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Finding the Art in our Heartlands: Independent Local Businesses

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Finding the Art in our Heartlands: Independent Local Businesses

In the past few months that we’ve collectively stayed at home, what are some places in Singapore that we have missed? In this series, we invite Singapore visual artists to respond to beloved places that have patiently awaited the day that we can visit them once more, as well as some of the essential services that have kept us going during this pandemic.

This week, artists Kamal Dollah, Mithra Jeevananthan, Ade Putra Safar and Ezzam Rahman respond to the independent local businesses that nourish our hearts, imaginations, and of course, our stomachs. Slide over the photos to reveal the artists’ works.

Blu Jaz Café | Kamal Dollah, Blu Jaz Café, Singapore, 2020

Blu Jaz Cafe - finding art in day to day lifeKamal Dollah, Blu Jaz Cafe, Singapore, 2020, batik on cotton, 40 x 50cm

One need only conduct an online news search to appreciate the importance of Blu Jaz Cafe in the local live entertainment scene. Since October 2018 – when its public entertainment license was to be cancelled due to numerous breaches of crowd control regulations — the local mainstream media has faithfully covered almost every significant development associated with Blu Jaz.

Despite the despair that gripped patrons and the business’ operators, the bar continued to thrive and in February 2020, this stalwart of Singapore’s live entertainment scene made the headlines once again: Live music performances had made a comeback at Blu Jaz Cafe.

Alas, the pandemic ushered in a new era of challenges F&B and entertainment venues such as Blu Jaz. When presented with an image of Haji Lane devoid of people and activities due to the circuit breaker measures, batik artist Kamal Dollah felt a pang of sadness. He had always known the area to be lively and vibrant. Using batik as his chosen medium, Kamal revived the once-bustling street by filling it with lush, tropical colours juxtaposed against the unique olive-green of Blu Jaz Cafe’s building facade.

“I am hopeful that the area will spring back to life again soon,” says the artist, whose mission is to promote batik painting in Singapore, and who has established a batik resource centre and art teaching studio at Wisma Geylang Serai.

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Artwork information: Kamal Dollah, Blu Jaz Cafe, Singapore, 2020, batik on cotton, 40 x 50cm. This work is for sale at the price of S$800. Please email Kamal Arts at admin [at] kamaldollah.com for further enquiries. 

Tong Mern Sern Antiques Arts & Crafts | Mithra Jeevananthan, Untitled, 2020

Tong Mern Sern Antiques Arts & Crafts - finding art in day to day lifeMithra Jeevananthan, Untitled, 2020, digital illustration, 58 x 85cm (without border)

Established in 1972, Tong Mern Sern Antiques Arts & Crafts is the perfect treasure hunting cove for those who have an eye for old collectibles. Located on a row of three-storey pre-war conserved shophouses in Tanjong Pagar, the antique shop stands out from its neighbours with its bold yellow banner that runs a no-nonsense yet thought-provoking caption:

“We buy junk and sell antiques. Some fools buy, some fools sell.”

Indeed, with the loss of Sungei Road’s Thieves’ Market, a prevalent buy-and-throw culture in Singapore and exorbitant commercial rents, the business of restoring old goods seems like a fool’s quest. Fortunately, Tong Mern Sern is owner-occupied, and is perhaps less sensitive to the vagaries of the property market.

Artist Mithra Jeevananthan was drawn to the complex facade of the antique shop as well as its maze-like interior, with multiple dimensions of time imprinted on and housed in this singular space. As the entrance of the shop reminded her of the magical cupboard in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicle of Narnia, Mithra injected a sense of fantasy to her depiction of the space. Alien-looking plants grow at the foreground of her painting.

At once fantastical and soothing, the pastel colour scheme of this work remind of the iced gem biscuits that were a local childhood staple – mapping a sense of nostalgia onto a site that has stood witness to the changing face of Singapore across the decades.

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Artwork information: Mithra Jeevananthan, Untitled, 2020, digital illustration, 58 x 85cm (with border). This work is for sale at the price of S$480. Please contact Mithra at 92728691 for further enquiries. 

Colbar Eating House | Ade Putra Safar, Cafe ColBar, 2020

Cafe ColBar - finding art in day to day lifeAde Putra Safar, Cafe ColBar, 2020, digital drawing, 30 x 42cm

While it is common for niche local businesses to appear and disappear overnight, Colbar Eating House is one of the rare establishments which has persevered for close to 70 years and has even survived a major relocation. Opened in 1953, Colbar, or colonial bar, served as a canteen for British army officers residing in the large military complex in the Alexandra Road area. In 2003, redevelopment plans earmarked Colbar for destruction. In an extraordinary move at that time, a petition to save the eatery succeeded and it was relocated brick by brick to its current Whitchurch Road site, and ultimately reinstated to its original form.

Being an artist who constantly explores the balance between chaos and order, Ade Putra Safar draws comparisons between Colbar’s natural surroundings and the unexpected flourishing of plants and wildflowers in Singapore’s urban landscape during the pandemic. “The constant manicured city, Singapore, should make wilder green spaces a permanent feature (even) after the lockdown is lifted,” suggested Ade.

While he initially considered presenting his work in colour to express the wildness and abundance of nature, he eventually decided on a strong black-and-white palette to depict the stark power and dominance of nature. Digital drawing is a new medium that Ade has picked up during the lockdown. This pandemic period has been all about making adjustments, and in a similar vein, Ade believes that one needs to constantly adapt to change and innovate with the times to survive.

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Artwork information: Ade Putra Safar, Cafe ColBar, 2020, digital drawing, 30 x 42cm. This work is for sale as a print (edition of 1) at the price of S$300. Please contact Ade at 90228881 for further enquiries. 

Woods in the Books | Ezzam Rahman, come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination, 2020

Woods in the Books - finding art in day to day lifeEzzam Rahman, come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination, 2020

Quaint’, ‘whimsical’, and ‘enchanting’ are adjectives frequently used to describe Woods in the Books, an independent bookshop with a collection that focuses on picture books, comics and graphic novels handpicked for the young and young-at-heart. It is nestled in Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s oldest low-rise housing estate and home to the famous Tiong Bahru Market. In recent years, the neighbourhood has also become the site of choice for quirky cafes and indie shops such as the bookstore itself. Founded in 2009, Woods in the Books has found a loyal following amongst families and educators. Its fans cherish it for its niche genre of books as well as the workshops that it runs for young children.

The bookstore is a familiar haunt for artist Ezzam Rahman, who would immerse himself in the imaginative space for hours whenever he needed to look for gifts and teaching materials for his godchildren, nephews, nieces and students in English speech and drama classes. The 2015 President’s Young Talents award recipient is not one to shy away from exploring new mediums. He set himself a challenge to create a pop-up book in response to this place that has always brought him back to his childhood days.

“I had so many failed attempts and was just not satisfied with the mechanical act of creating a proper pop-out artwork within a short period of time….so I decided to perform with my work, dressed in a colourful t-shirt and smiling.”

Looking here as if he is reading a book to an audience, Ezzam wishes to emulate the bright, happy and welcoming spirit that Woods in the Books embodies.

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Artwork information: Ezzam Rahman, come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination, 2020, poster print on acrylic, 29 x 21cm, and diorama (watercolour, crayon, graphite, ink, adhesive on watercolour paper on sketchbook in acrylic box), 35cm (L) X 25cm (W) X 36cm (H). This work includes both the photographic print and the diorama in an acrylic box, and is for sale at S$900. Please contact the artist at ezzamrahman [at] gmail.com for further enquiries.

Keep your eyes peeled for more artists’ creative responses to the places that they’ve missed in other articles in this series, as well as our upcoming microsite in August!

All photos in this article were shot by Jeremy Goh of Trippin’ Creatives.

 All works produced are original and were specially commissioned for this project. If works are sold, Plural Art Mag will take no commissions in respect of such sales. If you are able to, we urge you to consider acquiring a work as this will go towards sustaining our vibrant community of local creatives, as well as the wider ecosystem that supports them.

This project is produced by Plural Art Mag as part of the #SGCultureAnywhere campaign.

We are one of only a handful of independent art publications covering Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art. If you like what we do, please support us on Patreon, or get in touch about other ways to contribute towards keeping us going.

Shiyun

Shiyun

Lin Shiyun is the creative director of 3Pumpkins, a socially-engaged arts company that believes in creating inclusive arts-based platforms that build human relationships and community resilience. Her work entails working with artists to find collaborative common ground among people, public and private sectors for the benefit of social and emotional well-being of the community.

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