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National Gallery’s UOB Southeast Asia Gallery to showcase the region’s best

What is the National Gallery Singapore’s image of South-east Asian art? The answer to that question can be found once the museum opens its doors on Nov 24, in Between Declarations And Dreams.

What is the National Gallery Singapore’s image of South-east Asian art? The answer to that question can be found once the museum opens its doors on Nov 24, in Between Declarations And Dreams.

It’s a line taken from a 1948 poem by famed Indonesian writer Chairil Anwar, and also the title of the inaugural long-term exhibition found at the museum’s UOB Southeast Asia Gallery. Touted as the biggest survey of art in the region, it comprises around 400 artworks from regional artists, which are taken from the national collection as well as through loans. The number of works are similar to the museum’s counterpoint exhibition at the DBS Singapore Gallery, which will feature Singapore art.

Among the highlights of the show are those by some of the region’s iconic artists: Indonesian Raden Saleh’s Forest Fire and Filipino Juan Luna’s Spain And The Philippines. Among the works by Singapore artists in the gallery is Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem Of Malaya, which will link to his other piece National Language Class at the Singapore gallery. All 10 member countries of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) are also represented with works by Thailand’s Navin Rawanchaikul, Malaysia’s Zulkifli Yusoff, Myanmar’s U Ba Nyan, among many others.

At yesterday’s press preview, museum director Dr Eugene Tan said the exhibition will serve as “a reminder of the historical, social and political context” in which Singapore has been a part of, as well as “provide a regional narrative of modern art in South-east Asia ... highlighting the richness and diversity through shared historical experiences”.

Occupying three levels and 15 rooms in the old Supreme Court building, Between Declarations And Dreams is divided chronologically into four themes, from the 19th century to the post-1970s. Senior curator Lisa Horikawa said the museum’s manner of presentation will be “distinctly different” from past exhibitions that tackle South-east Asian art in that it does not dwell on a geographically-based presentation.

She emphasised it is not a comprehensive view of art from each country and that it also aims to “complicate and expand ideas of South-East Asia” by including works by artists who have travelled to the region as well as those with “diasporic backgrounds”.

She added that the largest selection of works come from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, with “a fair representation” from other countries. “this is largely a reflection of the state of our (national) collection and the state of research in the fields,” said Horikawa.

The notion of what defines South-east Asia and its art is something that is at the heart of the exhibition. The museum’s curatorial and collections director, Low Sze Wee, pointed out how the impetus to define and present the region — and its art — grew from the 1950s onward, with the first exhibition on South-east Asian art held in Manila in 1957. In 1963, Singapore also held a South-east Asian Cultural Festival and one of the Singapore Art Museum’s inaugural shows in 1996 was also on art from the region.

Half of the works are from Singapore’s national collection, which is no coincidence as Low pointed out that the genesis of the collection — a donation by Cathay Organisation founder and business magnate Loke Wan Tho — has also included works from Indonesia and Malaysia. From the onset, the national collection “was not just a Singaporean one but oriented towards the region”.

The loans from other national art institutions were also a coup for the museum, which is showing works from the National Museum of the Philippines, the Central Bank of the Philippines, Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, National Gallery Bangkok, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam.

Low said that the willingness to collaborate with the National Museum indicates the level of confidence these institutions have with Singapore’s museums, citing how well museums under the National Heritage Board have done well in the past.

Tan added that they are also confident that they will be able to attract more loans after institutions see how the works have been represented in the museum.

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