Cheo Chai Hiang's “And Miles to Go before I Sleep”, 1975 / courtesy of National Gallery Singapore
Cheo Chai Hiang's “And Miles to Go before I Sleep”, 1975 / courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

Behind the paintings

Art May 14, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

4,109 Viewed

Singapore’s National Gallery reveals the secrets of its acquisitions

FEATURING more than 120 works from Singapore and Southeast Asia, the exhibition “(Re) collect: The Making of our Art Collection” showing through August 19 at the National Gallery Singapore paints its own picture of collecting and acquisition. The show peels back the layers of the untold stories behind the gallery’s collection and shows how it is continuing to evolve dynamically two years after opening its doors.

“With a collection of more than 8,600 visual artworks, the National Gallery Singapore continues to delve deep and uncover stories behind these works that are representative of the zeitgeist of the century,” says its director Eugene Tan.

“The diversity and inclusiveness characterise and differentiate our collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian works, opening up possibilities to connect artistic practices beyond national boundaries. This has allowed us to continue the endeavour in questioning and re-imagining what constitutes Southeast Asia through art, and through this come to understand our region’s heritage better. This would not be possible without the goodwill of the artists and private collectors who donated their precious works to us.” 

Cheo Chai Hiang's “And Miles to Go before I Sleep”, 1975 / courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

With seven different sections to the exhibition, visitors will be led on a journey that begins during post-war Singapore when art took a backseat to nation building. Here, they can witness the important milestones that led to the crystallisation of Singapore’s visual arts collection as well as how it developed as its custodianship shifted from the National Museum Art Gallery (NMAG) in 1976 to Singapore Art Museum in 1996 and to the present day National Gallery Singapore which opened in 2015.

The story begins when Dato Loke Wan Tho, a leading philanthropist, and co-founder of the Cathay Organisation, donated more than 110 works from his personal collection to Singapore in 1960, with the wish that they would eventually be housed in a new art gallery. This donation formed Singapore’s seedling collection of visual art, with the first registered artwork titled “Self-Portrait” by Chuah Thean Teng.

Georgette Chen's “Family Portrait”, 1954 /courtesy of National Gallery Singapore​​​​​​​

Dato Loke’s wish came true with the opening of the National Museum Art Gallery, which marked a concerted effort by a state-level institution to collect and display works of art for the first time. Several works from NMAG’s inaugural exhibition donated by artists will be on display at the exhibition including “And Miles to Go before I Sleep” by Singaporean artist Cheo Chai Hiang, a conceptual work comprising found objects, among them a log and a wooden laundry board bearing an excerpt from a renowned poem by Robert Frost. 

Other sections will highlight key characteristics of the gallery’s collection. They include works by Singapore’s artistic forerunners like Lim Hak Tai, Georgette Chen, Cheong Soo Pieng, as well as works engaging with aesthetics of ink painting by Lim Tze Peng, Chen Wen Hsi, Tan Oe Pang and Zao Wou-Ki. Also featured is the gallery’s new collecting focus on photography, a medium historically under-represented in the collection. 

Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul’s installation of 11 towers consists of 11,000 medical bottles /courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

Support from private donors, organisations, artists, artists’ estates and families through artwork donations, as well as the gallery’s Art Adoption and Acquisition (AAA) Programme, is critical to the building of the collection. This is highlighted through the gallery’s collection of Georgette Chen's artworks and personal documents, built up over the years by donations and the Lee Foundation. A part of this collection is on display in the exhibition, including Chen’s Family Portrait. The names of more than 400 past artwork donors and participants of the AAA programme are acknowledged in this exhibition, which demonstrates the tremendous level of support received in building the collection. 

Visitors can also look forward to getting up close to recent important acquisitions by the gallery, among them Singaporean artist Kim Lim’s “Abacus” (1959), “Pegasus” (1962) and “Naga” (1984), which will be shown together for the first time; as well as early works by Malaysian artist Latiff Mohidin, who recently became the first Southeast Asian artist to have a solo exhibition at Centre Pompidou’s In-Focus Gallery as part of National Gallery Singapore’s inaugural travelling show.

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled work, 2014-2017 /courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

In the final section of the exhibition, visitors will be able to explore the selective approach to collecting contemporary art. The gallery’s focus on drawing historical paths between works in the collection is manifested through a display of three major works by Thai artists of varying cultural backgrounds and generations – Montien Boonma, Navin Rawanchaikul and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Navin’s stirring installation of 11 towers consists of 11,000 medical bottles, half of them containing black and white photographs of the elderly, which the artist painstakingly documented. 

“This is our first attempt at coming face-to-face with the history of our collection. Our aim is to make the collecting history and acquisition practice by the Gallery more visible to the public. As a custodian of the world’s largest collection of 19th and 20th century art of Southeast Asia, we have an important responsibility to conduct research into our collection, understand where we come from, and identify the ways in which we can build the collection further for generations to come. We hope that this exhibition will enable a deeper appreciation of our National Collection and inspire interests in the layers of histories, memories and current practices that inform the building of a collection. The display complements our long-term exhibitions at the DBS Singapore Gallery and UOB Southeast Asia Gallery,” says exhibition curator Horikawa Lisa.

The exhibition continues until August 19 at the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery B and C of the National Gallery Singapore.

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