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CULTURE-SINGAPORE: Long Way to Go as Asia’s Arts Hub

Prime Sarmiento

CULTURE-SINGAPORE, Nov 16 2008 (IPS) - Shubigi Rao was not too happy when her husband, a pilot, was asked by his company to relocate to Singapore. Rao did not think that Singapore could offer opportunities for a budding artist like her.

Six years later Rao’s perception of Singapore has changed. “If you have new ideas, it’s easy to do it in this country. The arts community is still small so it’s easy to set up a dialogue,” she said.

In her 30s Rao has a thriving career here. She gives lectures, has exhibited in several galleries, has won awards and was recently invited by Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) to participate in the Singapore Biennale 2008.

For Rao, whose installation art was included in the two-month Biennale that ends on Sunday, this was the ideal opportunity to reach out to a bigger arts audience.

“This event features diverse artworks and it will encourage art lovers overseas to come and visit Singapore,” says Tang Ling Nah, one of the Singaporean artists participating in the Biennale.

This is the second time that Singapore has hosted this prestigious international arts exhibition. With the theme ‘Wonder’, this year’s Biennale featured 137 artworks by 66 artists and art collectives from over 36 countries.

Art featured at the Biennale, according to artistic director Fumio Nanjo, encourages the audience “to question and be curious, to punch through surfaces of what is apparent so that we can be surprised, tantalised and challenged at what is revealed or presented’’.

But more than a venue to encourage arts appreciation and expression, Singapore’s hosting of the Biennale also reflects the government’s ambition to transform Singapore -generally perceived as wealthy, staid, and an efficient place to do business in but not much else – into a bustling haven for the arts.

“Singapore has earned a reputation as a bustling hub for business and investment. But we are more than that. In recent years, we have also seen a bloom in the arts. Visual arts, music, dance, drama, theatre and literature are now very much part of life in our city,” Lee Boon Yang, Singapore’s minister for information, communications and the arts, said in a speech delivered at the opening of the Biennale in September.

In recent years, the government has built several venues to help promote Singapore as an artistic hub. These include The Esplanade, located on six hectares of land near the mouth of the Singapore River and touted as a centre for the performing arts.

There is also the Peranakan Museum, which showcases the arts and culture of Straits-born Chinese, and ‘8Q’, a new contemporary art space by the Singapore Art Museum.

Besides, the NAC provides grants to practicing artists, art collectives and companies that help promote arts appreciation in Singapore.

Emmeline Yong of ‘Objectifs’ said that thanks to a NAC grant, she was able to hold photography workshops for schoolchildren. “If you have a solid proposal, if you have something viable that makes sense, you can always find people to hear you out,” Yong said.

Government support combined with a growing interest in Asian art – artworks by Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Filipino artists have been breaking records in international art auctions – has spurred gallery owners from around the world to open shop here.

Jack Teotico, managing director of the Manila-based Galerie Joaquin, put up a branch in Singapore last year to expose Philippine art to the international market. “There’s a big cultural push in Singapore,” he explained, alluding to government investments and to the presence of multicultural, affluent and educated Singaporeans and expatriates who patronise original works.

But having the resources and the market to support an arts scene may not be enough. “Singapore is a young country. You need a long tradition to become an arts hub,” Rao noted.

The arts sector, after all, reflects a country’s cultural values and is a product of history. Key Asian arts centres such as Yogyakarta in Indonesia, Shanghai in China and New Delhi in India boast of centuries-old traditions that continue to inspire contemporary artists, she noted.

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