Live birds and wearable art in Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America at the National Gallery Singapore

Published on 08 December 2023
By Team Catch

A lonely island sits in the historic City Hall Chamber at the National Gallery Singapore. Gravel crunches beneath your feet as you walk along winding paths that cut through an expanse of white sand. Every so often, the squawks of live macaws break the silence.

But the seemingly idyllic scene is disrupted by a cluster of wooden makeshift houses in a corner. Brazilian artist and sculptor Hélio Oiticica’s Tropicália (1966–1967, remade 2023) exposes the Western perception of the tropics for what it is: a myth. Beautiful as tropical landscapes are, its local inhabitants do not live a life of idle pleasure. 

This is the common thread that ties together the exhibition Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America, the world’s first major comparative exhibition to consolidate over 200 artworks by more than 70 artists from the two seemingly distant regions. 

Spanning three galleries at the National Gallery Singapore, it uncovers the parallels and affinities between the regions’ shared—yet varied—experiences of colonialism and their ensuing national consciousness and artistic identity.

Lost paradise or paradise lost?

Say the word ‘tropical’ and visions of the exotic—coconuts and palm trees—often come to mind. Famous artists like French painter Paul Gauguin popularised this stereotype of lush islands populated by carefree native inhabitants. 

“But if you look at the history of art, Southeast Asians and Latin Americans see that term very differently,” said Senior Curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa. “For them, it’s a place of work.”

Indeed, they decided there was something grossly reductive with this image. In the 1950s, after centuries of colonial rule, artists in these newly independent regions had developed an incredible ability to not only speak the coloniser’s language on top of their own, but also write and paint like them—or better. “They had command of two worlds, not one,” added Shabbir, and art was a way of reclaiming their cultural heritage. 

To counter the colonial invention of the lazy native, they sought to capture the lived realities of their people, including the everyday act of labour. In Mexican painter Diego Rivera’s La molendera (Women Grinding Maize) (1924), he portrays a woman hard at work, making tortillas by hand.

Wide shot of La molendera (Women Grinding Maize) (1924) painting

Explore the diverse nuances of ‘tropical’ through an enthralling collection of painting, sculptures and more.

As artists became increasingly confident in depicting themselves and their communities, their artistic concerns also evolved. There was a newfound sense of optimism and hope that pervaded their art, which they saw as an avenue to imagine a more peaceful, democratic world for themselves. 

“Realism does not belong only to the West. Realism belongs to all of us, to every human being,” S. Sudjojono, known as the father of modern Indonesian art, wrote in his 1947 essay We Know Where We Will Be Taking Indonesian Art. His words are displayed on one of many grand ceiling-to-floor scrolls that decorate the walls throughout the exhibition. 

Self-portraits—such as Malaysian artist Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s Self-Portrait (1958) and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1945)—were a common mode of grappling with the complexities of identity and self-determination in a postcolonial nation. To see their work is almost like meeting them in person.

Off the beaten canvas

Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America do not simply challenge the colonial gaze—it also presents a new way of experiencing art itself. 

Interactivity is an integral component of the exhibition. Violet carpeted areas mark out interactive zones where visitors are free to touch, play with, and even wear elements of the installation. “Artists from the 1960s onwards started to think about how a piece of art is only complete when we, the beholder, interact and engage with it,” said Shabbir. 

Lygia Clark’s Máscaras sensoriais (Sensorial Masks) (1967) gives visitors three different heavy canvas masks to try on, each fitted with aromatic cloves. With their vision obscured, they are forced to focus on their sense of smell. Similarly, Helio Oiticica’s Parangolés (1965, remade 2023) is what he dubs a “habitable painting”—people are encouraged to don vibrant parangolés, or capes, and sashay around in them. For him, wearable art is a way of countering the over-intellectualisation of art and remembering the body.

Wide shot of paintings

Pushing the boundaries of presentation with a heap of creativity.

Conventional paintings, too, are presented in novel ways. The Myth of the Lazy Native, the first section of the exhibition, sees the use of glass easels, which give the impression that the paintings are levitating. Exhibition write-ups are also displaced to the back of the pieces, in the spirit of “work first, label second”.

The structure completely changes in the next gallery, whose theme is This Earth of Mankind. Once again, it deviates from the standard practice of simply hanging paintings on walls. Instead, it pays tribute to Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi’s grid system, using recycled wood reclaimed from Jurong Shipyard to create grid-like structures to mount artworks on. 

Thoughtful and thought-provoking, the exhibition was clearly many years in the making. There’ll only be more of such comparative showcases to come, as art continues to weave a tapestry of connections across the world.

Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America runs from 18 November 2023 to 24 March 2024 at the National Gallery Singapore. Tickets are priced at $15 for Singaporeans and PRs.

All other images are credited to Chia Aik Beng.

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