Sometimes a work of art just grabs you, doesn’t it? This work did precisely that when we walked past a booth at Art Stage 2018 last week. I’m talking about the pink chair in the centre of the image below although, as you can see, it also features in the each of the photographic works that surround it. That pink kopitiam chair, with the strategically-placed police baton or truncheon sticking out of its seat and the iron chain wound around its legs, is a 2011 work by artist Nila Choo. Entitled 377A, the name of the work is also scratched onto the surface of the chair.
Most Singaporeans don’t need to have the significance of the title of the work explained to them, as it has been a hotly-debated issue in our country for at least a decade. However, for the benefit of the rest of our readers, I should probably explain that it refers to Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code, a piece of legislation that criminalises homosexual activity between mutually consenting adult men. Enacted into Singapore law in 1938, Section 377A is descended from Section 11 of the United Kingdom’s Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (popularly referred to as the Labouchere Amendment, after the British MP Henry Labouchere, who proposed it). It was famously invoked ten years later, in 1895, to prosecute and convict the celebrated author Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to two years in prison.
Alan Turing, the mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist, recently played by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie, The Imitation Game, was convicted under the same law in 1952 and sentenced, at his option, to chemical castration with female hormones, as an alternative to a prison sentence. While the law in the United Kingdom has been repealed and homosexuality decriminalised, Section 377A remains law in Singapore, with our Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong saying, most recently on BBC’s Hardtalk in March 2017, that attitudes in Singapore have not changed sufficiently so as to support or justify its repeal.
Nila Choo is the alter-persona of a well-known Singapore artist who has chosen to create this work, 377A, anonymously, as a comment on the rights of the LGBTQ community and their acceptance (or lack thereof) in contemporary Singapore society. The found kopitiam chair, so ubiquitous in Singapore and so much a part of our everyday life and social interactions, is painted pink – a colour that the LGBTQ community has adopted as its symbol ever since the Nazis required that male homosexual prisoners in World War II concentration camps wear pink triangle badges as a means of identification. The meaning and symbolism behind the heavy iron chain and the police truncheon are not difficult to decipher in the light of the continuing criminalisation of homosexual activity in our country.
In creating this work, Nila Choo draws attention to and gives vent to the strong feelings of the LGBTQ community in Singapore about Section 377A. Whichever side you’re on when it comes to this polarizing issue, we think it is important, indeed crucial, that there be open and honest discussion, debate, the free sharing of experiences and exchange of opinions about the matter. In this regard, artists have always played a crucial role in society, with art operating as a kind of “free zone” – an open space for experimentation, activism, protest and even subversion. Art serves an important critical and liberating function – allowing us to openly air issues, even grievances, let off steam, poke some gentle fun at each other and, hopefully, recognise a little bit of ourselves in the other.
[Note: The series of photographs by Chris Yap were created as a response to 377A. Photographing the chair with various people, Yap asked them a series of questions which evoked the variety of reactions that you see in the photographs.]