One would understand how an exhibit such as Artist And Empire, (En)Countering Colonial Legacies might crumble under the weight of its own baggage – and we’re not even talking about the uproar that surrounded the fundraising gala dinner which the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) had called “The Empire Ball 2016” with attire “black tie and empire.”
That’s a trifle really, when one considers that the major exhibition that inspired that gala was conceptualized and done by Tate Britain to plot British colonial history through art. Entitled Artist And Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, the reviews of the Tate exhibit were underwhelming at best, with some angrier than others, pointing out the exhibit’s evasion of the violence intrinsic upon colonization.
When I heard about NGS bringing the same exhibit closer to home that is the Philippines – which of course comes with its own postcolonial baggage – I allowed myself to imagine the possibilities for subverting, retooling, rethinking something that had been seen as part of the continuing project to justify the colonial projects of the past.
It is after all in the post- and neo-colonies that the repercussions of colonial rule continue to be lived, and it is why we know that despite all assertions to the contrary, it is still the same notions of civilization and conquest, difference and invasion, that are at the heart of the multifarious imperialist projects in the present.
Gaining independence from Britain only in 1959, and declared a republic only in 1965, Singapore is central to this discussion of post-coloniality, reverent as it remains to its colonial leaders, yet with an unwavering insistence by its artists to discuss the ramifications of the nation’s colonial history and its current post-colonial state. As a central player in Southeast Asian arts and culture, with State support for the arts unlike anywhere else in SEA, Singapore is also burdened with the expectation that it would rise to the occasion of post- and neo-colonies, when it brings to its shores an exhibit such as Artist And Empire.
This expectation is not unfounded.
Monuments To Empire
It is unclear how much of the works from the Tate exhibit were brought to NGS, or how exactly the NGS curatorial team reconfigured the exhibit – reviews of the Tate Exhibit mention some of the major contemporary works that respond to the colonial project that are in SG, too (Andrew Gilbert’s 2015 work “British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879” and two of Hew Locke’s 2006 “Restoration” series), and the available collateral information provide no sense of how this exhibit is any different from the original.
It is clear though that “facing Britain’s colonial past” in the context of Tate Britain, would be totally differently from “(en)countering colonial legacies” in the context of NGS – as the former connotes a process of reflection, and the latter that of combat, where both the act of countering something and the word “encounter” speak of a dispute at the very least, a battle at most.
Certainly, there was some of the latter here, and Artist And Empire cannot be faulted for not trying to imbue the discussion of our colonial past with voices of dissent – ones that have grown louder through the years, more stable in its assertions, against the idea that colonization was about discovering the undiscovered and civilizing the uncivilized.
But a majority of works here function as monuments to empire, where both the themes of “Picturing Power” and “Producing Knowledge” actually reveal how Britain had justified the violence of colonization, and how – to some extent – that rationale stands. The images of power span portraits of colonial icons and queens, depictions of war where the white man stands tall, the capture of moments of peaceful exchange between colonizer and colonized, and the white man’s perceptions of the aboriginal or Asian man. Knowledge production was represented by the scientific drawings of flora and fauna, the documentation of the primitive, and portraits of royalty from colonized lands.
It is a documentation of strangeness, as it is the gaze of the colonizer upon the lives and cultures, the practices and beliefs, of the unknown other. Here in these galleries are works that will offend any individual who even has a sense of the kind of brutality and cruelty that colonial rule put colonized peoples through – for no reason other than it could.
In Artist And Empire though, this is justified to some extent by the empire’s need to build new markets and create new products – that it did so on the blood of the colonies, is of course not something that dominates this discussion.
Questioning the Empire
Unsurprisingly, the most powerful works here were those that were closest to home – the works that respond to the overwhelming display of colonial power, the works that the curatorial team of NGS referred to via a yellow box beneath its curatorial notes that implores the spectator to: “Consider a contemporary perspective …”
And one does, if only to understand better why we are being treated to this grand rationalization of colonialism in 2016, when we know now how the post-colonies continue to suffer the ravages of those wars, and continue to live through the vestiges of colonial rule.
Under “Exploration and Expansion,” amidst works that documented the British officials’ first contact with aboriginals and locals, the maps of expansion, and the portraits of colonial leaders, is Michael Cook’s “Undiscovered” (2010), a series of photographs that show an aboriginal man wearing British attire, a disavowal of the idea that the British civilized and discovered Australia, when in fact – as with all colonies – these spaces had existed long before colonial rule.
Gilbert’s “British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879” (2015) references the day the British burned down the town of Ulundi in South Africa, killing 500 Zulu. The mixed-media installation is a depiction of the British on parade with cultural accoutrements – blonde hair, shoulder bags, stilettos, boots, scarves, a tea cup and saucer, cigarettes – and aboriginal masks for faces, in what is an effective critique of the wars the British waged in all parts of the world in the name of commerce and development.
Under “Self and Power,” surrounded by a swamp of portraits of the colonial powers, stand two of Hew Locke’s mixed media works from his “Restoration” series, where photographs of the statues of Edward Colston and Edmund Burke are layered with gold paraphernalia, putting into question the legacies that these monuments stand for, bound as both personas are to the story of slavery.
The section on “Producing Knowledge” had the most formidable works. Simryn Gill’s “Rampant” (1999) is a series of photographs of sarongs and lungis, draped over plants transported from Asia to Australia where these become naturalised as noxious weeds that proliferate beyond anyone’s control – a testament to the native’s own power, beyond anyone’s rule.
At the heart of Erika Tan’s “The Weavers’ Lament” (2016) meanwhile is a critique of colonial commerce that brought people from the colonies to Britain, where they were exhibited like specimens to be studied. This multimedia work tells the story of Malayan Halimah Binti Abdullah, an expert weaver who died of pneumonia in the UK after she was brought there to “participate” in the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. Her loom and textiles were collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum, her story buried in an unmarked grave in the UK.
Yee I-Lann’s “Study of Lamprey’s Malaysian Male I & II” (2009) is a digital print of the artist assessing the image of a Malayan man by British photographer John Lamprey. Using science as excuse, the Malayan man is told to pose against a grid, making the photograph a measurement tool, as it is a horoscope through which the colonized might be studied.
Yee asks: “How have colonial photographs, which wrote about a certain period in our history, informed the way we see ourselves now?”
For an exhibit that was dominated by colonial photographs and images, this can only be a question for the whole exhibit.
This “contemporary perspective” had allowed the exhibit to start on a high note, where the section “Looking At Raffles” had one traditional 1817 portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles – the British statesman of the East India Company considered as the “founder” of modern Singapore – alongside a wall with a blown-up photograph of Lee Wen’s site-specific project “Untitled (Raffles)” (2000).
The latter allowed the public to take a photograph with a Raffles monument high up on a platform instead of from below, putting into question the high esteem held for colonial icons in Singapore, building them monuments, and ensuring continued awe and veneration for the colonial power.
Artist And Empire itself though might have missed the point Lee was making when the decision was made to place a monument of Queen Victoria right at the lobby of NGS, as a way of introducing museum visitors to the exhibit. The monument from 1888 was presented by the Chinese community of Singapore as a “memorial of the loyal affection of her Majesty’s Chinese subjects and of their gratitude for the benefit of her rule.”
Sadly, it was this feeling of gratitude for the colonizer that dominated this exhibit given just the greater number of works that celebrated the British empire and the faces and activities that stood for its colonial project. This is helped along by the section that is purportedly about “encountering artistic legacies” and the post-colonies’ search for identity.
What was here though was not the independence and freedom of the colonies to recreate, reimagine, re-assert their identities, towards building a different kind of relationship with the empire. Instead, this whole section looked like a half-hearted attempt to discuss the postcolonial struggle for identity, without any sense of how we continue to bear the weight of colonization up to the present.
Between being welcomed by the Queen Victoria monument, and the decision to disengage from the histories of resistance in the post-colonies, one imagines this version of Artist And Empire might have surely pleased the British.
After all, with exhibits such as this one, the empire need not even strike back – its got its loyal, uncritical subjects to do that dirty job.
Long live the Queen.
Published in Art Plus Magazine, December 2016 issue.