The Singaporean Sculptor Dreaming Up Giant Chillis and Spices

To enter Kumari Nahappan’s loft studio is to get an unbridled glimpse into her creative psyche. Tucked away in an inconspicuous building at the western tip of the city, the airy space is a curious enclave sequestered within a maze of heavy lifting machinery and mechanic workshops.

Inside the studio, spread across the polished concrete floor is a cluster of Nahappan’s sculptures, marshalled in an organised disarray. At one corner, an imposing three-metre-high golden grain pod is cloaked by a sheet of cloth. Next to it, a red bell pepper, waist-high and hefty as a boulder, perches on a low steel-and-wood foot. An intertwined family of giant chillis — some deep red, some entirely bronze — is half laid on the ground, half propped up by their writhing stems. Other fruits and spices made of solid metal or fibreglass, from a life-sized durian to a blown-up saga seed, are scattered in between.

Kumari Nahappan at her studio, photographed on July 6, 2020.
Kumari Nahappan at her studio, photographed on July 6, 2020.

“Sometimes when I sit and have my tea here, I feel like I’m Alice in Wonderland,” the 67-year-old sculptor jests. Disconnected from the industrial hum outside, her playlist of slow-tempo classical music echoes and lingers. A part-time assistant will sometimes be around for a couple of hours, but in her creative space — which is also her occasional overnight home with two single beds in the open loft — Nahappan mostly works alone.

“To a good extent, this is my breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she says. “Until you get involved in the process completely, you’ll never engage with the various dimensions you are working with.” The artist subscribes to the fluidity of what she elaborates as the three ‘H’s. “I often say it starts with my heart, it goes to my head and then it’s during the execution that the hands come into play,” she explains. “Heart, head, hand — you coordinate this triangle. But every time, the result never turns out the same. I suppose that’s the uniqueness about the work itself.”

Behind Nahappan is one of her signature pieces “Tango”, an intertwined chilli sculpture.
Behind Nahappan is one of her signature pieces “Tango”, an intertwined chilli sculpture.

I often say it starts with my heart, it goes to my head and then it’s during the execution that the hands come into play. Heart, head, hand — you coordinate this triangle. But every time, the result never turns out the same. I suppose that’s the uniqueness about the work itself.

Courtesy of Singapore Art MuseumIn 2013, Nahappan gathered 4,000 kilograms of saga seeds for a site-specific installation, Anahata (2013), at Singapore Art Museum.
In 2013, Nahappan gathered 4,000 kilograms of saga seeds for a site-specific installation, Anahata (2013), at Singapore Art Museum.

It’s only when Nahappan’s sculptures need to be cast that she typically flies to Bangkok to work with artisans she’s known for over 20 years at a local foundry that specialises in Buddha statues. But with travel being restricted, all of her castings have been halted.

The past few quiet months have seen Nahappan return to painting. Laid across one of her worktables in the studio is a rectangular canvas. On the canvas’s papyrus surface, her bright blue brushstrokes, unlike her sculptures, are abstract and textural. “Going back to painting, it’s been very therapeutic. The demands were just on myself,” she admits. “Working on sculptures, I need to be with the team [of artisans in Bangkok] all the time to get what I want. So my energy levels are different when I work on that.”

“Mala” (2014) at Chengdu International Financial Square in China.
“Mala” (2014) at Chengdu International Financial Square in China.
“Nutmeg and Mace” (2009) at Ion Orchard.
“Nutmeg and Mace” (2009) at Ion Orchard.
Studio K“Road to Fifty” (2015) at the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore.
“Road to Fifty” (2015) at the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore.

Over her 30-year career, Nahappan has shown steadily at galleries and museums around the world, like the Mori Art Centre in Tokyo and the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. Although in Singapore, most people’s first encounter with her creations typically take place in the most public of environments: “Nutmeg & Mace” (2009), a two-tonne bronze sculpture, is installed right by the main entrance of Ion Orchard shopping mall; while the mammoth “Saga” (2007) has been stationed at the Changi Airport Terminal 3 arrival hall for more than a decade.

“These are things that are so ordinary, so simple,” the sculptor remarks of her recurring practice of enlarging quotidian produce. “I’m not trying for them to be anything else. Just let me celebrate the ordinary,” she says.

Behind Nahappan are two of her mixed-media artworks, “Memory Cards Series” (2017) and “Out of the Blue: Breakthrough” (2020).
Behind Nahappan are two of her mixed-media artworks, “Memory Cards Series” (2017) and “Out of the Blue: Breakthrough” (2020).

It’s clear that Nahappan’s cultural roots, or the implicit suggestion thereof, are central to her work. Albeit ordinary, these seeds, fruits and spices are selected, be it consciously or not, for their Southeast Asian origins. Her continuous “Saga Seed” series, in particular, was inspired by her childhood in Klang, Malaysia. “I had a saga tree opposite my house. Every time the pods dropped, I would pick them up and count them,” she says. Her homage to the imperishable seed has manifested in a myriad of interpretations: it was a 4,000-kilogram-ocean of red at the Singapore Biennale’s 2013 edition, a floating rendition that waded its way through the Venice canals, or more recently, a whole ripe pod that’s immortalised in its burst-opened state. “These saga seeds installations, they won’t stop,” she says. “It’s an ongoing part of me.”

Her next saga seed piece, in fact, is already in the works. For more than 30 years, the artist has been collecting the smooth red seeds. “In the same way I collected them as a child, I have put them in a container here,” she explains, gesturing to the clear, totemic pillar behind her that was already halfway filled with the kernels. “I’m making them into pillars with seeds for my upcoming digital exhibition.”

Photographs by Rosalynn Tay