In Kevin Kwan’s deliciously trashy best-selling novel, China Rich Girlfriend, a wealthy Singaporean heiress outmaneuvers Chinese billionaires at auction to acquire works for the soon-to-open National Gallery. The real National Gallery Singapore opened to the public in November 2015, and as Kwan’s novel suggests, the museum was strategic in its acquisitions. By choosing to direct its considerable resources toward the relatively undervalued field of Southeast Asian art, the National Gallery Singapore has created an encyclopedic collection that will define the region’s art history for generations to come, as MoMA did for modernism or the Whitney Museum for American Art.
Housed in Singapore’s beautifully restored City Hall and Supreme Court buildings, and connected through a network of bridges spanning an open atrium, the National Gallery’s two permanent exhibitions reveal its epistemic ambitions. Siapa Nama Kamu?: Art in Singapore Since the 19th Century establishes the city–state’s official art history, while Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia Since the 19th Century seeks not only to define a regional narrative, but also to insert that narrative into a global art history that is currently dominated by the West.
Organized into four loosely chronological categories—19th century colonialism, early 20th century nationalism, 1950s–70s revolution, and post-1970s postmodernism—Between Declarations and Dreams collapses complex national histories into a compact regional narrative.
In the first section, rich wooden interiors provide a fitting background for 19th century colonial art. Photographs of European men in the jungle, two monumental paintings by the Dutch-trained Indonesian Romantic painter Raden Saleh, and a portrait of a Tonkin woman by French Impressionist Victor Tardieu hint at the complicated flows of images and ideas between Europe and its colonies.
Like Gauguin in Tahiti, Tardieu’s Tonkin Woman reminds viewers that Western “modernity,” in both art and history, was built on a legacy of colonialism. Yet its juxtaposition with The Singers in the Countryside, a radically experimental work by Tardieu’s student Nguyen Phan Chanh, reminds viewers that this transformation cuts both ways. As Tardieu’s oil paintings grew bolder and more expressive in Hanoi, Nguyen Phan Chanh used what he learned at the l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts Indochine to push ink and silk painting in new directions.
In the 1960s, Chuah Thean Teng made a similar breakthrough using batik, a traditional method for dyeing fabric, in his weavings of iconic scenes of Indonesian village life. And as Communist ideology swept through Southeast Asia in the mid-20th century, Nguyen Duc Nung combined the working-class heroes of Social Realism with lacquer techniques to portray a shining new future.
In the 1970s, as optimism gave way to authoritarian strongmen from Indonesia to the Philippines, and the Vietnam War ravaged the Southeast Asian peninsula, violence dominated art. Pratuang Emjaroen’s painting Red Morning Glory and Rotten Gun casts Thailand’s tumultuous political climate as a surrealist nightmare. Indonesia’s FX Harsono appropriated the idea of found art and placed a plastic rifle in a wooden crate in Paling Top.
As the 20th century stretched on, artists across Southeast Asia became increasingly cognizant of how geopolitical power relations are reflected in the art world. Artists’ movements like Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement) in Indonesia and the Kaisahan (solidarity) collective in the Philippines learned to strategically position themselves and push back within a larger framework of globalization. Their works mock Abstract Expressionism as one of America’s most successful exports and challenge the conventions of the local art establishment. The galleries devoted to these movements are some of the best in the exhibition, focusing on specific exhibitions, such as Indonesia’s Fantasy World Supermarket (1987), instead of sweeping national histories.
The National Gallery Singapore has been criticized for not providing enough context for its works. Yet the National Gallery’s high-profile international collaborations—Reframing Modernism with the Centre Pompidou (Paris), and Artist and Empire with Tate Britain (London)—suggest that the museum’s curators are keenly aware of context. By continually positioning its collection within European settings, the National Gallery, like the artists that it features, aims to reshape a global narrative of art history. The hope is that in its rush to challenge Western art history, it will not have glossed over its own.
Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia Since the 19th Century will be on view through June 10, 2020.