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Artist and Empire | Looking at Colonialism

National Gallery Singapore’s latest retrospective of Yayoi Kusama’s works is super popular now, but I’m going to take the time to catch up with their previous special exhibition! The first exhibition that I saw this year was National Gallery Singapore’s second special exhibition ‘Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies’ in collaboration with Tate Britain.

The showing of ‘Artist and Empire’ at the Tate – not exactly the same as this one in NGS – was apparently the first of its kind in tackling issues of British colonialism on its own shores. I was quite surprised to learn that, but it also tells of the sensitivity of colonialism and its effect even today.

| Cover picture: Thomas Jones Barker, ‘The Secret of United Kingdom’s Greatness’ (Queen Victoria Presenting A Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor), c. 1863, oil on canvas |

George Francis Joseph, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, 1817, oil on canvas

Of course, the exhibition opens with a portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. Anyone who has studied in Singapore would be familiar with this image since it’s always shown in Social Studies textbooks! Who would have thought I would grow up to see the real thing for myself! A copy of this portrait is also currently exhibited at the National Museum of Singapore in their Singapore History Gallery.

Lee Wen, Untitled (Raffles), 2000, video and photographic documentation of site-specific installation

Lee, a local Singaporean artist, had an installation in 2000 that invited people to view the statue of Raffles face-to-face by going up on that pictured platform, instead of always viewing it from below. It sounds like a fun activity to try, yet I think it seems quite political in a way.

John Everett Millais, The North-West Passage, 1847, oil on canvas

Henry Nelson O’Neil, Home Again, 1858, 1859, oil on canvas

The exhibition contained a mix of works that were done in the primetime of British colonial ambitions and contemporary responses that address this topic in their works. Millais’s The North-West Passage depicts an old seaman determined to set sail on the North-West Passage which went between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and is illustrated on the map on the table in front of him. In reality, unsuccessful attempts had been made to traverse this passage but this painting helped garner support for England’s then upcoming attempt in 1857, a decade after the painting’s completion.

O’Neil’s Home Again is a somewhat fictionalized scene of British soldiers returning home from India after suppressing a rebellion there in May 1857. Contrary to Millais’s work, viewers were not as agreeable with O’Neil’s piece as many British soldiers returned ill and not in such a good state as the painting suggests.

Andrew Gilbert, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879, 2015, installation

Tang Da Wu, You see No Sunset on your soil, I saw your Son Sat on my paddy field, 1986, acrylic on canvas

Elizabeth Butler, The Remnants of an Army, 1879, oil on canvas

Butler’s The Remnants of an Army was also exhibited at the Tate’s side of this exhibition and it was pretty momentous as it hasn’t been shown for a long time. The lone survivor represented the repercussions of Britain’s colonial wars and Butler herself was not supportive of Britain’s imperialist acts. In fact, this painting was well-loved in its time for its image of endurance and remained so up until WWII when battle paintings became less popular.

Arthur Pan, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953, oil on canvas

And of course, a portrait of the iconic Queen Elizabeth II!

Johan Zoffany, Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match, c. 1784-1786, oil on canvas

Leslie MacDonald Gill, A Great Industry, Where Our Tea Comes From, c. 1948-1953, color lithograph

I love drinking tea, which I probably picked up when living in Hong Kong, and it amuses me to see that Gill did a very nice record of where these great tea leaves come from all these years ago!

Chuah Thean Teng, [Not titled] (Two Women and a Child), c. 1955, batik

I’d only known batik as used in clothing and I found it so cool that it’s used in art as well! Chuah was one of the earliest artists in Malaya to employ batik as an artistic medium. This was part of an effort to promote local identity through art, which the latter section of the exhibition explores in the artworks of modern artists from colonized regions, including Australia, India, Burma, Malaya and Brunei.

George Washington Lambert, Weighing the Fleece, 1921, oil on canvas

Tom Roberts, An Australian Native (Portrait of a Lady), 1888, oil on canvas

Samsui Woman, 1963; Chinese Woman, 1963; Sarawak Malay, 1962, all pastel on paper

These three artworks were part of the book Malaysians to commemorate the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 and Singapore was included in the Federation before gaining independence in 1965. Samsui Woman refers to the community of female Chinese construction workers in postwar Singapore! It’s really interesting to see how these portraits captured a bit of life back in the old days.

The topic of British colonialism and the effects on its colonies is a very wide one which adds to the difficulty in discussing it, but I found the exhibition very well-thought-out with clear sections that displayed various aspects of how colonialism permeated society. The contemporary artworks left a little to be desired in my opinion, but I did like how the artworks that showed the British perspective, which was in itself also quite variable, was balanced with an entire gallery that focused on how local artists responded in the face of colonialism and showcased their forms of identity in their art.

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