A few weeks ago, The Guardian published an opinion piece that suggested colonialism may have been a good thing, citing Singapore as an example of where it had gone right. As fine upstanding modern citizens of a First World country, we’re probably predisposed to immediately shun the article and cry foul over the many problems inherent within our colonial past.
It makes perfect sense then, to bring out all of these issues from our troubled past in the eighth edition of popular art walk OH! Open House, right in the heart of the historic Emerald Hill. Nestled just behind Singapore’s busiest shopping district, Emerald Hill is still home to many remnants of our pre-independence, with colonial houses lining the district and a former nutmeg plantation closely linked to the nutmeg fever that swept through the country during the mid-1800s. Linking the botanic history of the location with commodities circulating the British Empire, it seems only apt that it be the anchorpoint of this year’s OH!
This edition of OH! Open House will feature a total of 22 artists showcasing works over 7 venues. What makes this edition so different is that unlike previous years where artworks were built around homeowners and their stories, OH! Emerald Hill takes a keen look at the district’s history, bringing out colonialism and all its morally grey effects through the art featured. Said OH! artistic director Alan Oei: “Unlike other countries, we have a very different view of our colonial past – in 2019, we’re even celebrating our bicentennial anniversary since Sir Stamford Raffles first step foot here. We wanted to jumpstart and deepen that conversation about controversy surrounding the colonialism that haunts us still, what with all the discussion around it that’s sprung up recently.”
This year, beyond five grand colonial houses, OH! has also set up shop at Orchard Plaza and Chatsworth International School, utilizing unique spaces such as unused shopping units and even a science laboratory for art exhibitions. Visitors embark on a 2.5 hour tour consisting of four segments, each corresponding to a specific theme relating back to colonialism, almost like a historical expedition, trekking through time itself to learn more about our past. Visitors will see works from a giant zen Garden by Zen Teh to a sculpture of Sir Stamford Raffles turned grill by Jimmy Ong, to even a live barbershop quartet in Tan Kheng Hua’s The Mad Dog Singers.
One of the exhibitions sure to appeal is photographer Lenne Chai’s tongue-in-cheek installation Salvation Made Simple. Taking over an empty shop unit in Orchard Plaza, Lenne transforms the space into a millennial fever dream, which she has described as ‘closely resembling a Thai disco’. Walking into the space, visitors will come face to face with glowing vending machines stocking #blessed water and pre-blessed T-shirts from a fictitious goddess, taking a playful jab at how even religion has become commodified, and in the greater scheme of things, the concept of colonialism relating back to cultural appropriation. The video director is even in the process of finishing up a pseudo-advertisement for the water as well, to be played as part of the installation, and has set up an Instagram account for the brand.
Around the colonial houses, exhibitions to look out for include Anthony Chin’s Your Touch Turns To Gold, a gigantic, looming sculpture of Prince Albert’s foot that turns gold when exposed to heat (from human hands of course). Anthony has coated the foot with nutmeg essential oils, and the act of touching therefore puts nutmeg in one’s hands, and allows one to literally spin gold from it. Meanwhile, artist Mamakan takes over a fashion designer’s house with a giant lace crinoline dress to re-present and re-appropriate the story of Agnes Joaquim, the creator of the national flower Vanda Miss Joaquim, as the gilded cage she finds herself in upon being accused of not being worthy to bear the national flower.
Finally, one can even look forward to the sense of taste being stimulated during the art walk, as artist Evil Empire has joined forces with Pek Sin Choon tea merchants (who frequently collaborate with theatre companies such as Drama Box) to create a tea room in Orchard Plaza, selling cheekily named blends such as ‘Oolong Oppression’. Within each canister, there will even be a scroll that illustrates the history of tea and its colonial roots, while the tea room itself will be used as a performance space for a ritualistic act introducing audiences to the history of tea and its relation to colonial oppression.
OH! Open House looks to be ascending new heights with this politically charged edition at Emerald Hill, asking visitors to question the true value or harm that colonialism has brought to Singapore in a tour that is sure to spark off keen conversation. OH! Emerald Hill will summon the ghosts of colonial past to activate the space beyond how we’ve come to see it as a gentrified, overpriced real estate area, and is sure to leave you deep in thought and better versed in the history of the place when you leave it, haunted but humbled.
OH! Emerald Hill Art Walk takes place over the first four weekends in March (3, 4, 10, 11, 17, 18, 24, 25 March) between 11am – 5pm. Each tour lasts 2.5 hours. Tickets available from Peatix