Women Beyond Borders Singapore Catalog
Joyce Fan, Artist and Curator – SINGAPORE – 2001
The title of my essay is taken from Lucy R. Lippard’s article of a similar title where she discusses the definition of women’s “hobby art.” She questions the boundaries that separate craft and art, “high” and “low” art, and finally, “fine” and “minor” arts. Often, the process involved in the creation of women’s art fringe upon craft work such as crocheting, needlework and quilting, thereby blurring conventional definitions that are held in distinguishing crafts from art. This is perhaps an appropriate start here to discuss the transformed boxes submitted for the curated section of WBB Singapore where craft techniques are noticeably applied in several instances. Not only are such “lowly” techniques used, the basis of the project is a pine box of an insignificant size that measures 2.5” x 3” x 2.5”. Furthermore, the box as Suzann Victor remarks in her artist’s statement, is a contradiction to the aim of the project with it’s implied boundaries. Yet interview reviewing the submissions, the box does serve well as a point of departure for each women artist as she questions and ponders over its meaning and representation of formulating her approach. The project as well as the submissions turns out to have many possible readings. One of the more pertinent questions we asked is whether there is a feminist orientation discernible in these submissions, and if there is, how it differs from that demonstrated by local artists and by expatriates who live in Singapore for an extended period of time. And besides, being a woman’s project, is there then a feminist consciousness in the participants’ formulations, although the terms “woman” and “feminism” do not necessarily equate?
Feminism unfortunately, is still a term that is shunned by many, including women themselves, for what it embraces and represents. In art, it’s basic goal as stated in the 1970s was to “change the nature of art itself, to transform culture in sweeping and permanent ways by introducing into it the heretofore suppressed perspective of women.” There is a ring of protest and of implied activism that not everyone is comfortable with. In briefly surveying the art scene in Singapore, there seems yet to be a strong feminist consciousness among the women artists in Singapore although since the early 1990s, women had began exhibiting their works openly with artists like Amanda Heng and Suzanne Victor working in the feminist mode. It is only in recent years that more women’s art projects are undertaken. Amanda along with Saraswati Gramich and Ye Shufang among others founded the Women’s Art Registry that keeps a list of women artists in Singapore. Early last year, the Women’s Art Project (WAP) took place at CHIJMES in which Suzie Wong and seven other artists embarked on site-specific installations on the premises and later in the year, Earl Lu Gallery of the LaSalle-SIA College of Arts organized an international touring exhibition, text and subtext: International Contemporary Asian Women Artists Exhibition. A three-day conference was held in conjunction with the event that brought together regional artists and writers to discuss notion’s and concerns arising from women’s art practices. This has been by far, the most ambitious event focusing on women’s art. As part of this growing consciousness in Singapore’s art scene, Women Beyond Borders Singapore (WBB Singapore) offers another platform for the voices and expressions of women. Participants in this event are not only artist but also women from different walks of life.
Reviewing the objective set by Women Beyond Borders, the co-curators feel that WBB Singapore should be open to as many participants as possible. The aim and objectives are clearly outlined in Suzie Wong’s article proceeding this essay. We are not keen to set up a selection community as we hope to display all submissions. This means that we will have a little control over the outcome of the exhibition the choice of participants or the “quality” of finish boxes. after much thought and debate, we decided on having two distinct categories – a “curated” section and an “open” section. We are conscious that by doing so, we are creating “boundaries” instead of transcending them. Therefore from the onset of these categories act as logistical tools for the organization of the exhibition. To further overcome this “created” obstacle, boxes from both categories will be exhibited undifferentiated with the 125 boxes from the WBB permanent collection. Ultimately WBB Singapore is a woman’s project and not a fine art exhibition in the conventional sense where exhibits are amongst the best by established artists. For the curated section, we targeted our invitation letters to women who are practicing artists, young and established alike who continuously engage in expressions using the visual language. We impose a certain level of discipline and formal questioning in the matter that practicing artists approach the box. Being a woman’s project, emphasis is given to the approaches that incorporate a gender consciousness. At another level, the artist should engage in community as WBB is conceived as a collaborative project. Therefore, we requested for proposals outlining approaches that will be taken, and basing the above stipulations as selection criteria, we selected 25 proposals that will be Singapore’s contribution towards the WBB permanent collection, of which 24 are featured here. Despite good intentions by these 25 artists to be faithful to their proposals, not every work is realized in the manner it is originally conceived. For a few of the artists, the approach we stipulated in the intimate scale of the project do not fit into their schemes of working such as Han Sai Por and Jesse Lim, and/or due to unforeseen circumstances, they are unable to carry out the collaboration as intended as in the case of Mary-France Dumolie and Ho Soon Yeen. In other instances, the initial idea develops into more concrete terms and the final outcome proves surprising as in the works submitted by Parvathi Nayar and Fazelah Supaat Abas. Much to can be said of the level of enthusiasm exhibited by the participants as they take on the challenge in the spirit womanhood.
With the measures put in place, the boxes are given out in November last year and returned in early January. As Linda Nochlin in her essay “ why have there been no great women artists?” Emphasizes that “art is the direct personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms…” the transformed boxes demonstrated different levels of intimacy and of personal expressions. Recalling the earlier statement on the feminist goal in art, one can say that a feminist orientation is in highlighting the “suppressed perspective of women” can be discerned in these works, however, they do not actively engage the viewer in changing attitudes towards the status of women in society as in “transform[ing] culture in sweeping and permanent ways…” instead they question the representation of women and attitudes towards her, hereby challenging the viewer to reflect upon his or her perception of women. By discussing the works of five artists, two Singaporeans and three expatriates, I would like to examine their interrogation of the “self” and to reflect on how the level of questioning differs individually in this context.
Among the works that interrogate the identity of women in the contemporary environment is I.T. Image Trap by a Annesa Connie Teo. Connie, who is now furthering her studies in ceramics in Australia, questions the images that we constantly portray to the outside world; whether we are happy to see these images and how we affect the people around us. Being trained as a visual arts educator, she cannot help but observe how strong the urges can be in her teenage charges as to forge an identity/image of themselves and for themselves. Inevitably consumed by commercialism, she asks to what extent “women are enslaved to project themselves as physical objects or are we confident enough to be looked upon as beings with enormous internal power to affect … our image conscious society.” In her presentation, she has created a flower form with stripped pedals struggling to get out from the confines of the box. She referenced it to it as a rose, using the familiar adage of a flower of beauty with its deadly thorns, and invites one to “unmask the trapped images within.” Posing a similar inquiry as Connie, Dorothy Lye focuses on the use of cosmetics as she unravels the different meanings to the term “make-up”: “the title of my work Make Up is chosen as it refers not only to the cosmetic we women apply to our faces; [the term also connotes ideas] of fabrication and supplement. Other meanings behind the words “make up” include: to collect, to put together, to parcel, to put into shape and to arrange, which tells of the process in which my artwork has been created.” Gathering old cosmetic items from friends, family and relatives, who intern help to collect from their friends, family and relatives, Dorothy sealed the original box with a collection of these objects. The box is treated as an unadorned woman, and with the attachment of each of the items, original surface is hidden from view. Eventually the box begins to look like a jewelry box, hinting at a woman hiding her “self” with cosmetics.
Ketna Patel’s use of imagining From a Picture Frame on my Mantlepiece differs from that of Connie’s and Dorothy’s. Mounting photographic cut outs on both the front and back of an old frame, Ketna tells a story of her life as a female Indian Diasporic artist. In the front of the frame, she begins life’s journey in a simplistic manner from birth to death. Based on the Hindu belief that for life to exist there must be death and distraction, and thus the image of Kali, the Goddess of Destruction marks the beginning. The original box forms a safe haven for the newborn child. The child grows up and soon she is to be someone’s bride. A second box acting as a dowry/treasure chest takes prominence in the center right of the frame, positioning marriage as an important event in traditional Indian society. Over it, Ketna pasted a photograph of a saree blouse, and the act of “undressing” of the female and transpires each time the dowry box cover is slid open, connoting to the wife’s act of submission and her duty. Death to Ketna is but an escape from the reality to which is referenced by an image of an elderly woman as she simply and quietly “slips” away. At the back of the frame, Ketna reveals the various aspects of her own life where the presentation contrasts with the neat narrative on the front. She juxtaposes photographs of get-togethers with family and friends, and her travels which she calls “memories.” By imagining her life against the conventional dictates of traditional Indian society, Ketna is conservative upbringing continuously haunts her as she tries to come to terms with her life and sense of displacement, having grown up in Kenya and England, and presently living in Singapore.
Another Indian artist, Parvathi Nayar deals with her sense of displacement. She currently lives alone in Singapore while her family are still in India. Realizing one’s need of comradeship and sense of belonging, Parvathi allocates importance on friendship. She questions the vitalness of friendship to her sense of identity, and gauges are friends in the discussion on their perceptions of her, her expectations, insight and support. She focuses on their eyes and draws and impression of them. She sees the army as an appropriate metaphor for watching, for caring and of insight. For community expanded to include her friends and family during her vacation back home in India. By breaking the box that she sees as a container for holding the things, notions, ideologies, her social and mental make-ups, Parvathi announces her transformation that took place during these therapeutic sessions in I/Eye. The act of breaking the box demonstrates her freedom from the cultural baggage she carries with her. Setting the box within the fence pasted with the eyes that she has drawn, Parvathi continues to acknowledge her personal boundaries, but finding strength in knowing the people she confides in will be there in case she strays.
The notion of “self” is also explored in Close to the Edge by Jane Gover, an expatriate who has been living for more than 10 years in Singapore. She stresses the importance of having a network of friends “who are there to pull you back when you are close to going over the edge.” Jane approaches the project in a “quilting bee” manner where her community of expatriate women who she personally knows, created diamond badges expressing their experiences as mother is in there host country. Often these women express the stress of adjustment, of coping with looking after their young children and of mundane routines they find themselves slipping into. They seem to find their self, eroding, their individuality being slowly consumed by the demands of their environment, and of finding their solace in the family.
In summarizing these five works, the approach taken by Connie and Dorothy is more introspective then Ketna, Parvathi and Jane who deal with their concerns on a more personal level. The three left her artists submissions show how each of them deal with the process of adjustment and adaptation in overcoming the problems that they face arising from geographical and cultural displacement. This observation in the different levels of questioning can also be extended to the other submissions in the curated section. Each of the works offers interesting readings. I would like to end this essay by briefly outlining the submissions that are not discussed at length in both our essays: Marie-France Dumolie takes a philosophical approach in Floating in my Void which she dedicated to suffering Afghan women; Shufang with her collection of recipes deals with memory and nostalgia in mothers disguised as recipes disguised as art; Meley in a highly religious and symbolic work Restoration, hopes to restore the woman through prayer; Rossalyn questions the role of women in today’s modern society in Indulgence; Siti heals her relationship with her mother in Journey of Love while Yvonne questions the ideal body as portrayed by popular culture in The Parcel. WBB Singapore has turned out to be a challenging project through the efforts of those involved and it is my hope that visitors can come away from the exhibition with an introspection that “something ” has been made/done.