I remember very well my first “proper” art exam in Secondary One of Raffles Girls’ School in Singapore.
In defiance of gender stereotyping, our Principal had decreed that art, home economics, speech and drama, music and technical workshop classes should be accorded equal priority for us girls and so we were required to try our hand at everything.
I have always been a dismal artist, but it’s not due to a lack of big ideas. For this exam, we were required to paint a poster for a school event. I had decided that mine would be of a swimming carnival, and my key image would be that of a happy girl festively making her way down a slide, looking as though she’d be coming right out of the paper and at the viewer. Something like this:
With zero knowledge of figure drawing, shading, proportion or dare I say, perspective, I set to this Herculean task. Needless to say, the bright, splashing drops of water of my imagination quickly blurred into ill-defined lines. After a smudging incident of epic proportions, my heroine’s swimsuit dissolved into the same smeary monochrome mess as the slide. And the swimming pool. And the background colour.
I mean you know how it goes right? If you colour outside of a line, the line just has to be made darker and thicker right?
Needless to say, that kind of logic ended up in this kind of a final product:
Also, needless to say, I failed that exam, and all my classmates laughed at me. (What did you think would happen? This was Raffles, in the harsh 1990s, where there were no second chances and no #lifebeyondgrades).
Imagine then my trepidation when I was invited to take part in a mural painting workshop led by collective Tell Your Children:
Last Saturday, at the House of Vans tour event in Singapore, the art collective set this up, to a conduct a lesson in mural painting:
The mural is not at all a new art form. Cave paintings for example, count as some of the earliest murals ever made. But how is a mural different from a painting hung on a wall?
Well, murals are paintings which are simply applied directly to or made integral with wall surfaces. As a result, they are joined inextricably with the space for which they are created. Murals tend to be different from say, paintings created on a canvas, because they are (according to the experts) “organically connected with architecture, with their colours, designs and themes being able to radically alter the spatial proportions of a building.”
Unlike a painting on canvas, a mural cannot simply be taken off the surface on which it is painted and displayed elsewhere. One famous example of a mural is Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper:
Returning closer to home, Thai monk Khrua In Khong’s renditions of Thai traditions and Buddhist teachings never fail to delight us. Housed in a temple in the heart of Bangkok, Khrua had likely been commissioned by King Mongkut in the mid-1800s to produce these works as part of the King’s political strategy to showcase Thailand as a progressive, cosmopolitan society.
As a result, the monk painted on temple walls, traditional scenes which incorporated elements of Western aesthetics (for example, images of people wearing Western dress, peering into ponds of lotus flowers or buildings erected in colonial styles). Amazingly, it is said that the monk painted these iconic imagined scenes based on images he had seen from books and illustrations. Art historian John Clark describes his work as a kind of “counter-appropriation of the art styles and forms received from nineteenth-century colonialism.”
While Leonardo da Vinci’s and Khrua In Khong’s murals lie within buildings, murals are often presented in a more open and publicly accessible fashion. Such public murals are sometimes interchangeably referred to as “street art” or “graffiti,” but this is not always correct. Says Seres Lu, in this article:
“Graffiti is word-based and its ‘writers’ are mostly self-taught. The art form emerged from inner city neighbourhoods as a type of self-expression for urban youth. It’s egoistic because its “tags” are acts of personal branding by the writers. Graffiti is illegal, but it is precisely this illegal risk that gives it its counter-cultural edge.
Street art, on the other hand, is most often done by artists who have received formal training. In the beginning, the artists took their cue from graffiti in making the streets their canvas as a statement against existing establishment, and their works usually carry some overarching message for the public. Street art is usually painted with permission or commissioned.”
In a more contemporary regional context, this great list sets out some of the more well-known mural art in cities in Southeast Asia
Clearly, public murals prompt questions about the kinds of images that should be displayed for general consumption. In public spaces which are accessible to all, how does one decide what is “beautiful” or “enjoyable” to view?
Bigger questions arise as well, on whether the use of a public space should be applied to causes relevant to the public, transcending the merely beautiful. Consider, for example, activist artist William Walker in the 1960s in the United States (US), regarded by some American commentators to be a founder of the modern mural movement in the US. Walker coordinated a number of African-American artists to paint a work called The Wall of Respect, on a partly abandoned building in Chicago’s South Side. The location of the artwork served as a site of resistance, a cornerstone for the civil rights movement amongst black communities, and at one point even saw the body of a murdered artist propped up against it. (See here for more).
As far as art goes, the mural might well be the most democratic form of painting there is.
Academic David Conrad in his article Community Murals as Democratic Art and Education quite rightly observes that,
“murals are not a fine art thrust upon people by others, but an art that is accessible to all, that relates to current or historical events or experiences, and that expresses deeply felt aspirations or visions of the future.”
These are thoughts echoed by Tell Your Children co-founder Deon Phua, who I had a chance to speak with at the recently – concluded House of Vans event in Singapore.
“Art should be for everyone and not just the elites in society, and that’s what we try to embody as well, to be as inclusive as possible. It’s about growing the community. Although we have high standards and skilled artists, we also don’t want to be super exclusive, and say things to people like ‘your work is ugly.'”
This particular sketch explains Deon, was inspired by old skateboard magazines, featuring “guys with afros, skating on big ramps.”
While there was nothing overtly political about the House of Vans mural, Tell Your Children’s sketch seems to have been inspired by a style of hair associated with black culture. As it turns out, the presence of black minorities within skate culture is itself a vexed and complicated question.
As this article from Vibe explains:
“Despite claims to the contrary, kids from the ‘hood falling in love with skateboarding is not recent phenomena; the subculture has its own history within black communities, particularly on Chicago’s South Side.”
Essentially, skateboarding had its following amongst Africam Americans in the 1960s, but,
“after the invention of the ollie in the late ’70s, skating parks were rapidly developed in middle-class white neighbourhoods. Due to a lack of skateparks in the black neighbourhoods, developing advanced skill sets within the sport beyond simply balancing on the board became increasingly difficult.
The combination of suburbanization and divestment led to a loss of interest as black youth ventured into high school…leading the way for skateboarding to be associated as a sport for middle class white kids.”
The questions of diversity in the skateboarding world as well as the issues of inequality associated with access to the sport, continue to be thorny issues.
So, how did this failed art student do in her maiden attempt at mural painting?
Well, as it turns out, there’s something oddly liberating about holding a brush in my hand and feeling the drip of sticky paint as I attempted to keep my amateur brushstrokes within Tell Your Children’s predetermined outlines. I may not be an artist by any definition, but I was allowed to be a part of the creation of something deeply beautiful. It was painting by numbers in order to attract numbers.
And boy, did those numbers start to grow.
After a while, I had to try my best not to elbow the small child who had suddenly popped up next to me, joyfully stabbing away at the wall with her little paintbrush. I started to feel a little fatigued, and an annoying crick developed in my neck. Other painters were physically close, almost uncomfortably so, but yet everyone remained cocooned in their own worlds, intensely focused on the task at hand.
The whole experience was personal, and yet communal. It was skilled in its eventual output, but amateur in contributing participants. It referenced a particular image of skate culture, but one which came with its own complicated history of erased narratives.
It made me think about inclusiveness and accessibility in art, on all fronts – whether something purely beautiful to look at might qualify as public art (see here for example, for a different line of thinking), and whether the derivation of artistic inspiration from different cultures amounted to appropriation.
I wasn’t sitting for an examination this time and had no classmates to laugh at me, or teachers to pass or fail me, but one thing’s for sure – I certainly got schooled!