In Singapore, the Pioneers of Art

The new is always exciting: new things, new sensations, new talents. The art industry, like many others, is built on the pursuit of discovery, the thrill of the unknown, the satisfaction of rightly anointing the next big names. What is new, however, is not necessarily what is real. The new is mostly interesting in the palpability of its hope and promise — but once the spotlight moves away from you to someone younger and newer, what remains?

The answer, of course, is sheer hard work. And decades of it. It’s only through these decades that a talent evolves into an artist. Those 20 or 30 or even 60 years — as some of Singapore’s most prolific artists featured in the next few pages have clocked in — are the only thing that distinguishes an artist from, say, a gifted painter, or a seminal author from a writer. These are the decades in which one proves oneself. Whether or not the world pays any attention to what one produces doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter, because the work itself has come to mean more.

In Singapore, where freedom of expression has always been arguably limited, to choose creating art in its truest form as a lifetime profession is to embark on a tumultuous journey. But here, meet the pioneers who have been consistently plying their lonely crafts for years, and who while doing so, paved the way for the next generation of artists.

Iskandar Jalil, the Master Potter

At 80, the legendary master potter Iskandar Jalil isn’t done just yet. He continues to create pieces that reflect his Singapore-Malay identity while mentoring the nation’s next generation of creatives.
At 80, the legendary master potter Iskandar Jalil isn’t done just yet. He continues to create pieces that reflect his Singapore-Malay identity while mentoring the nation’s next generation of creatives.

Every morning without fail, Iskandar Jalil puts his helmet on, pushes his motorcycle out the gate of his house and rides it to his workshop. Secluded in a verdant corner of Temasek Polytechnic, Iskandar’s workshop was once the centralised bin centre of the school before the artist and some of his students transformed it into Temasek Potters Studio seven years ago. Since then, Iskandar has been mostly stationed at one end of the workshop, sitting and working at his potter’s wheel, humming to the old-time tunes he plays on his radio.

At 80, Iskandar remains physically sturdy: He is petite but nimble, and his once boyish visage has weathered into a craggy atlas. When I visited his studio, he was in the middle of sculpting what he calls a “small-mouthed” vessel. “I let the clay tell me what to do,” says Iskandar, his gaze still trained on his mound of clay. “I never have in mind what it is going to be.”

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Amanda Heng, the Performer

Amanda Heng is the Singaporean foremother of performance art who raised the metaphorical finger to conventional social norms through her theatrical acts.
Amanda Heng is the Singaporean foremother of performance art who raised the metaphorical finger to conventional social norms through her theatrical acts.

On a balmy Thursday afternoon in July, Amanda Heng was sitting by her work desk in her studio. She was studiously going through her archives and taking notes. Stacks of ring binders brimming with research documents and photographs framed her desk. Her workshop is nestled in a breezy ground floor corner space at Telok Kurau Studios, an arts housing project housed in an unassuming building at a residential street in Joo Chiat. A former primary school, the building was part of a derelict compound that the National Arts Council took over in 1996 and turned into a funded haven for burgeoning artists of the time.

Heng, whose name was then already synonymous with her multidisciplinary art practice that confronted point-blank the politics of the body, gender, identity and society, was among one of the artists to be given a dedicated space at the studio. She moved in in 1997 and has occupied the same room since.

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Theseus Chan, the Print Renegade

Theseus Chan, also known as Singapore’s godfather of graphic design, is the print world’s pioneering anarchist. Through his self-published magazine, WERK, he eschews all the rules that publishing has, upends them and invents his own.
Theseus Chan, also known as Singapore’s godfather of graphic design, is the print world’s pioneering anarchist. Through his self-published magazine, WERK, he eschews all the rules that publishing has, upends them and invents his own.

Scorched. Drenched. Hand-torn. Dyed. These are a few of the unusual methods that the papers of WERK magazine undergo before they hit the shelves of bookstores. Covers are ripped, then spray-painted; or stained, then crumpled. Some are patched together using remnants of the production process itself. Pages are painstakingly die-cut, their edges silk-screened; while some are deliberately stained with the printer’s inks and oils to evoke the scent of printing. They can be made out of fabric, or even, like its latest issue done in collaboration with Costume National proposed, become part of a shirt that can actually be worn.

So laborious is each of its processes that to simply label WERK as a magazine feels almost like an ominous offence. Theseus Chan’s self-published magazine is anything but. Each new issue pushes the boundaries even further than its last. To read WERK is to never succumb to a mindless flip-through.

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Kumari Nahappan, the Metal Sculptor

Meet Kumari Nahappan, the artist behind the colossal grains, seeds and spices that pepper Singapore’s public spaces.
Meet Kumari Nahappan, the artist behind the colossal grains, seeds and spices that pepper Singapore’s public spaces.

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.

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Thomas Wee, the Fashion Maestro

In the ’80s, Thomas Wee was at the epicentre of Singapore’s burgeoning fashion scene, creating clothes that answered the evolving needs of Singaporean women of the time.
In the ’80s, Thomas Wee was at the epicentre of Singapore’s burgeoning fashion scene, creating clothes that answered the evolving needs of Singaporean women of the time.

These days, Thomas Wee spends a great deal of time shuttling between “teaching and doing nothing.” The 72-year-old lectures part-time at Temasek Polytechnic, teaching pattern-making to the school’s fashion design students, but he considered himself retired earlier this year. “After 40 over years, I’m really tired of being here,” he admits. To the former couturier, the fashion industry, whether in the context of Singapore or the world at large, has been lacklustre for the longest time.

Wee has been an outspoken, and perhaps the harshest, most honest critic of the local fashion scene’s “uninventive designs” and the industry’s unsustainable production capacities. Witnessing the slow death of the industry he once was pivotal in has been frustrating for him.

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Photographs by Rosalynn Tay