In the back­streets of Sin­ga­pore, OH! Open House’s art walks dig into the city-state’s che­quered colo­nial her­itage

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - by paul mil­lar

OH! Open House’s art walks have led Sin­ga­pore’s art lovers through lo­ca­tions from board­rooms to broth­els with the aim of mak­ing art less of a “mid­dle class, bour­geois pur­suit”. This year, the works on dis­play dis­sect the city-state’s colo­nial past and the legacy of its founder, Sir Stam­ford Raf­fles

Afire is smoul­der­ing in the belly of Sir Stam­ford Raf­fles. Open to the el­e­ments, his ribs lay bare be­neath the sky like the bars of a grill. Crouched over his blaz­ing en­trails, In­done­sian maids in Ja­vanese court sarongs pre­pare traditional kueh kapit, a thinly folded wafer eaten across the ocean-far­ing na­tions of South­east Asia.

This provoca­tive art­work by Sin­ga­porean artist Jimmy Ong is the cen­tre­piece for the lat­est art walk by OH! Open House, a Sin­ga­pore­based group that leads art lovers and lay­men alike through the streets of the city-state in search of art that has been up­rooted from the crisp, white walls of gal­leries and mu­se­ums.

“When we started it re­ally was about: ‘How do you take art out of the [mu­seum] so that peo­ple will find it more ac­ces­si­ble to their lives?'” Open House's artis­tic di­rec­tor and cu­ra­tor Alan Oei said. “Be­cause mu­se­ums, fun­da­men­tally, are still very much a mid­dle-class, bour­geois pur­suit, right? We be­lieve that art has res­o­nance for a much big­ger pop­u­la­tion.”

Since 2009, Open House has led its fol­low­ers on tours that take in lo­ca­tions rang­ing from the board­rooms of in­vest­ment banks to the broth­els of old Sin­ga­pore. This month, though, Oei and his team will be trav­el­ling not just through phys­i­cal space, but also to a time when the Lion City still crouched cowed be­neath the boot of the Bri­tish Em­pire.

Once the site of an im­mense nut­meg plan­ta­tion owned by act­ing post­mas­ter gen­eral Wil­liam Cup­page, Emer­ald Hill now bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to its 19th cen­tury fore­bear. Lo­cated just off the ma­jor shop­ping belt of Or­chard Road, the neigh­bour­hood has be­come the haunt of pricey bars and even pricier real es­tate.

This month, vis­i­tors will be pre­sented with three tours ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent facets of Emer­ald Hill's his­tory. In The Moral Haz­ards

of Grow­ing Nut­meg in a Far­away Land, their jour­ney will take them through a recre­ated 19th-cen­tury ware­house packed with nut­meg and sur­real sculp­tures shaped by artists Na­bi­lah Nordin and Nick Mo­drzewski. In

All the King’s Painters, they will see how his­tory has been warped by its vic­tors, as well as the strug­gle for artists to con­form to a nar­ra­tive that at times ap­pears be­yond ques­tion. And in Ways of See­ing, they will ex­pe­ri­ence the clash be­tween the colo­nial gaze and native tra­di­tions in shap­ing nat­u­ral space, cli­max­ing in a per­for­mance from aca­demic and spirit medium Za­rina calling upon the pre-colo­nial spir­its of the land.

For a na­tion trans­formed from trad­ing post to tow­er­ing eco­nomic power in just over half a cen­tury, Oei said, Emer­ald Hill pro­vides the per­fect set­ting to draw back the cur­tain on Sin­ga­pore's own colo­nial past.

“A lot of post-colo­nial coun­tries, one of the first things they do upon win­ning their in­de­pen­dence is to tear down their sculp­tures and the legacy of their op­pres­sors,” he said. “We, on the other hand, cel­e­brate it as well.”

Built up into both trad­ing port and military har­bour town by the Bri­tish to chal­lenge the Dutch and Por­tuguese stran­gle­hold on South­east Asia's spice trade, the Sin­ga­pore founded by Sir Stam­ford Raf­fles seems a far cry from the city that has out­stripped its re­gional competitors on just about ev­ery met­ric of pros­per­ity. To mod­ern eyes, the idea that the shin­ing city-state could have grown from a seed as hum­ble as nut­meg seems al­most un­think­able.

“The Dutch and the Por­tuguese had been com­ing to Asia for a long time be­cause of the spices – and nut­meg was one of the most valu­able ones,” Oei said. “I think in Europe they had this idea also that nut­meg could even ward off the plague – so nut­meg re­ally was worth its weight in gold. If you bought it here and sold it back in Europe, it was some­thing like a 4,000% profit.”

As with all im­pe­rial projects, it was a profit that came with a dev­as­tat­ing cost – though one that seems to have left lit­tle out­ward mark on the glit­ter­ing metropo­lis of the 21st cen­tury. It is this buried ten­sion sur­round­ing the legacy of Sin­ga­pore's cel­e­brated Bri­tish founder Sir Stam­ford Raf­fles that fu­els the lat­est work

of Yo­gyakarta-based artist Jimmy Ong. His work, fea­tured in the All the King’s Painters tour, picks apart the war­ring nar­ra­tives that paint Raf­fles as both colo­nial op­pres­sor and cur­rent-day icon of Sin­ga­pore's un­ri­valled pros­per­ity. For many Sin­ga­pore­ans, he told

South­east Asia Globe, it was easy to see which his­tory had tri­umphed.

“The per­cep­tion of Raf­fles, at least from my mem­ory, is that he is a brand­ing of pres­tige for a school, a ho­tel, and then, later, prop­erty de­vel­op­ments in the CBD of Sin­ga­pore,” Ong said. “The funny thing is that peo­ple here in In­done­sia ac­tu­ally say they wish Raf­fles had re­mained in Java, that it would have made In­done­sia more suc­cess­ful like Sin­ga­pore.”

De­spite the weight­i­ness of the sub­ject mat­ter, Oei said, it was these kinds of con­tro­ver­sies – ex­plored not just through fine art but the art of con­ver­sa­tion – that breathed new life into the once-fa­mil­iar streets of Sin­ga­pore.

“Ours is kind of a blend of sto­ry­telling, and I think that ex­plains some of our success in reach­ing out to peo­ple who nor­mally aren't so at­tuned to art – this al­lows them to fol­low sto­ries and un­der­stand how the art works and give them dif­fer­ent kinds of experiences,” he said. “That way I think we've been able to ex­plore sen­si­tive or even chal­leng­ing is­sues.”

In a city-state as pros­per­ous and densely pop­u­lated as Sin­ga­pore, that same am­bi­tion that drove the Euro­pean pow­ers to bend an en­tire peo­ple to their own eco­nomic ends re­mains rooted in the foun­da­tion of ev­ery high-rise. Ac­cord­ing to Oei, it is a re­alised am­bi­tion that has not come with­out cost.

“In Sin­ga­pore we of­ten don't think about neigh­bour­hoods as hav­ing any sort of value, or any spe­cific iden­tity just be­cause of the nature of prop­erty spec­u­la­tion and how we're al­ways try­ing to up­grade to the next thing,” he said. “But each of [Sin­ga­pore's] neigh­bour­hoods has their own se­cret sto­ries, and that's what we wanted to fo­cus on as well.”

Like all sto­ries worth hear­ing, the nar­ra­tives of these neigh­bour­hoods are in­evitably shaped by money, power and the imag­i­na­tions of the men who wield them. Al­most two years ago, when Open House led groups on an art­walk through the rapidly de­vel­op­ing dis­trict of Po­tong Pasir – fa­mous for its dis­tinc­tion as Sin­ga­pore's longest-held op­po­si­tion ward – they were show­ing peo­ple two very dif­fer­ent Sin­ga­pores.

Ne­glected for years by an au­thor­i­tar­ian govern­ment loathe to lav­ish funds on a neigh­bour­hood that re­fused to fol­low its party line, Po­tong Pasir had long been a vi­sion of old-world Sin­ga­pore in all its ru­inous charm. Now, with even grave­yards buck­ling be­tween the weight of a sud­den in­flux of cranes and scaf­fold­ing brought on by the lo­cal tri­umph of the rul­ing Peo­ple's Ac­tion Party in 2011, the new neigh­bour­hood bears lit­tle trace of its po­lit­i­cal past.

“I think that strange mes­sage of what this con­struc­tion means in re­la­tion to pol­i­tics is some­thing that hits home very strongly – be­cause we are all so used to con­struc­tion and devel­op­ment that we don't think about the pol­i­tics of it,” Oei said. “And so Po­tong Pasir was one that was quite poignant, be­cause you could walk around and see things changing be­fore your eyes – and you knew that it was all po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.”

Ours is kind of a blend of sto­ry­telling, and I think that ex­plains some of our success in reach­ing out to peo­ple who nor­mally aren't so at­tuned to art

Clock­wise from above: Hafiz Os­man's “Blue Can­vas Walls”; Yen Lin Teng's “Se­cret Land­ing”; Ale­cia Neo's “Gar­den of Be­ing”

Vis­i­tors ex­plore Yen Lin Teng's art­work in Marine Pa­rade Aca­demic and spirit medium Za­rina Muham­mad pre­pares to call upon the pow­ers that be in her “Flow­ers from our Blood­line” per­for­mance piece

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