A few years ago when I visited Singapore along with other travel writers, the tour operator showed us two large buildings — City Hall and the former Supreme Court building, which were both undergoing restoration.
This time, I am back in the city where natural beauty and man-made elegance merge amazingly. A friend in Karachi suggests that I should visit and write about the fabulous Southeast Asian art displayed at the National Art Gallery housed in the Supreme Court building. By the way, both buildings, now interconnected, appear truly jaw-dropping.
The Southeast Asian art is on display in 11 large sections, which are referred to as galleries. A folder meant for visitors claims that the collection of Southeast Asian art in the National Gallery is the largest in the world. Quite obviously, not all 8,000-plus exhibits are on display. At one time, only 400 pieces can be viewed. They are drawn from almost all Southeast Asian countries and the time span is from the 19th century to the contemporary period.
Now the question —why the 19th century? It’s simply because most of the region at that time was under colonial rule. The passage of time saw the birth of independent nations, with different civilisations and religious beliefs. The brochure of the exhibition says, “If Southeast Asia [in that period] can be characterised by one thing – it is change.”
On entering Gallery 1, one notices that photography, painting, draughtmanship and illustrations influenced map-making in that century. The Europeans were involved in drawing maps and boundaries and what seems strange is their combination of fact with fantasy. Also on display are knives, spears, swords and shields. However, the weapons are not much to write home about and cannot be classified as art forms.
The most dominant exhibit in Gallery 2 is the large oil painting on canvas by the leading 19th century Indonesian artist Raden Shah, titled Boschbrand (forest fire). Done in 1849, it captivates the calamity with a great deal of realism and a fine interplay of colours. Gallery 3 has three unforgettable oil paintings. A Burmese painter’s portrayal of the Rangoon harbour (in the 1930s) presents a riot of colours. The man who held the brush in his hand was U Ba Nyan.
The second canvas that merits mention is Abdullah Suriosubrato’s undated painting An Indonesian Village at Sunset. It faithfully captures the colours at the fleeting moment when the sun is about to bid adieu to the village. The Indonesian artist was born in 1878 and called it a day sometime in 1941.
The leisurely time of midday is faithfully painted by Jan Daniel Benon, a Dutch East Indies painter, A Lazy Afternoon (1859). It portrays the characters and the classes to which they belong to. The canvas is locked in an oriental gilded frame.
Gallery 4 is embellished with paintings by Europeans visiting or posted in Southeast Asia in the early 20th century. They found the region and its people exotic and sensual, a stark contrast with the urban modernity prevailing back home.
As you enter Gallery 5 you can’t miss a bewitching bronze figure. Sculpted by Khein Yimsiri, a Thai artist, the female figure playing on the flute has been aptly named Musical Rhythm (1949).
In Gallery 6, there are paintings and other artworks related to World War II, which show Southeast Asians were adversely affected by the disaster and destruction that came in the wake of the war.
However, if there is any painting which can be termed as the most heart-wrenching work of art, then it is Singaporean artist Teo Eng Seng’s moving portrayal of the piles of dead or almost dead women, children and old people who were massacred on 16 March 1968 by American soldiers at My Lai in North Vietnam. The helpless and unarmed victims’ number goes into hundreds which could easily be termed as an act of terrorism even before the term becomes the part of everyday vocabulary.
A welcome relief is the section on batiks. The largest and arguably the finest exhibit of this genre is titled Morning and has been created by Chuah Thean Teng, a Malaysian Chinese. Had I been allowed to run away with one piece of art, this would be it — except it is too large and no accomplices were to be found.