‘Artist and Empire’ at the National Gallery Singapore

Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies, exhibition install view featuring the work of Lee Wen (left) and George Francis Joseph; image courtesy the National Gallery Singapore

Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies, exhibition install view featuring the work of Lee Wen (left) and George Francis Joseph; image courtesy the National Gallery Singapore

A year after opening, the National Gallery Singapore is setting the benchmark for Southeast Asian art museums. The current ‘Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies’ is an ambitious collaboration with Tate Britain, reconfiguring the important exhibition first presented in London in late 2015. It’s rich, subtle and surprising, demonstrating the persistence of British imperial vision, but also the gradual emergence of cultural independence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the focus of this iteration.

Two sections mirror the rise – and fall – of Empire. ‘Countering the Empire’ shows mainly works by British artists, or made for British patrons: images of domination like Thomas James Barker’s astonishing 1863 painting of Queen Victoria bestowing a Bible on a grateful colonial. Yet this history is not unmarked by defeat: Saburo Miyamoto’s official 1942 painting showing the British surrender to the Japanese makes a rare appearance; more ominously, Lady Elizabeth Butler’s 1879 painting of a lone survivor of the First Afghan War in the 1840s points to today. Unlike in London, contemporary works speak back to the imperial pomp. Opening the show, the nineteenth-century sculpture of Raffles, Singapore’s colonial founder, is a fine example of détournement: a large photomural shows Lee Wen's 2000 performance, which elevated ordinary citizens to Raffles’s exalted height by means of specially constructed scaffolding; photographic works by Australian Indigenous Michael Cook gesture to this nation’s still-ambiguous relationship with British authority.

The second section, ‘Encountering Artistic Legacies’, shows regional artists establishing distinctive visions of their homelands: among many fascinating artworks, portraits by New Zealander Charles Frederick Goldie and Singapore’s Cheong Soo Pieng, batik paintings by Chuah Thean Teng, and works by early twentieth-century Burmese artists sketch unfolding local imageries.

‘Artist and Empire’ is not without naysayers: many works in this ravishing show are troubling, ambiguous reminders of an imperial history many would prefer to forget. Yet it’s necessary: dealing with the past, in order to go forward. ‘Artist and Empire’ runs until 26 March 2017 – definitely worth visiting.

Julie Ewington, Singapore