Revisiting Colonialism Through Art: OH! Emerald Hill
If you’ve ever taken a walk behind the hustle and bustle of Orchard Road, just a little beyond the refurbished bars, you’ll find a wonderland of colonial houses arranged across Emerald Hill. Take a moment and imagine how years ago, this place used to be a nutmeg plantation, encompassing the dreams and lives of colonials and the colonised as the boom thrived and died. With OH! Open House’s latest art walk, these fragments of history are brought to life from the imaginations of 22 artists, set up amidst homeowners’ actual houses, an international school and even shop units in Orchard Plaza.
This is the first year OH! Open House has utilised a theme to tie all of the artworks together, beyond an artist simply responding to each space provided. It’s a move that pays off in spades, and allows the entire walk to feel more cohesive and truly as if it’s taking a critical look at one of the most controversial topics in our history, particularly as we approach our bicentennial year.
Taking the form of an expedition, volunteer guides will take you on a journey through time and space as participants venture forth and rediscover houses on Emerald Hill, each one transformed by the art housed within them. Divided into three distinct ‘paths’, we started off with the Moral Hazards of Growing Nutmeg In A Faraway Land, a path that charted Emerald Hill’s history with nutmeg plantations and the shadow of colonialism that came with it. Australian based artists Nabilah Nordin and Nick Modrzewski’s ‘The Nutmeg Dream’ took over the entryway and dining room of one house with found object sculptures, as a haunting song about nutmegs (recorded by Nick himself) fills the space. One already feels the pervasiveness and precariousness of colonialism as one steps into the house, and how colonialism has had a lasting impact on our lives even today.
In fact, many of the works in this path chart that same oppressive feeling, with Anthony Chin’s Your Touch Turns To Gold greeting visitors at the door with a gigantic statue of Prince Albert’s foot. Leave your palm on the foot for a while and you’ll leave behind a gold print, suggesting hints of submission in the symbolic act, and somehow profiteering from it as a result. In the same house’s basement, Allison Low and Ho Wai Kit’s Arcane Root features flowers blooming from giant beetles crafted from sackcloth. These beetles are said to be the cause of a mass nutmeg wipeout, and are spied on by creepy Victorian children watching them accusingly from the background. Everywhere you turn, the remnants of oppression and colonialism find a way to permeate the space, worming their way into our lives.
Returning to home base at Chatsworth International School, the tour takes us around the school itself, as various artists transform the labs, halls and classrooms into art spaces. The school garden outside features Exponential Taxonomies by Weixin Chong, as she juxtaposes William Farquhar’s commissioned illustrations of plantlife against photography of the real thing, comparing and contrasting the deficiencies and advantages of each medium.
From here, guests are given a choice if they are to embark on either All The King’s Painters and Fantastic Beasts & Man-eating Flowers. Don’t worry – whichever you pick, you’ll still get to see the other one later on. In Fantastic Beasts & Man-eating Flowers, visitors return to the outside world to explore the flora and fauna of history past. If you’re a completionist though, be forewarned – on this path, your journey will fork according to the decisions you make, almost like a choose your own adventure game as you pick objects corresponding to artworks you’ll visit. In our selections, we picked a stone, leading us to a certain annual art show director’s actual home housing, amongst plenty of works from previous editions of said art show, a work by Zen Teh, featuring carefully arranged pebble landscapes and stone sculptures engraved with photo ink, commenting on kampong life.
The path then diverges again, and we picked an old camera this time, leading us to yet another big, beautiful house that housed the works of Ang Song Nian and Robert Zhao. Robert Zhao, best known for his tongue-in-cheek photography works relating to nature, played with the idea of mimicry in The Great Pretenders, documenting award winning works from The 26th Phylliidae Convention, depicting new hybrids of leaf insects. But if you can find a real leaf insect amongst the displays and photos shown, then you’re either lying or mistaken, because the true great pretenders might just be staring you right in the face.
Returning for the final guided segment of the art walk, we embarked on All The King’s Painters and saw the collision of historical illustration and how colonial painters have chosen to depict the past. Indonesian based artist Jimmy Ong presented two works here inspired by the bust of Sir Stamford Raffles. In the school hall, decapitated effigies of Raffles in the shape of the famed statue overlooking the Singapore River were hung from the ceiling, bound up by rope and thread and made of batik cloth. As opposed to Singapore, Indonesia possessed a much more antagonistic memory of Raffles, seen clearly as an oppressor as opposed to a founder, and here, the very act of sewing up these effigies suggests a form of visceral punishment by piercing needles into this voodoo-like body again and again.
Jimmy Ong himself was present to perform Open Love Letters, cooking real love letter biscuits in a grill shaped like the bust of Raffles. Each letter is stamped with a message roughly translating to how a bad man is like a fire, while a good man is like a sweet scented tree. In consuming these biscuits cooked in the fires of Raffles’ body, it becomes almost an act of freedom from colonialism, and literally eat one’s hate.
The final part of the tour is self-guided, and takes place at Orchard Plaza. Led from Chatsworth to the shopping mall by Tan Kheng Hua’s dapper barbershop quartet (a trio on the day we went), the group attracted bemused looks and glances from curious passers-by as they sang quirky rhymes and commented on the heat and humidity of the weather.
Orchard Plaza’s exhibitions are actually available to visit on one’s own accord, even if one does not join the art walk, and plays on the mall’s inherent nature of consumerism. Our favourites were no doubt Kayleigh Goh’s Gold Gold Real Estate Agency, showing off her skills as a painter using cement based canvases, while Lenne Chai’s cult-like Salvation Made Simple was finally complete. Although small, Lenne has cobbled together a club-like temple selling pre-blessed bottled water, ‘Soul Spinners’ (yes, fidget spinners) and even t-shirts depicting the cult’s resident Goddess from vending machines (support her by actually buying these products). It looks simple, but if you watch the informative series of ‘documentary’ videos and adverts on a small TV screen, you can see that a ton of work has gone into creating these laugh out loud parodies that will appeal to any millennial looking for spiritual salvation in wry humour.
OH! Open House remains a fun and key highlight of the visual arts calendar, and with its overarching theme, is more cohesive and structured than ever before, allowing it to weave a truly complex, alternative tapestry of Singapore’s colonial past, seen through the eyes of artists. Whether you’re an expat or a born and bred citizen, these works have a universality to them that will challenge everything social studies has taught you about our history and it’s definitely going to be an experience you’ll still be thinking about long after you’ve stepped out of these gorgeous houses and bear witness to these challenging works.
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