This pairing outlines the show’s confrontational blueprint: Wen’s tribute consists of a platform built around a 1969 copy of a human-sized statue depicting Raffles that is situated at the Singapore River, enabling visitors to approach the colonialist at eye level, and offering perhaps the most direct historical “encounter” on view. Singapore’s unique relationship to its own occupied history, which involves an identification with the economic realities that made it a lucrative colony in the first place, is demonstrated in a number of works on view that, even while suggesting rebellion through their subject matter do so by using historically European visual languages, such as those of realism or impressionism. Cheong Soo Pieng’s painting Portrait of Khoan Sullivan (1959), for example, uses traditional Chinese ink painting and a vertical hanging-scroll format, while accentuating his British subject, who wears Chinese dress, with Western shading, in front of a loose grid attributed by the exhibition literature to the cubist style.

As the British Empire’s relentless expansion between the 16th and 19th centuries assured economic ascendancy for the crown, transnational osmosis of power has tipped back to Southeast Asia in the past few decades; Singapore is known even among the so-called Asian Tigers for its highly evolved, open, and transparent economy. The economic prowess of the exhibition’s host country is not the only motor that might shrink the imperial ego down to size in this adaptation of an exhibition that originated in an increasingly unstable United Kingdom. As power and influence swells in the direction of capital, the country’s relative maintenance of its colonial legacy ironically seems to place it in a singularly suitable position to host a diversity of Asian histories, which interrelate and cross-pollinate, sometimes to the exclusion of the Western canon. EnTWINed (2009) is a cheeky mash-up of Indian iconography, colonial imagery, and contemporary satire by the Singh Twins, a London-based duo known for its revival (and reinterpretation) of the Indian miniature tradition. Compared to Leslie Macdonald Gill’s A Great Industry, Where Our Tea Comes From (ca. 1948–1953)—a whimsical but ultimately earnest illustrated map of tea- producing regions, ports, and maritime trade routes— EnTWINed suggests that a work can disable the colonial ghost through a soft weapon such as humor.

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