What Makes Me?

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Singapore’s multiculturalism birthed its arty Nanyang style.

An example of which is Cheong Soo Pieng’s famous “Drying Salted Fish” – a splendid result of intricate line work akin to Chinese ink brush techniques on a pictorial crafted by synthesizing the horizontal scroll format of Chinese painting with the easel arrangement of a Western one.

It mattered not he was an immigrant from China. He had artistic license to depict a tropical scene typical of Singapore and was applauded for adopting the Balinese style in his decorative approach and drawing inspiration from Indonesia’s sticklike wayang kulit puppets for his stylization of human features.

Insignificant too was Singapore-born Seah Kim Joo’s Chinese ancestry when he ingeniously employed the traditional Malay batik craft of laying out simple patterns on cloth for functional use in creating an aesthetic figurative modern art form that blended western-influenced stylized figures within local flavor and tropical subject matter.

It is, therefore, shocking to hear that one of London-born Yinka Shonibare’s teachers had questioned why he did not make “authentic African art”, especially since his family had taken him back to Lagos, Nigeria when he was aged three, and he had only returned to the United Kingdom to complete his ‘A’ levels and enroll into art school for his bachelor and master degrees.

That prejudiced query propelled him to ponder the meaning of authenticity and the compelling importance of his contemporary multicultural post-colonial hybrid identity.

It also catalyzed his determination to creatively use Western art history and literature in his exploration of colonialism and post-colonialism between Africa and Europe’s economic and political histories and within the current context of globalization, along side race and class issues through painting, sculpture, photography, film and performance.

For instance, he has deliberately, and with instinctive ease, re-created famous western paintings by dressing headless dummies with ‘Africanized’ clothing instead of that depicted in the originals. Two cases in point are his “Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews Without Their Heads” and “Reverend on Ice” as after Raeburn’s “The Rev Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch”.

The ‘African’ fabrics used are actually Dutch wax fabric, which were first produced in Dutch Indonesia. When the English copied and produced it, they sold it to West Africans, who then made it into well-liked ordinary pieces of clothing. Thus becoming a fake and yet authentic sign of African-ness in Africa and for Africans in England.

Thus, Yinka’s art simultaneously presents the ideal of genuine identity and that that is fabricated, thus raising the politics of authenticity.

His “Odile and Odette” at Pearl Lam Galleries exemplifies this. A video inspired by Tchaikovsky’s popular ballet “Swan Lake”, Yinka infuses the tale with a sinister twist.

For one, he has dressed the ballerinas dancing as the good and bad swans in almost identical pointe shoes and tutus made out of African fabrics. For another, the two dancers move in mirror image to each other, switching positions demarcated by an empty gold frame. Consequently, you eventually lose track of which swan is decent and which is evil.

His “Childhood Memories” exhibition at the gallery, on the other hand, breaks away from what he is internationally renown – he dwells for the first time on his years growing up in Lagos.

And you are initially seduced to wonder whether he has finally given in to external pressures to conform to making African-inspired art… until you see what he has exhibited.

His series of silkscreen prints, “Twins”, are catalyzed by memories of his discovery that in Yoruba culture, these pairs of identical siblings are regarded as celestial creatures that can bring either prosperity or misery to their parents. And, hence, are a source of anxiety and celebration.

Yet, the duo African motifs in these artworks fade almost into the background of what Yinka places in prominence – Caucasian twins celebrating their oneness in dress, talent and preferences.

They, consequently, spell out this loudly: his cross-continental background has given him alternative viewpoints on an issue; from which he is at liberty to make an informed choice. And you are left in no doubt which he has chosen.

“Girl Balancing Knowledge” and “Boy Balancing Knowledge”, in contrast, are sculptures dressed in ‘African’ textiles playfully, gleefully, confidently and effortlessly balancing a precariously high pile of books on hefty topics like ‘Nelson In England’ – a reflection of his youthful aptitude towards learning and his family’s emphasis on a good education.

Along with the fact that though he spoke Yoruba at home, he had watched British and American television, and is perfectly fluent in English, and had lived in both England and urban Nigeria.

On the surface, his “Twins Riding a Butterfly” and “Boy Sitting Beside a Hibiscus Flower” appear as surreal works of art – the sculpted children miniature against the gigantic proportions of gentle winged insect and equally soothing bloom.

Surely these belie the universal truth: wherever the globe they may be, young minds, across ethnicities, enjoy indulging in daydreams and fantasy flights of magical imagination.

It is, thus, an exhibition about finding common ground, rather than things that divide. And, for that reason, about each of us having the right to transcend above our race.

“No one ever questioned Picasso’s interest in and use of African art. But Africans are always expected to just do ‘African’ things,” says Yinka. “In the contemporary world where we all travel, that is just not realistic.”

After all Roy Lichtenstein had borrowed from the way the Japanese Edo period ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai had rendered “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” in crafting the waters that swirled around his “Drowning Girl”.

Moreover, the art of Australia’s current leading watercolorist, Tony Smibert, is heavily influenced by Japanese minimalism, the energy flow of aikido, the 1800s English School of Painting and abstract expressionism.

In addition, the tendency by some to pigeonhole by ethnicity is not realistic even in relation to the past: the Italian innovation that led to the iconic flat bread pizza was the use of tomato as a topping, after the Spanish colonizers brought this vegetable to Europe from Central and South America in the 16th century.

Paper, invented during the Han dynasty in ancient China, arrived in the Islamic world in the 8th century via the Silk Road. It only started to appear in Europe during the 10th century when Muslims made it while living in parts they had conquered that are now called Portugal, Spain and Sicily.

English is a West Germanic language that came from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain in the 5th to 7th centuries by invaders and settlers from what are now the Netherlands and Germany. And the early modern English, as used by William Shakespeare, incorporated loans from Latin, ancient Greek, French, German and Dutch.

Multiculturalism, in essence, has always been about having the freedom to choose what to adopt and adapt. And much more – we can also decide on what to keep and discard.

In my case, having ancestors who had left Canton to settle in Singapore shortly after Stamford Raffles founded it in 1819 makes my command of English infinitely better than my quaint smatterings of Cantonese and Mandarin.

South East and South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, Latin American and European cuisines are what I primarily cook. And when I do dish up Chinese, I never use a wok but, like the Malays, dine with fork and spoon.

I still value the family reunion dinner on the eve of the Chinese New Year, but the only relatives I visit the next day are my parents. Moreover, I dispense with ‘ang bao’. Instead my niece and nephews get presents to inculcate in them an appreciation of the thought I had given in selecting them the gift.

But I have no desire to dye my black hair blond, put on blue or green tinted contact lenses or go for breast enlargement. And I celebrate the deep rich tan the tropical sun blesses me, along with all native South East Asians.

Needless to say, I see myself first and foremost a Singaporean – a concept that puzzled the foreign students from the People’s Republic of China in the classes I once taught.

“How can you not consider China your motherland?” they cried.

“Suppose an English family had settled in your country for 150 years. Would you be happy that their present day descendants still call Britain their motherland?” I countered.

Not surprisingly they unanimously exclaimed, “No!”

Be drawn into Yinka Shonibare’s dialogue on what constitutes an authentic contemporary identity. His solo exhibition “Childhood Memories” runs till 13 March this year at Pearl Lam Galleries, 5 Lock Road, #01-06 Gillman Barracks, Singapore 108933.

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