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Art What!: National Gallery Singapore’s Dalam Southeast Asia raises the curtain on less-explored artists in the region

Exhibition views of The Tailors and the Mannequins: Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin. Image credit: Joseph Nair/ Memphis West Pictures

National Gallery Singapore invites visitors to a journey into emerging perspectives in Dalam Southeast Asia, its first-ever Project Space that features under-studied artists from the region, and innovative curatorial approaches in the presentation of Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art. Open to the public from 29th October, the space will launch with its debut show, The Tailors and the Mannequins: Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin, which will run till 10th April 2022. It is the first of four rotating, small-format exhibitions slated to roll out in the space approximately every six months till 2023.

Dalam Southeast Asia seeks to engage various audiences by diversifying the narratives featured by the Gallery, with a particular focus on representing less-studied artists and innovate more inclusive forms of storytelling. In line with the self-reflexive practices being adopted by museums worldwide, the Gallery contributes to this global moment from a distinctly Southeast Asian standpoint by sparking conversations around the myriad questions confronting the production, display, and writing of modern and contemporary art in the region.

Dalam Southeast Asia is conceived as a small format exhibition, i.e., a specially designed space that takes into consideration emerging questions around sustainable museum design and display techniques. Dalam Southeast Asia is located in the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery, and is one of the 15 galleries housing the long-term exhibition Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia since the 19th Century. Its location alongside the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery enables the public to gain an ‘inside look’ into the fresh curatorial approaches against the backdrop of key masterpieces in Singapore’s National Collection. A majority of the artworks in Dalam Southeast Asia exhibitions will be drawn from the National Collection as well, including many never-before-seen recent acquisitions and donations.

Dr Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore said: “Dalam Southeast Asia marks a significant turning point in the Gallery’s curatorial efforts to inspire dialogues around the region’s modern and contemporary art. In our mission to become a museum that is inclusive in our selection and presentation of artists and their works, we are launching our first-ever project space that debuts new artistic and curatorial perspectives in an attempt to expand and engage with the very narratives the Gallery set up in Between Declarations and Dreams. We encourage visitors to step inside the worlds and works of underexplored Southeast Asian artists, to appreciate the local and regional artistic viewpoints and practices that make up Southeast Asia’s diverse arts landscape.”

Chen Cheng Mei at her solo exhibition at NAFA, Singapore, 2014. Image courtesy of the family of the artist

Dalam Southeast Asia experiments with new approaches and ideas around the display of artworks within the physical gallery. The Malay word ‘dalam’ means ‘inside’. The word also carries esoteric undertones suggesting the ‘deep’, ‘within’ or ‘interior’. In this spirit, Dalam Southeast Asia extends an invitation to ‘go deeper’ into Southeast Asian art stories by providing visitors a glimpse into what it means to tell and experience the story of the region’s art.

You Khin at work as an architect in Qatar, c. mid-1980s. Collection of National Gallery Singapore Library & Archive, gift of You Muoy, wife of the artist.

This goes against the traditional process of museums turning to art history’s established narratives to determine which artists and works to include in exhibitions. In contrast, Dalam Southeast Asia and its series of rotating exhibitions strategically flips this process by making brand-new curatorial research visible, thereby, creating room for thinking about display as a form of research. The public is invited to approach modern and contemporary art in the region not as a fixed, canonical narrative, but rather as one that is open to ongoing critique and revision. By periodically revolving the works it displays, the space continuously refreshes the stories it tells and explores new questions and artists with every show.

Chen Cheng Mei. Trading Room. 1974. Oil on canvas, 66 x 101.5cm. Gift of anonymous donor. Collection of National Gallery Singapore

The Tailors and the Mannequins: Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin is the first exhibition to be held in this project space. The show seeks to explore how the world – including Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and beyond – was imagined and encountered in Southeast Asia’s modern art, as well as how the category “Southeast Asia’s modern art” can be imagined given the varying histories of the region’s nations.

Chen Cheng Mei. Kenyan Chieftains. 1991. Oil on canvas, 91 x 112cm. Private collection, Singapore.

To find answers, the exhibition focuses on artists Chen Cheng Mei (陈城梅;b. 1927, Singapore; d. 2020, Singapore) and You Khin (យូឃិន;b. 1947, Cambodia; d. 2009, Thailand) – outliers in most accounts of art in Singapore, Cambodia, and Southeast Asia – to spotlight the period between the 1970s and the 2000s, when encounters with people and places in far-flung locations across the Global South were a recurring inspiration for both artists.

Chen Cheng Mei. Eating Rice.1977, 60.5 x 106cm. Oil on canvas. Collection of Dr Lucy Ooi.

The exhibition title refers to You Khin’s work of the same name, The Tailors and the Mannequins brings attention to the artists’ works that emphasise fabrics and clothing, which in turn has a symbolic function in highlighting the exterior rather than interior qualities of the people the artists met on their travels. Their works often show a distanced relationship to unfamiliar people and cultures that echoes the distance between the tailors and mannequins depicted in You Khin’s work.

You Khin. Untitled (The Tailors and the Mannequins). 1981. Oil on canvas, 83 × 60 cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore.

Chen and You Khin are paired in the first show due to the various parallels found between them, beyond their shared label as outliers. Despite being born two decades apart, not knowing each other, and practicing art in very different styles, Chen and You Khin shared similar backgrounds in their art education, spent a long time overseas to develop their personal styles, resisted conventional expectations of their gender, and displayed early interest in Khmer heritage. Shared concerns underpin both artists’ works, including their tendency to record ordinary people and everyday scenes, a fascination with cloth and other tactile surfaces, and an attraction to picturing encounters with distant places and unfamiliar cultures. Overall, their works provide significant insights into their views of the world, which address the show’s central questions.

You Khin. Untitled (Doha Scene: Pakistani Bakers). 1990. Oil on canvas, 65 x 100cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore.

For visitors expecting Southeast Asian artists to depict mainly Southeast Asian scenes, this exhibition poses a novel surprise. Many of the artworks depict people and places that the artists encountered very far from “home” – such as women doing laundry that Chen sketched in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border, or bakers selling bread near You Khin’s home in Qatar.

You Khin. Untitled (People Awaiting Cargo Ship). 2000. Oil on canvas, 116 x 84cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore.

Visitors can also expect a distinct set-up in the first show. To convey a sense of “rawness” to the site and its platform for experimentation and “inside” access to the Gallery’s collection, Dalam Southeast Asia is fitted with a modular and see-through grid wall system – a new spatial element that can be used flexibly and repeatedly to display information, and provides a sustainable design feature fit for future exhibitions. The design of this modular wall system is inspired by the racks used to store artworks in the Gallery’s collection.

Exhibition views of The Tailors and the Mannequins: Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin. Image credit: Joseph Nair/ Memphis West Pictures

The exhibition is accompanied by a free e-catalogue accessible via a QR code inside Dalam Southeast Asia or on the Gallery’s website. The e-catalogue enhances the accessibility of the exhibition, and subsequent projects in Dalam Southeast Asia.

Future exhibitions slated to show in Dalam Southeast Asia will continue to spotlight more Southeast Asian artists and pioneering studies on lesser-known art practices in the region. Information on each show will be released closer to its respective opening date.

Dalam Southeast Asia and The Tailors and the Mannequins: Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin runs at National Gallery Singapore from now till 10th April 2022. For more information, visit their website

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