Singapore artist Zulkifle Mahmod receives surprise award for pushing boundaries

Singapore artist Zulkifle Mahmod receives surprise award for pushing boundaries
Zulkiflie Mahmod's sculpture for Singapore Biennale 2016, the SONICreflection, earned him a surprise award last week. Photo: Singapore Art Museum
Prize was created just for the sound and media artist’s Singapore Biennale work
Published: 5:20 PM, January 18, 2017

SINGAPORE — It is not every day that one gets an award created just for you, but Singaporean artist Zulkifle Mahmod’s sound-based installation piece for the Singapore Biennale 2016 (SB2016) had so impressed a Japanese billionaire art patron that he decided to honour it with a special prize.

Zulkifle was awarded the first-time Soichiro Fukutake Prize last week — a surprise award that was given out during the announcement of the prestigious art prize award Benesse Prize by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and Japanese corporation Benesse Holdings, Inc.

This recognition for the sound and media artist’s work was a personal decision made by Soichiro Fukutake himself, who is the founder and president of Benesse Art Site Naoshima — a collective name for all art related activities conducted by Benesse Holdings and Fukutake Foundation. He is also one of Japan’s 50 Richest People according to Forbes.

In an official statement, Fukutake said: “I was deeply impressed by this particular work, skillfully incorporating voices and sounds collected from Asian migrant communities in contemporary Singapore. It is contemplative, triggering sensorial and poetic reflections on various social territories and the human environment, as well as on our lives.”

The award came as a surprise for the homegrown artist known for his multidisciplinary work, as he was not one of the shortlisted artists for this inaugural Asian edition of the Benesse Prize. The shortlist included Martha Atienza from the Philippines; Bui Cong Khanh from Vietnam; Ade Darmawan from Indonesia; Qiu Zhijie from China; and Pannaphan Yodmanee from Thailand, who are all presenting work at the ongoing Singapore Biennale 2016.

These artists were drawn from the more than 60 artists exhibiting at the Singapore Biennale 2016 by an international jury that includes the biennale’s creative director, Dr Susie Lingham, and Benesse Art Site Naoshima’s international artistic director, Akiko Miki. It eventually went to Yodmanee.

Zulkifle believes he was given this unexpected recognition due to his efforts to always push boundaries in the course of his work.

“When I create my work, I always give my best and push myself even within the limitations. I guess the Japanese foundation saw that in my work and artistic efforts. I am deeply honored to receive the award,” the 41-year-old said.

“There are other artists out there already flying the Singapore flag high,” he continued. “I feel that Singapore artists should keep creating and believing in their art, should always push boundaries.”

Zulkilfe’s sound sculpture, which was commissioned and presented at Singapore Biennale 2016, presents recordings from a number of ‘sonic territories’ such as Golden Mile Complex and Peninsula Plaza, where different South-east Asian communities gather, creating a soundscape distinctive of the area.

The recordings are transmitted from multiple tweeters mounted on a wall lined with wok lids; pencil microphones are used to amplify the resultant cacophony, which assumes the form of layers of everyday clamour, ranging from snippets of dialogue to incidental noise.

Titled SONICreflection, the work can be found at the SAM and showcases the auditory character of each community and the space it inhabits.

“I will always be grateful to be recognised in doing what I do, which is sound work. As you know sound is still a niche market. I hope it will open more doors and opportunities for other artists. It will drive me more to create more exciting and experimental works for the future. I will not stop pushing myself,” he said.

Zulkifle has previously represented Singapore at the Ogaki Biennale in Japan in 2006 and Venice Biennale in 2007. In 2010, he won the Straits Times Life! Theatre Award for best sound design (Singapore) and in 2015, his work was featured in ‘Singapore: Inside Out’, a travelling showcase of Singapore art which was presented in Beijing, London, New York and Singapore.

As part of this special award, he has been invited for a visit to the Benesse Art Site Naoshima and neighbouring islands in the Seto Inland Sea.

“I will still keep working hard to produce exciting work and pushing the boundaries. I will go and visit Naoshima for sure and soak in the environment. I might do some outdoor field recordings while I’m there,” the artist added.

The Singapore Biennale 2016 runs till Feb 27. For more information, visit