In November 2023, the National Gallery Singapore will unveil ‘Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America.’ This groundbreaking exhibition is the world’s first large-scale museum event to juxtapose the artistic expressions of these two regions, both bound by their shared struggles against colonialism. The artists against colonialism include world reknown figures spanning the entire 20th century.
The exhibition embarks on a journey with 70 renowned artists from Southeast Asia and Latin America, including luminaries like David Medalla, Diego Rivera, Emiria Sunassa, Frida Kahlo, Hélio Oiticica, Latiff Mohidin, Patrick Ng Kah Onn, Paul Gauguin, Tan Oe Pang, and Tarsila do Amaral.
Notably, some of these luminaries will be presented for the first time in Singapore.
Running from November 18, 2023, to March 24, 2024, the exhibition promises a sensory extravaganza, showcasing over 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, performances, and immersive sensorial installations. The National Gallery Singapore has collaborated closely with a renowned architecture firm to craft avant-garde exhibition designs aimed at immersing visitors in an extraordinary artistic experience.
Here are 10 of the exceptional artists who, against significant odds, established connections and solidarities, ultimately reclaiming their rightful place within the global art narrative. From challenging colonialism to reshaping artistic boundaries, these artists have left an indelible mark on the art world.
Origins: David Medalla (1942–2020) was a visionary artist known for his interdisciplinary approach. Born in the Philippines, he was recognized as a child prodigy and excelled in visual art, poetry, and public intellectualism.
Why His Art Matters: Medalla relentlessly established autonomous institutions to disrupt the prevailing artistic narrative landscape. His efforts materialized in events like the London Biennale, Exploding Galaxy, and Artists for Democracy, uniting performances, collectives, and folk expressions. In 1964, he co-founded Signals Gallery, a hub for unconventional artistic perspectives. Medalla associated with the emerging avant-garde, engaging in discussions with luminaries such as Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Harald Szeemann, Rasheed Araeen, and critic Guy Brett, who extensively chronicled his work. His legacy lies in challenging norms and fostering innovative artistic discourse.
Origins: Diego Rivera (1886–1957) was a central figure in Mexico’s muralist movement during the 1920s. He played a pivotal role in highlighting Mexico’s indigenous culture through monumental paintings. He adorned public spaces like government buildings, schools, and religious edifices with grandiose paintings. These murals symbolized Mexico’s aspirations following the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), which marked the end of a 30-year dictatorship and the establishment of a Constitutional Republic.
Why His Art Matters: Rivera’s murals depicted Mexico’s rich indigenous heritage and cultural depth. They also recounted the nation’s tumultuous history, portraying it as a triumphant struggle against numerous adversaries. Furthermore, these artworks provided a canvas to envision a future marked by technological and industrial progress. Rivera’s contributions were integral to shaping Mexico’s post-revolution identity and ideals.
Origins: Emiria Sunassa (1894–1964) was a unique figure in Indonesian art, born in North Sulawesi. She transitioned from various professions encompassing roles such as nurse, administrator, animal hunter, businesswoman, and even poison maker before she eventually turned to painting and was the lone female member of PERSAGI (Persatuan Ahli-Ahli Gambar Indonesia), an artistic association that sought to challenge the prevailing pastoral and romanticized representations of Indonesia in art.
Why Her Art Matters: Sunassa’s art challenged traditional representations of Indonesia and stands as a testament to the struggle for artistic diversity in Southeast Asia. Her presence in PERSAGI was significant, as it defied the norm and pushed for a more authentic portrayal of Indonesia. Emiria Sunassa remains a mysterious and intriguing figure in the narrative of Southeast Asian art.
Origins: Frida Kahlo’s (1907–1954) life story is intimately woven into the complex tapestry of Mexico’s early 20th-century history. Born just three years before the 1910 Mexican Revolution, she witnessed the nation’s profound social, artistic, and political transformations. Kahlo was not only a celebrated artist but also an ardent communist who remained deeply engaged in left-wing political circles. Throughout her life, she proudly upheld her socialist convictions.
Why Her Art Matters: Kahlo’s art vividly reflected her support for the working class and marginalized communities, frequently incorporating revolutionary motifs and symbols. Kahlo’s passion extended to her extensive collection of pre-Columbian and Mesoamerican pottery, sculptures, and textiles. These cultural treasures not only inspired her creative work but also played a pivotal role in shaping her distinctive artistic style.
Origins: Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980) was a pioneering Brazilian artist and thinker, challenging conventional notions of painting, sculpture, art, and lived experience. His legacy is marked by a groundbreaking approach to color, interactive performances, and immersive, tactile installations that incorporated elements such as plants, sounds, music, and even live animals.
Why His Art Matters: Beyond his artistic creations, Oiticica made significant contributions to the development of conceptual art through his writings and collaborations with influential figures in the Brazilian art scene, notably Lygia Clark. He played a pivotal role in the Tropicália movement in 1960s Brazil, a cultural and artistic phenomenon that fused music, visual arts, and poetry to defy established norms and express political dissent. Oiticica’s work and ideas continue to resonate in the realm of contemporary art.
Origins: Latiff Mohidin (born 1941) stands as Malaysia’s revered modernist painter and poet. His significance lies in a remarkable journey undertaken from 1964 to 1968 across Southeast Asia, a period marked by decolonization and profound societal shifts.
Why His Art Matters: Between 1964 to 1968, Latiff engaged in dialogues and formed connections with prominent artists and writers, shaping a unique approach he termed “Pago Pago.” This artistic and intellectual movement reflects the distinctiveness of the region and holds a significant place in Southeast Asian art history. Latiff Mohidin remains an active contributor to artistic, literary, and discursive discussions in Southeast Asia, leaving an enduring mark on the cultural landscape of the region.
Origins: Patrick Ng Kah Onn (1932–1989) was a pivotal member of the Wednesday Art Group, established in Kuala Lumpur in 1952. His association with the group cultivated an awareness of the emerging Malayan cultural identity during the 1950s, following centuries of colonial dominance.
Why His Art Matters: With bold experimentation, Ng incorporated self-portraiture techniques from the Malay cultural sphere, like batik, into his art. In doing so, he navigated these evolving cultural concerns, providing deep insights into the potential for a modern mode of cultural expression in what would soon become Malaysia. Ng’s work exemplified a forward-looking vision for cultural identity and artistic innovation in the region.
Origins: Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) remains a controversial figure due to his stay in Tahiti, starting in 1891. He claimed to seek spiritual enlightenment and purity by adopting the Tahitian way of life, an approach he described as “going native.” However, Gauguin’s vision was largely shaped by exotic and erotic fantasies. His motivation stemmed from a desire to escape what he perceived as the encroachments of industrialization in Europe on private life.
Why His Art Matters: Gauguin’s influence eventually sparked a revival of pastoralism in the art world. Artists in Europe and its colonies sought to reconnect with rural landscapes and depict idyllic scenes that conveyed harmony and tranquility, inspired by his work. Despite the controversy, Gauguin’s impact on the art world was profound and enduring.
Origins: (born 1947) is celebrated for his remarkable ability to translate Chinese ink aesthetics into various styles and mediums. His artistic journey began under the tutelage of Classical ink artist Fan Chang Tien in Singapore, but he swiftly forged his own artistic path in search of innovative methods.
Why His Art Matters: Tan’s artistic versatility is evident in his wide-ranging practice, encompassing calligraphy, figurative and abstract ink compositions, as well as works on oil on canvas and aluminum. In 1985, he made a significant mark by participating in the 18th International Biennial of Arts in São Paulo, Brazil, introducing the ink medium to this influential platform. Tan Oe Pang’s ongoing experimentation and contributions continue to stimulate discussions about the role of ink aesthetics in contemporary artistic creation.
Origins: Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973) stands as a central figure in the Brazilian modernist movement. In 1922, after returning from Paris to São Paulo, she joined forces with four fellow artists, forming the Grupo dos Cinco (Group of Five) and orchestrating the Semana de Arte Moderna (Modern Art Week). This event marked a pivotal moment in Brazilian art history, as these artists championed a creative language distinct from European academic traditions. Their aim was to forge a novel artistic production that melded emerging Brazilian sensibilities and themes with adaptations from global artistic movements.
Why Her Art Matters: Amaral’s impact on Brazilian culture is exemplified by her pivotal role in shaping the Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto) of 1928, authored by poet Oswald de Andrade. This manifesto advocated a radical approach to Brazilian culture, encouraging its people to enthusiastically absorb their colonial heritage and a diverse array of cultural influences.
The “Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America” exhibition offers a captivating voyage through time, culture, and art. These diverse artists, each with their unique backgrounds and contributions, have made an enduring impact on the art world. Visiting the exhibition presents an opportunity to uncover fascinating parallels among artists from Southeast Asia and Latin America, showcasing how art can be a vehicle for resistance and transformative power. Don’t miss the chance to delve into their captivating narratives at the National Gallery Singapore.