Arts Preview Singapore

Local heritage in a new light: An Interview with Singapore Night Festival 2022 Festival Director David Chew

After the quietude brought by the pandemic for the last two years, the annual Singapore Night Festival 2022 (SNF 2022) is back in full for its 13th edition, highlighting the Bras Basah.Bugis (BBB) precinct with a curated selection of six projection mapping installations, 15 Night Lights installations, five performance locations with over 30 performances, five experiential programmes and a Festival Village. 

At Cathay Green, a re-creation of the historical Cathay complex transports festival-goers to a surreal version of old Singapore. Audiences encounter iconic characters from the Cathay universe such as Mat Bond, Orang Minyak, Pontianak, Mambo Girl and ASP Latiff, to investigate a mysterious curse from more than 60 years ago.

Amidst the celebrations, it becomes all too easy to forget the festival’s main purpose; being organised by the National Heritage Board, it has one primary aim – to highlight and showcase our local heritage in a new light, making it more accessible and celebratory to visitors. This year’s festival also marks the first time festival director David Chew is taking the helm, who we speak to and find out more about his plans for SNF in 2022 and beyond.

Under My Tree Roof is artist Chloë Manasseh’s first voyage into translating her artwork into a digital print. It presents a collection of intricate wild spice flowers, heritage trees and native birds, right at home amidst the flora and fauna of Fort Canning Park.

“Now that it’s been over a decade since SNF started, we actually did a review, with population surveys, focus groups and more. For one thing, there’s a deep love for festivals by locals. And we also realised how the BBB precinct had its own unique character that makes it distinct as well, being all about these historic streets, hipster cafes and cultural touchstones,” says David. “It feels very local compared to say, Marina Bay for i Light Singapore, which is full of skyscrapers and office buildings, or the Light to Night Festival, which is more formal institutions like National Gallery Singapore. That’s why with this year, we decided to go hyperlocal with our programmes and offerings, and get as many local artists a platform and chance to try new projects they’ve never tried before.”

Discoloo Centre by P7:1SMA

“To differentiate ourselves further from the other festivals, we try to go beyond light installations and amp up the weekend performance and workshop elements,” he adds. “There are a lot of intimate experiences, not just in terms of the arts and culture but also in terms of food and just basking in the BBB precinct. There are so many interesting stakeholders and tenants here, and part of the festival is making people aware of them and visiting them.”

Speak Cryptic’s An Ocean Without The Anchor outside Raffles City

While technically working for the National Heritage Board (NHB), David comes from a myriad of backgrounds due to the stat board’s secondment programme, having worked with entities such as UNESCO and as a curator at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) over the last fifteen years, and has always maintained a keen understanding and relationship with local art and artists. “I do have some curatorial background, and some of the artists I’m working with this year, I encountered when I was at SAM,” says David. “In curating the works, we considered both placement and concept, especially in terms of linking the artwork to histories and heritage of the place, such as Speak Cryptic’s An Ocean Without The Anchor being located outside Raffles City, which would have then been along the Singapore shoreline before land reclamation took place in 1822. It was a natural direction to programme more local artists, and even in future editions, when more foreign artists can return, I would like to see more collaborations and co-creations with local artists rather than direct imports, and ensure that these works contain localised context that forms a connection to Singaporeans.”

A collection of larger-than-life inflatable artworks by tobyato in Fort Canning Park features birds taking pit stops to rest on their own migratory journeys.

One element of the programming of note is the involvement of not just F&B partners, but also local SMU students, whose campuses span the BBB precinct, with David emphasising how SNF is interested in building a platform for youths to come onboard. “Besides SMU groups, we’re always keen to involve other students, like how previous editions have always involved SOTA students,” says David. “Back in 2020, we also collaborated with NAFA students to create street furniture and street art for the 2021 edition of SNF, and we want to do more. There are schools that are actually running programmes that teach projection mapping, and it’s a form of long term capability development that we want to support as well, and perhaps involve such students in future editions.”

Festival-goers can look forward to food and beverage offerings at the Festival Village by partners including Alley, Praffles, The Swag Social, Sofnade, Pop’s Cafe, Tasty Chics, Wado, Vadai Queen and W Noodle. 

In essence, David’s role as Festival Director brings together everything he loves and has experienced over his storied career. “When I was offered the opportunity to do SNF, it combines what I’ve learnt as a curator and policymaking, community outreach and education, and history and art and performance,” he says. “One thing I’ve realised is how important representation and fairness are as well, and the responsibilities that come with curating a national platform like this, and giving equal opportunities to various artists, and make the sum of its parts stronger than the whole.”

Festival-goers embark on a journey to discover the stories of Queen Street, with a performance by Euphoria Pole & Aerial Studio

Further into programming, David emphasises how heritage and history has been the driving force behind the whole festival, and making it accessible to the masses and visitors from all walks of life. “The programming has something to offer something for everyone, because that’s what a festival is. Things like projection mapping, we do know that we do it every year, but people do love it, and more importantly, it links back to Singapore’s heritage and culture. Even projections like Stories from Forbidden Hill on the facade of the National Museum of Singapore, it ties back to local myths and history of the surrounding Fort Canning Park,” says David. “The aim is to show people that history and heritage can be fun, and my real measure of success lies in how many people end up walking through the doors and become converts and believers in the joy and importance of heritage.”

Adeline Tan and Benedict Teo’s The Melting Pot projected onto the NHB office building at Stamford Court

While this year’s festival feels relatively toned down compared to pre-pandemic times, David sees it as a slow but steady return, and already has big plans for future editions. “I’m excited about ideas we have for next year. With the NHB office here, I’ve been working here for 15 years, and have so many fond memories of the area, and was excited to activate the space,” he says. “In dealing with creatives, artists and stakeholders, everything feels new, with so many potential possibilities and opportunities. It’s about keeping relationships alive, like giving residents in the area sneak previews and tours since they themselves live in the area, or knowing the parties you want to curate and programme, and find the right balance.”

The iconic museum lights up as the wall carvings, royal bath and legend of Badang tell the story of Singapore’s mythical origins and history through a mix of sound, light and scenography.

“Ultimately I want to know – be it through festival engagement or museum attendance, and how can I get more people to appreciate Singapore culture,” David concludes. “In the museum, there’s this joke that curators cannot count, and even though yes, there are certain KPIs we have to hit, the end goal is really to continually create a better product. This year is the first time we’ve expanded to Fort Canning Park, and people are already going ‘oh, how can we continue to make it even bigger and better?’ Maybe in future, we’ll extend the festival into the night, and have a dusk to dawn programme? Who knows? It’s really about creating a more interesting experience, because if it’s good, people will come down, and it shouldn’t take another 10 years for us to take stock and reflect, as we continually improve and add on to the festival year on year.”

Photo Credit: Singapore Night Festival

Singapore Night Festival 2022 runs from 19th to 27th August 2022. More information available here

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