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JOURNAL beyond borders

Rib-in Man. An Imaginative Journey of a Box

Women Beyond Borders Singapore Catalog

Susie Wong, Curator of the National Art Gallery – SINGAPORE – 2001


This exhibition further marks spaces for art made by women in Singapore. It is not on accounts that they are women that alone made such work invaluable, but because, largely opening to the theme, they reveal nuggets of thoughts and insights on themselves as women. What is encouraging is that the process of working was consciousness-raising about each individual self, about women as a community, about women in the community within that community.


This exhibition has attracted women from diverse backgrounds, living in different sub communities in Singapore. Sometimes it is the difference that forms the focal point of inquiry. Some examples: Jane Gover’s work, Close to the Edge, is a communal effort with a team of expatriate women, and their reflections of the difficult passageway between home country and the new; Ketna Patel as a diasporic Indian with routes in Kenya (birthplace) and Britain, and now in Singapore as a practicing professional architect/designer. Her box is a collaged encasement of photographs taken over a period of time, with the selection revealing a constant self referencing with Indian women living in India where she visits regularly as a tourist; Ruzana Saini’s affirmative work on the progress of Malay Muslim women from illiterate to literate, and its connection to poverty and economic well-being; Kumari Nahappan’s work utilizes materials, such as turmeric, linked to her communal practices of Hindu rites.


It does not detract from the exhibition whether or not the women artmakers concede to the potential space as space proffered for woman – as – feminist issues. In fact, the WBB (international component) does not even mention the word “feminism” in their seed document, and a further elaboration of its aims are detailed below. What remains as a significant component in the process of making of the work, is that there will always be an unconscious contextualizing by either directly or obliquely looking at the relationship of women and their communities, when they forage within systems of personal knowledge and personal experience, to come to some comfortable or uncomfortable expression if not of themselves, at best, from themselves.


For who best, except the women themselves, can produce a singular notion of what women here have come to realize and would except or reject about them selves, whether this is what would could form to the standard of equality of another order, or meet ideas of values attributed to women in another society? This exhibition has a feminist face – when it opens up opportunities for women to express “with intent and content” – to look in the mirror and discover/re-discover themselves. Women, if pockets of them are marginalized, need to egress to locate their own needs, to form their own shapes, to mark out there own spaces in which they work, fight, live, love and die. Such platforms as WBB has this terribly important role of allowing a space for women to think about these things, and to think things out for themselves.


WBB Singapore was set up along the lines created by it’s progenitor Women Beyond Borders (WBB). WBB’s aim is to:


— Honor and document women’s voices and vision;


— To build community through dialogue and collaborations;


— To inspire all women to express their creativity.


The objectives in WBB Singapore were applied in two ways:


— That women here (with a basic residency of three years) express ideas of their “women” identities;For a number of these women that these ideas emerged through a collaboration with a community of their choice.


— The works and processes by which the final creations transpired reflect some of these aims but there are multiple “accents” and they certainly inspired different anxious readings.


The collaboration is not a communal engagement among ourselves, for a sense of communal energy, but a collaboration between each artist from and already engaged perspective and a lady community of her choice. This community may be male or female, make a prize of one other intimate person, or hundreds of strangers. It’s purpose was to, hopefully, activate an interrogation/examination with the collaboration of lay communities, of the woman in Singapore today and otherwise often personifies as success is, without trying to resort to and rely, on previous and certainly western, textbook understandings of women.


Prisca Ko’s work Constraints Faced by Contemporary Women surveys a female population who inhabits HDB (public housing estates). They make up a diverse group of teenagers, single, married women with and without children, retirees. Noni Kaur obtained images of male friends and family; Ng Siew Kuan initiated her collection of thoughts at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital waiting rooms and ended at the websites; Fazelah Abas Supaat reached out to a rape victim; Dorathy Lye and Ruzana Saini obtained their contributions from friends and family as did Ye Shufang for recipes passed down from mothers to daughters; Margaret Tan collected the hair from various hairdressers, Saraswati’s box, Tentacles, awaits interaction with its audience at Sculpture Square. The collaboration with lay communities serve to demystify art and to forge a communal energy already evident in the enthusiasm and spirit in which of the boxes were taken and that exhibition was supported, by women across communities here in Singapore. The collaborative effort reveals the seamlessness of a bonded community – whatever their situation in life and wherever they are.


But it also provides insights that may, help in formulating a relevant value – definition. Similar to what has been encountered in some women’s exhibitions here, there exists a tentative resistance by some women artists to pierce excepted notions and reformulate ideas of self and worth in a community.


This is still evident in ways in which women artists present a self reflective expression from and embraced cultural, social site social or economic position – affirming there places in their respective communities. Kumari’s work Worship, is about “the mystical journey of life and hope”, reiterating and affirming the significant part that “self” plays in her religious practices. Ng Siew Kuan in her Voices of Women Time Capsule has stated that, at the outset, she felt it was not necessary to fight for equality, and she was just a “vehicle, a post box” for the collection of women’s written thoughts. Ho Soon Yeen’s Work, Transmitting Life, presents thoughts on the “genderless issue” of dying and living. Your statement concerns her father who has been ill and to whom the box is dedicated: “My Dad has been a friend since young being a traditional Asian man, he has never made me feel inferior for being female. In fact, he has allowed at the space to develop my potential as a person”. Ye Shufang’s work, Project Recipe Box – an ongoing piece, in which copies of the set of collected recipes will be exchanged during the course of the exhibition for a recipe from any of its collaborative audience – reinforces tradition but the ironic subtext title “mothers disguised as recipes disguised as art” questions this very position of value.


There are so many points on can be raised but space forbids it. Something, however, must be said about the glaring presence of this otherwise seemingly ubiquitous object identified with the exhibition. Of a standard size, diminutive in fact, the box can be transformed in anyway by the participant. It is the taking-off point of every participants work, a parallel to the framework and theme of the exhibition itself that she bears in mind. Interestingly a box had been considered as part of the body of metaphorical containers associated strongly with (or more accurately subsisting within) women’s art. Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro had discussed “theories about the high incidence of central-core imagery, of boxes, ovals, spheres, and “empty” centers in women’s art”. Outside of this, the box upon possession and handling by the artist, can seem as contradictorily as life – generating as the hope chest, or life – taking (the coffin). Whether the box should remain a container (something that keeps things in) or a prison (something to bind/hold things within) that is left to the artist to make out. Siti Annazia Hamsani, for instance viewed her gold-crocheted, and therefore, bound box as a “container for treasures, secrets, fear – feelings I dare not take out”. Suzann Victor sees the contradiction between the box and the concept of the project Women Beyond Borders that it represents: “the boxes inherently are about discrete entities/objects with their own definite boundaries, surfaces and edges. And these boundaries are walls them selves, not just an imaginary line or flat paths on the soil dividing countries not printed lines on the map”. Her work, in emasculating her box by fire and then re-interring the remains, deals with this “collision of concept and form”.


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