The Creative Vanguard Reshaping Singapore’s Arts Scene

Gregory Woo, styling by Michelle Kok; courtesy of The Secret Life of TreesLeft: The woodworker Liew Yuhua. Right: Liew’s “Butterfly Chair”,  made of oak, ash and walnut.
Left: The woodworker Liew Yuhua. Right: Liew’s “Butterfly Chair”, made of oak, ash and walnut.

Too many times, Liew Yuhua (@secretlifeoftrees) has been told not to get her hands dirty because she is a woman. But never once had she thought about throwing in the chisel. Liew is a professional woodworker who founded Secret Life of Trees in 2019, where she designs and crafts custom-made wooden objects from keepsakes to furniture.

In Singapore, jobs in design, building and construction, especially ones that require physical virility, are still mostly carried out by men. So while “gendered” professions are on the decline, stereotypes still remain. Often times, this reveals itself in the most unexpected yet ordinary ways. “In some of the cabinetry jobs I’ve done in the past, if the apartment is undergoing renovation, [going to the toilet might be problematic] because the doors have not been put in yet,” says Liew. “It feels kind of strange going to the toilet with a room full of men, without a door.”

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Khairullah Rahim, Artist

Courtesy of Khairullah Rahim; Gregory Woo, styled by Michelle KokKhairullah’s “Intimate Apparitions,” showcased in Singapore Biennale 2019: Every Step in the Right Direction. Right: The artist Khairullah Rahim.
Khairullah’s “Intimate Apparitions,” showcased in Singapore Biennale 2019: Every Step in the Right Direction. Right: The artist Khairullah Rahim.

To one degree or another, almost everything in life touches on the art of assemblage — the sprawling landscape of a country, the interior of a home or the pairing of a dish. Therein lies the art of bringing together diverse elements and making them co-exist harmoniously. “It’s basically putting things together,” says Khairullah Rahim (@khairullahrahim). “When I was younger, my family wasn’t well-to-do, and we couldn’t afford toys,” he says. Yet through this “deprivation,” Khairullah found creativity in play. “And so, I used to collect plastic bags and I would make my own figurines with them.”

Khairullah believes that the contemporary world of art can sometimes resemble a hall of mirrors, where the volley of images leads back to a reflection of oneself. “Art practice can be a narcissistic career,” he says. In that respect, however, Khairullah differentiates himself by confronting the larger issues at hand. Most of his works are a discourse on themes of identity, microaggression, and the intricacies of sexuality — a documentation of his subtle resistance as part of a marginalised community. While diving into these controversial yet intimate subjects, Khairullah seeks to bring attention through the persuasion of beautiful things — easily digestible artworks that bring people on a journey of understanding. “I’m not an activist; there are already people doing that, and doing it well,” he says. Instead, he is an artist who strives to communicate through the language of touch.

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Priyageetha Dia, Installation Artist

Gregory Woo, styled by Michelle Kok; courtesy of Priyageetha DiaLeft: The installation artist Priyageetha Dia. Right:
Left: The installation artist Priyageetha Dia. Right:

When the name of an artist is synonymous with their artwork, it means that they have achieved a certain level of recognition. Like Jeff Koons and his Balloon Dog, Priyageetha Dia (@pdia___) is a Singaporean installation artist whose name has become inextricably linked with her artwork, “Golden Staircase.”

Dia first exploded into the local art scene in 2017, when she was in her final year as a fine arts student at Lasalle College of the Arts. It was a year of change for Dia: She was fresh off a redirected course from her original graphics design background, struggling to find her place as a minority female artist in the art field, and navigating her parents’ impending separation. She began looking into the hollow core of the HDB (Singapore’s public high-rise apartments) experience — a place of familiarity she was about to leave behind — and made it the subject of her dissertation. “I was trying to understand a part of my growing up,” she says. The result of all that was “Golden Staircase,” an art piece where she covered a full flight of stairs in an HDB block, in gold foil.

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Maxine Ng, Tattoo Artist

 

The web of interest around the art of tattooing is a tangled one. Growing up in Singapore, tattoo artist Maxine Ng (@maxinengps) is more than familiar with the negative associations that the tattoo industry has. But contemporary tattooing — much like graffiti, which in the past decade has transformed from a fringe activity to a legitimate art form — is increasingly embraced by the world, particularly because of its connection to fashion and fine art.

“When I was younger, I was definitely more creatively inclined,” says Ng, who excelled in art in school. “What piqued my interest in tattoos was that my mum herself had tattoos,” she says. To Ng, tattoos were no different from all the artwork and sketches she did, except for the fact that the body acted as the canvas. These days, having a tattoo has become commonplace, and the negative connotations surrounding the art form has diminished considerably. Even extreme full-body inking is seen as a grand, existential gesture that declares, “This is who I want to be,” rather than an act of rebellion.

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Ruben Pang, Painter

Gregory Woo, styled by Michelle Kok; courtesy of Ruben PangLeft: The painter Ruben Pang. Right: Two of Pang’s recent artworks.
Left: The painter Ruben Pang. Right: Two of Pang’s recent artworks.

For more than 10 years, Ruben Pang (@rubenpang) has been lucky to never have had to put down his paintbrush. Pang grew up in a family of creatives: His father trained under renowned artists like sculptor and painter Tan Teng Kee and Singapore’s pioneering potter, Iskandar Jalil; while his mother taught fashion merchandising in Temasek Polytechnic. His upbringing has meant that unlike other artists who struggle with the decision of whether to pursue their passion, Pang has never doubted his future as an artist.

The creative community is often characterised by the clichéd image of tortured, starving artists — compounded by the lack of social acceptance of art as a career. Yet Pang recalls his younger self at 16 years old, not having to worry about paint splattered on the ceiling or spilled on the floor, and “my parents actually being interested in the noisy music and violent art I was doing.” His upbringing gave him the emotional stability and fortitude he never knew he needed to pursue his craft, which has, in a way, built ingrained values that inform the way he sees things today.

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Photographs by Gregory Woo
Styling by Michelle Kok
Hair by Christvian Goh (ARX Salon)
Makeup by Wee Ming using Shu Uemura
Clothing by COS