Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Becoming Professional Artists in Postwar Singapore and Malaya: Developments in Art during a Time of Political Transition

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Becoming Professional Artists in Postwar Singapore and Malaya: Developments in Art during a Time of Political Transition

Article excerpt

Under conditions of colonial subjugation and anti-colonialism, artistic expression and issues of originality often became anxious and highly politicised social matters with public consequences. The socioeconomic transformations of decolonising and postcolonial nations radically altered the public sphere as can be observed in the realm of cultural production. A postcolonial critique, as Robert Young explains, takes a theoretical and political position, which 'embodies an active concept of intervention within such oppressive circumstances'. (1) The term postcolonial in this essay is not used as an interventionist concept, however, but signals the conditions brought about after colonialism and imperialism. Subsequent historical circumstances may still be positioned within what Young has described to be 'imperialism in its later sense of the global system of hegemonic economic power'. (2)

This article argues that sociopolitical events in the late colonial period, often overlooked, were nonetheless significant precursors to the modern art of postcolonial nations. The unique conditions of postwar British Malaya provided fertile grounds for the fermentation of 'new' identities, which radically transformed the social, cultural and economic landscape.

British colonial administrators and their families, though a minority, had brought along a system of making and appraising art that was familiar to them, wielding immense influence and authority on its development even as such forms of art became popularised in the colonies over time. Whilst access to such art practices generally remained confined to the more privileged (for example, middle-class European expatriates or the daughters of rich Chinese merchants), there was no stopping talented colonial subjects from developing their talents and skills in similar art forms through emulation or direct study.

The problem, however, was not whether colonial subjects were capable or incapable of making good art, though that appeared at the outset to be the focus of debate; rather, it was a matter of recognising the significance of that art as objects of aesthetic pleasure. (3) To be able to do so would necessarily identify the persons involved as capable of partaking in such activities of cultivated pleasure that historically were the prerogative of the European upper class. Pierre Bourdieu observes that for an art to imitate art instead of nature, it inevitably contains reference to its own history and demands to be perceived historically, that is 'it asks to be referred not to an external referent, the represented or designated "reality", but to the universe of past and present works of art'. (4) More significantly, the 'eye', which seeks to recognise, Bourdieu argues, is 'the product of history reproduced by education'. (5) Implicit in the cultivation of one's eye is the cultivation and recognition of 'high culture'. This process is best exemplified by the way Western upper-middle classes converted economic capital into cultural capital in the nineteenth century as they erected concert halls, art galleries and other 'temples of culture'. (6)

In nineteenth-century Europe there was a decisive shift towards commercialisation in art, as well as the rise of institutions promoting national art and culture. This shift occurred in Malaya (later, Singapore and the Federation of Malaysia) (7) in the mid-twentieth century, as observed from the financing and building of cultural centres, museums, art galleries and academies. This included the founding of an arts council and the dispatching of scholars overseas to learn how to contribute to and manage this enlarged cultural infrastructure.

The urgency of establishing a common identity was vividly felt in Singapore, which sought to bridge the gulf separating it from the rest of Malaya. Stirrings of nationalism were triggered in part by Japan's capture and occupation of Singapore in 1942, which reflected the ineptitude of the British as colonisers. …

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