Appreciating Our Very Own Local Culture

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This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common.

London is a dream come true for any art lover. It has many museums, stocked with influential artworks that have shaped the history of visual representation. To top it off, entrance to all public museums are free, even for non-locals. 

It was in one of these museums that my friend and I had an argument. He had nonchalantly stated that he preferred all these large realistic paintings in one particular British gallery, compared to the art that Singapore has.

I was intrigued. What did he mean? What has he found lacking in Singapore art?

It turned out that he hasn't even stepped into the Singapore Art Museum or the National Museum of Singapore before. He simply has the impression that the visual arts in Singapore are bland, conservative and unexciting. 

But Singapore art isn't a defective mirror or poorer twin to any country's art! Look at the two paintings below. The painting by Chua Mia Tee, a Singaporean, compares favorably to that by the very famous Vincent Van Gogh. 
Van Gogh's Potato Eaters
Chua Mia Tee's National Language Class 
That particular conversation with my friend discusses art but isn't simply about art. It goes beyond a question of what is nice and what isn't. It's a question about how we continue to define aesthetics with the blinkers we inherited from the past.  

That conversation coloured my interpretation of Michelle K's To my Eighteen-Year-Old Self, on your Departure for Cambridge, September 21st, 2003. In particular, one paragraph resonates, And decolonial art (or literature, architecture, and so on) is art that enacts these critiques by exposing coloniality and its injustices and contradictions [...] so that the viewer or participant is not swept up in the sublimity or beauty that is the Western ideal, but in feelings of sadness, indignation, repentance, hope, and the determination to change things in the future.

The French love Satre. The British adore J M W Turner's paintings. The Italians worship their Leonardo Da Vincis and Michaelangelos. It is not embarrassing that Singaporeans love the artworks by overseas artists. It is, however, a shame that Singaporeans cannot find pride in the works by other Singaporeans.

Let's take a break from the rhetoric and look at these two paintings. They are painted by Singapore's founding artists, the Nanyang artists. Have you seen them before?

Cheong Soo Pieng's Drying Salted Fish
Chen Wen Hsi's Two Gibbons Amidst Vines
Now, don't cheat. Take a closer look. It is likely that you possess reproductions of these paintings. 


These paintings can be seen on any $50 note that is currently circulating within the Singapore economy. Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi, they are artists who have gained international recognition but aren't as recognised locally. There is this somewhat casual dismissal of Singaporeans' efforts by other Singaporeans, ranging from the footballers in the S. League to the researchers in our local universities to the thespians toiling in our theaters.

One friend pointed out that Singapore is a young society and appreciating the efforts of local artists, scientists, engineers, businessmen et al is a culture that would take a longer time to establish. Singapore is also a small nation-state so perhaps there aren't as many exciting news to keep us citizens engaged.

But, it's precisely because Singapore is small that there are fewer reasons for Singaporeans not to know more about the efforts of other Singaporeans. If you're French and haven't been to the Lourve, it's understandable. If you're Italian and haven't seen the Colosseum, it's also understandable. It you're American and haven't seen the Statue of Liberty, it's within reason. After all, these countries are geographically bigger and travelling cross-country may not be within reach for some citizens.

But, if you're a Singaporean and haven't taken the bus or MRT to City Hall to visit the Singapore Art Museum, that's a lot more puzzling.

Given that entrance to 11 local museums are free for Singaporeans and permanent residents now, and given the famous kiasuism of our people, it was mildly surprising when two friends said that they have yet to visit the Asian Civilisations Museum, which has a collection comparable to top galleries around the world.

Take a trip to one local museum, support our own playwrights, learn more about the graphene research that Singapore is very much recognised for. Watch performances beyond Les Miserables, Phantom of The Opera and Despicable Me 2. You might be surprised by the intensity that some local works speak to you.

While we should keep an eye on international developments and enjoy the dizzying buffet of options that comes from being globally connected, perhaps we ought to appreciate the efforts of the people striving next door, on the same red pulsing dot, more.

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