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National Gallery Singapore : 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia

National Gallery Singapore announces the participation of artists from its collection at the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia curated by Adriano Pedrosa

National Gallery Singapore is delighted to announce that for the first time in the country’s history, artists from the Gallery’s collection have been invited to participate in the Main Exhibition of the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia (Biennale Arte 2024), entitled Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere, curated by Adriano Pedrosa.

The artworks will be featured in the “Nucleo Storico” section in the Main Exhibition, in a sub-section entitled “Portraits”, which expands the history of modernism beyond Europe and North America by focusing on stories from the Global South, including artists whose trajectories took them across continents and contexts over the tumultuous course of the 20th century.

With more than 8,000 works, the National Gallery Singapore holds the largest public collection of modern art from Southeast Asia, offering a unique point of departure for transnational curatorial and research efforts that seek to position art from Singapore and Southeast Asia as integral to global art histories.

Ranging from self-portraits to representations of working class and indigenous persons, the eight artworks by Southeast Asian artists from the Gallery’s collection are as follows

▪ Jeune fille en blanc (Young Girl in White) (1931) by Lê Phổ (Vietnam/France);

▪ Self Portrait (c. 1946) by Georgette Chen (China/Singapore);

▪ Orang Irian dengan burung tjenderawasih (Irian Man with Bird of Paradise) (1948)

by Emiria Sunassa (Indonesia);

▪ Road Construction Worker (1955) by Chua Mia Tee (China/Singapore);

▪ Self-Expression (c.1957/1963) by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore);

▪ Labourer (Lunch Break) (1965) by Lai Foong Moi (Malaysia/Singapore);

▪ My Family (1968) by Hendra Gunawan (Indonesia);

▪ Self-Portrait (1975) by Affandi (Indonesia).

Eugene Tan, Chief Executive Officer of National Gallery Singapore says: “National Gallery Singapore is proud to present works from its collection in the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Together with artists largely from the Global South, these eight portraits will deepen the understanding of modern art in Southeast Asia within a global context. The Gallery’s participation in the Biennale Arte 2024 will highlight the art and artists from Singapore and Southeast Asia and facilitate crucial dialogues with art from around the world.”

Creating opportunities to build new connections and to share the stories of artists from Southeast Asia is an important part of the mission and vision of National Gallery Singapore. The Gallery’s presentation of these works alongside those by many other prominent artists from the Global South is significant as it brings long-overdue recognition to the artists and their artworks, and inspires further research.

In addition to those presented at the Biennale Arte 2024, works from the collection of National Gallery Singapore have also been loaned to numerous other international platforms, most recently the 11th Taipei Biennial (2018), the 58th Carnegie International (2022–2023), and the 15th Sharjah Biennial (2023). The Gallery has also collaborated with institutions such as Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Orsay, Tate Britain, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT), and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) to present Southeast Asian art in an international context.

“Other” Modernisms, Migration and Colonialism at Biennale Arte 2024

In his curatorial statement for Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere, Adriano Pedrosa

describes the movement of European modernism and its ideas beyond Europe, and the movement of artists from the Global South in the reverse, declaring one of the key themes of Biennale Arte 2024 to be migration, and that its primary focus is “artists who are themselves foreigners, immigrants, expatriates, diasporic, émigrés, exiled, or refugee.”

This perspective is reflected in the works selected from the National Gallery Singapore collection, as many of the Southeast Asian artists presented spent considerable periods in the cosmopolitan centres of Europe and the United States, and beyond.

Horikawa Lisa, Senior Curator and Director (Curatorial & Collections) at the National Gallery Singapore, notes: “In his curatorial statement for Biennale Arte 2024, Adriano Pedrosa calls for a recognition of the modernisms beyond that of Europe and America, underscoring the importance of learning about and from these histories. The inclusion of these eight works in “Nucleo Storico” is thus exemplary: through these portraits, the divergent paths to modernisms taken by artists from Southeast Asia are illuminated.”

Artists who were prominent in their time often faded into relative obscurity over the course of the 20th century, and three of the eight works from the Gallery’s collection are by women artists whose practices and biographies suggest the critical gains that can be made when efforts are made to recover them for wider recognition.

One such artist is Georgette Chen (China/Singapore), who was born to a life of privilege and spent formative years in Shanghai, New York and Paris — all cities in which she received formal art training and later held solo exhibitions — before settling permanently in Singapore. Despite being one of the most well-exhibited Chinese artists in Paris during the inter-war period, Chen’s significance has been overlooked in Chinese art history, with the most comprehensive retrospective of Chen only taking place in 2020 at National Gallery Singapore. Visitors to the “Nucleo Storico” will see her Self-Portrait from 1946, in which Chen confronts the viewer with her assured and confident gaze as an artist.

Pioneer artists like Chen offer a window into the experiences of women artists in Singapore at the time. Lai Foong Moi (Malaysia/Singapore) was the first graduate from

the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Singapore to further her education in France, enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris on a French government scholarship. Well-known for landscapes and for portraits, in paintings such Labourer (Lunch Break) from 1965 presented in “Nucleo Storico”, Lai brought together realist and modernist techniques to examine the intersectionality of gender and class. Lai was once lauded as the first Malaya-born woman to hold a solo exhibition in Singapore but this early success did not translate to posterity. It is only in recent years that her works have gained greater recognition and can today be seen in the DBS Singapore Gallery, National Gallery Singapore’s permanent exhibition of Singapore art.

Another woman artist who experienced considerable success in her time before virtually disappearing from view is Emiria Sunassa (Indonesia). At the same time, gender does not account for Emiria’s singularity, which takes on almost mythical proportions. She appears in art and archival records across the vast Indonesian archipelago, variously as a nurse, plantation administrator and cabaret singer, before joining PERSAGI, a progressive group of artists in 1930s and 1940s working in Batavia (now Jakarta) that advocated for modern painting to reflect the realities of life in the Dutch East Indies.

Emiria also claimed to be a princess of the Tidore sultanate in eastern Indonesia and was active in the struggle for West Papuan independence. Her work was often preoccupied with depicting those at the margins — women as well as Indigenous groups from the eastern part of Indonesia. Recent research has been undertaken on artworks by Emiria, including Orang Irian dengan burung tjenderawasih (Irian Man with Bird of Paradise) from 1948 presented in “Nucleo Storico”, which can be understood in terms of a complex matrix of advocacy and exoticisation.

The “Nucleo Storico” section of the Main Exhibition attempts to problematise the boundaries and definitions of modernism, bringing the issue of “canon” to the fore. Like many of the artists in this exhibition, those from the Gallery’s collection have each achieved significant status in Southeast Asia, particularly in the art histories of Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.

A leading 20th -century artist, Lê Phổ (Vietnam/France) demonstrates the dynamic of artists from the periphery who travelled to and settled in colonial metropolitan centres. After attending the art school set up by the French in Hanoi, he migrated to Paris in 1937, where he lived until his death in 2001. Lê forged his own path towards modernism, developing a distinctive aesthetic of highly stylised images in a linear manner. His work in “Nucleo Storico”, Jeune fille en blanc (Young Girl in White) from 1931, is a portrait of a woman with a colophon from a Vietnamese poem — here the restrained harmony of pale tones conveying a more traditional image of loyalty and duty. This major acquisition was recently unveiled at the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery, National Gallery Singapore’s permanent exhibition of art from the region, and travels to the Biennale Arte 2024 to be generously shared with international audiences.

Biographical recounting of the trajectories of modernists from the 20th century can belie their ambitions and achievements, which so often exceeded the expectations and limitations imposed by the colonial milieux. This is the case for Lê Phổ and also for Affandi (Indonesia), an auto-didact who started painting in his twenties and further honed his craft in artist-led communities during the Indonesian National Revolution.

Following his invitation to Santiniketan on a scholarship sponsored by the Indian government from 1949 to 1951, he travelled and exhibited extensively across Asia, Europe and the Americas, synthesising influences and inspiration. Affandi participates in the “Nucleo Storico” with Self-Portrait from 1975, his face powerfully and hauntingly rendered by green, red and ochre paint squeezed directly onto the canvas. Affandi stands out for having been well-exhibited on international platforms such as in the São Paulo Biennale in 1953 and the Venice Biennale in 1954, and is a reminder of the South-South connections that animated many artists in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Horikawa Lisa adds: “Through its research and exhibitions, National Gallery Singapore articulates an approach to Southeast Asia art history that seeks not to add the region’s artists to a so-called ‘global canon’, but instead to inflect and infect the very concept. I am excited to see what can happen now that works from our collection take their place alongside artists from the Global South in this historic congregation.”

Another key theme stated by Pedrosa in his curatorial statement for Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere is decolonisation. It is therefore apt that artists concerned with realism and the realities of struggles for independence and the shaping of political and cultural identity in the postcolonial nation state are among those chosen from the Gallery’s collection. Pedrosa has also highlighted the exceptional inclusion of artists from Singapore: while no longer considered to be part of the Global South, these works were created when the country was part of the Third World.

In some ways the work by Lim Mu Hue (Singapore), which spanned printmaking to painting to relief sculpture, indexes the change in Singapore before and after its independence as a city state in 1965. Self-Expression (c.1957/1963) in the “Nucleo Storico” reveals a personal artistic ambition and anxiety that echoed Singapore’s nation-building sentiments and challenges: in this realist self-portrait Lim looks out the viewer with his left eye, while his studio and the abstract artworks within are reflected in the lens of the eyeglass he wears over the other. Here the artist confidently experiments with modern Western art styles while maintaining an unflinching realist gaze on conditions in Singapore.

▪ Another Singapore artist who paid keen attention to nation building in Singapore is Chua Mia Tee (China/Singapore), a realist painter who created some of the most iconic artworks in Singapore’s history and who was a core member of the Equator Arts Society, a group that promulgated social realist art, believing in its role for depicting everyday life in Singapore and uplifting society. In Road Construction Worker (1955) in “Nucleo Storico”, we see Chua’s insistence on high realism against the trend towards abstraction in the mid-20th century: he paints an unnamed labourer, paying attention to his scraggy build, sweat, and arms veined by manual labour. The wistful eye contact he makes with the viewer suggests that the painting is a reminder of the hardship experienced by migrant workers who were key to Singapore’s infrastructural development and is a tribute to their contributions.

▪ The intersection of art, postcolonial politics and the personal in Southeast Asiacontinues with the inclusion of Hendra Gunawan (Indonesia), who like Affandi isamongst the most prolific and renowned painters of the country. Also largely self-taught, his practice espoused socialist principles of communal living and cooperative work, and he founded several key artist groups in Indonesia. Gunawan was imprisoned in 1965 due to his associations with an alleged communist faction in Indonesia, which was likely when My Family (1968), presented in “Nucleo Storico”, was painted. In this portrait of the artist and his family we see the bold colours, textile-like patterns and sinuous brushstrokes the artist is known for, as well as his lyrical and even dream-like weaving of quotidian existence and the political — in the background is a crowd and a nondescript building, possibly the prison in Bandung in which he was detained. The 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia opens 20 April and runs until 24 November 2024.

Pavilion of Singapore features Seeing Forest by Robert Zhao Renhui

In addition to the Main Exhibition, Singapore is also officially represented in Venice by way of the Pavilion of Singapore with Seeing Forest, an exhibition by Singaporean artist Robert Zhao Renhui in collaboration with curator Haeju Kim, presented at the Arsenale’s Sale d’Armi building. This is commissioned by the National Arts Council, Singapore, supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and organised by Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

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