(En)countering Colonial Legacies

The title of this post isn’t mine — I’ve borrowed it from the exhibit I went to see yesterday, “Artist and Empire,” at the National Gallery of Singapore.  It’s an exhibit that was organized in conjunction with The Tate in Britain, and it looks both at works produced by British artists related to the colonies of the British Empire and at Southeast Asian works that were influenced by British teaching.

The exhibit largely focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it has a few works by very early British explorers.  Here’s a look at a volcano in Indonesia by someone with good enthusiasm but not much training in perspective.


I love this study of a nutmeg plant (as an aside, if you haven’t read Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, it’s a great if gory and amazingly educational look at the British and Dutch fight over the spice trade).


There were many portraits of people important to the colonial world, including this work by John Singer Sargent of Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham (what a name!).  He was the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States and Governor of the Straits Settlements (what a set of titles!).


Queen Elizabeth II was also on display, which was fun for me because Prescott and I have been making our way through The Crown.


The exhibit had maps, which I always love.  There’s this great commentary on the way in which the British Empire was built on the backs of human labor around the world (you need to look closely at the fine print below Atlas at the bottom to see this).


There’s also a tea map — which, as a tea drinker, I appreciated.


That map was part of the section of the exhibit that focused on the ways in which the British colonies became the backbone of the British economy.


The exhibit also had many works from Southeast Asian artist who had learned techniques in Europe or from British artists here, and who had then adapted them and made them their own.  Here are a couple from India:



I especially liked this one of Kusu Island, because Prescott and I have been there (you’ll find it in a post back in our first month or two in Singapore).  It’s painted by Richard Walker, who was an important art teacher in Singapore in the mid-1900s.


For some reason, Royal Dutch Shell commissioned a series of paintings of Malay women in the 1960s.  I found this painting of a samsui woman compelling (these women came to Singapore to be construction workers in the early 1900s).


Overall, the exhibit offered lots of different ways to look at and think about the colonial experience.

The National Gallery itself is an amazing space; it’s fairly new, and it’s located in what used to be the Singapore Supreme Court and City Hall buildings.  You get a sense of the age of those buildings when you see the statue that used to greet people when they came in:


I especially liked the inscription on the plinth (it’s the “gratitude for the benefit of [Queen Victoria’s] rule” that gets me):


When the gallery isn’t hosting exhibitions about colonialism, they have a lot of space devoted to modern art.  I wandered into this piece, which I loved (anything interactive is good).

They also have this work up near the entrance:


And there’s a fairly incredible balloon forest near the children’s education section:


I was also lucky to stumble on this group that was playing two movements from a Schubert piano trio (I watched it from two floors up, which explains the vantage point and angle).

As they were warming up, I heard the piano player comment, “This piano is really red.  Really red.”  And while I’ve never seen anyone play a red piano before, I must say that I liked it.

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