More than a decade in the making, the National Gallery Singapore finally opened in November. Welcoming more than 170,000 visitors in its first two weeks, the gallery has a strong focus on promoting Southeast Asian art. Senior curator Seng Yu Jin discusses what visitors can expect and reveals the not-to-be-missed works on display
From our February 2016 issue – download the complete issue via our app here
How did you become a curator?
I was introduced to the world of curating during my undergraduate days by starting as a researcher for an exhibition at the National University of Singapore Museum. I was given the opportunity to partake in the different aspects of curating, including conceptualising the exhibition, selecting the artworks, meeting artists, writing the exhibition essay and installing the artworks. It was then that curating began to appeal to me as it enabled me to marry art historical scholarship with exhibition-making.
What kind of experience can visitors to the National Gallery Singapore expect?
The gallery houses the largest public collection of modern Singapore and Southeast Asian art from the 19th and 20th centuries, and visitors can embark on an experiential journey to discover and immerse themselves in the richness and diversity of modern art from this region.
We also have a series of innovative programmes and activities at the Keppel Centre for Art Education – the first dedicated art education facility in the region. These programmes are tailored to make the learning and enjoyment of art easy and accessible.
Above and beyond, visitors can expect a unique experience that is inspiring, engaging and moving [due to] the gallery’s presentation of art perspectives that are meaningful and thought-provoking.
What is the significance of housing this art in the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings?
The gallery occupies two important buildings [that are] symbolic of Singapore’s nationhood. One of the spaces retained is the City Hall Chambers in the City Hall wing, which saw the signing of Japan’s surrender in World War II and the swearing in of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. The art presented at the gallery tells the history of Singapore, as well as our common historical experiences with our neighbours. It is hence appropriate that the art is housed in such historically significant buildings that tell the history of Singapore as well.
Tell me about some of the unmissable pieces in the gallery.
The Nanyang School, for instance, is one of the most important art developments in Singapore in the 20th Century. This refers to a group of artists from the 1930s to 1970s who sought to depict local subject matter by integrating Chinese and Western painting traditions. Some of the prominent artworks from the Nanyang School include “Drying Salted Fish” by Cheong Soo Pieng.
Another artwork that you must see is “Forest Fire” by Raden Saleh, one of the largest and most impressive works in our collection. It is an excellent example of the artist’s prowess in oil painting, and testament to his ability to create ambitious compositions full of drama and power.
And for those planning a visit in the near future, what temporary exhibits will be on in the coming months?
Our first international collaboration is an exhibition co-curated with Centre Pompidou, in Paris, that aims to reframe the discourse of modernism. Slated for the end of March, the exhibition will showcase about 200 pieces of artwork with about half of those works on loan from Centre Pompidou.
Our second international collaboration will be with Tate Britain. The exhibition will look at artistic production in the British Empire and explore the different ways in which empire was represented and contested. This is slated for October.
How important will the gallery’s role be in promoting and preserving Southeast Asian art?
One of the gallery’s main goals is to redefine art in Southeast Asia through our exhibitions and research, as well as furthering its understanding in a global context. We also hope to make art accessible to everyone through our extensive programmes and for the gallery to become a new destination where families can gather and appreciate art together, where children can enter creative and imaginative playgrounds to cultivate their ability to think outside of the box.
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