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Swallow Your Pride: A look at Serving Thots at Ultrasupernew Gallery

Curator Dylan Chan at Serving Thots at UltraSuperNew Gallery

It was another sweltering day as I stepped into the cool, long gallery of UltraSuperNew Gallery on Tyrwhitt Road. The dulcet tones of Beyoncé filled the space and there was a celebratory atmosphere.

But there was something a bit different about what, at first glance, seemed like a proud display of queer artwork. There was a cake in the corner memorialising ideas of waning youth, a hanging soft sculpture of arms locked in an embrace, glittering canvasses adorning the walls, and something clearly body-shaped under the stairs.  

June in Singapore, with its associations with Pride month, is often the harbinger of many events that celebrate queerness in all its forms. One of these celebrations comes in the form of Serving Thots, an exhibition addressing issues of sexual and emotional intimacy, body politics, and performative identity within the queer community, specifically from the perspective of the queer male. It’s apt in the wake of the repeal of Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code, which the Singaporean queer community has been fighting against for decades.

What’s in a name?

This tongue-in-cheek title Serving Thots plays on the term ‘serving’, which is prominent in drag, ballroom, and queer culture. It refers to the act of presenting or looking good, usually in reference to a stylised look or drag persona. For example, the phrase ‘serving looks’ refers to having an appealing outfit.

On the other hand, ‘thots’ is a pun on the word ‘thoughts’ and the slang ‘thot’. ‘Thot’ colloquially refers to a woman who has many casual sexual encounters. It’s an abbreviation of the phrase “that ‘ho’ over there,” with ‘ho’ being short for the word ‘whore’. Despite its origin, ‘thot’ doesn’t tend to be a derogatory term and has evolved into a more common, playful term for an attractive person of any gender. 

Perceiving bodies

While the show kicked off with a fun, sparkly facade exploring the joys of self-discovery and celebrating one’s queer identity through the body, it transitioned to a more nuanced and sensitive conversation about what it means to be both visible and invisible as a queer person with a male body in Singapore. 

In particular, there’s the visibility of queer men being recognised as people who are no longer penalised by the law for sexual acts between men. Then, there’s the visibility from the increasing celebration of queer culture in television shows and movies.

Notwithstanding this, the show recognises that there’s still a sense of invisibility amongst the community. Members are not always able to be their true selves in all contexts, and have to ‘come out’ selectively according to their respective surroundings, for both their own safety and to avoid social stigma. 

The show featured artists who work across the visual arts and fashion, like Samuel Xun and Mazri Ismail. When I asked Curator Dylan Chan about how this show came together, he explained to me that Ismail had approached him in 2021 about working on a show together that specifically addressed being a queer artist in Singapore. Coming from a fashion background, Mazri didn’t feel confident stepping into the role of curator and encouraged Chan to do so. 

Curator Dylan Chan at Serving Thots at UltraSuperNew Gallery
Curator Dylan Chan at Serving Thots at UltraSuperNew Gallery.

Chan was hesitant at first as he hadn’t curated before. But after meeting fellow artist Sean Tay during Chan’s own residency at dblspace, Chan started seriously considering the line-up of a show that explored the queer male identity; one that would examine themes of the body, abstraction, and the conflicting but intertwined concepts of pride and shame.

By the time he shortlisted some artists in late 2022, the Singapore Parliament had repealed Section 377A. It was then that things came together for Chan, as examining the role of the queer male body at this juncture in time seemed particularly relevant.

On curating

To say that Chan is a past collaborator of mine is an understatement. I’ve curated his work, edited texts for his countless proposals, and am privileged to call him my friend.

Full disclosure here, I played a small part in the show-making process of Serving Thots. I came by on an installation day to lend Chan some supplies, give him a bit of advice, and look over the show’s curatorial write-up–though I wouldn’t call myself his mentor in curation, by any means.

Dylan Chan (right) and Lizzie Wee (left) at Chan's showcase at I_S_L_A_N_D_S in 2022.
Dylan Chan (right) and me (left) at Chan’s showcase at I_S_L_A_N_D_S in 2022.

Initially, Chan struggled with the title. As a fellow curator, I merely encouraged him to own his role. It’s always a challenge to know when to step back when you’re not directly involved in the making of a show, especially as a friend who could lend a discerning eye to the overall curation and wall text.

I did, however, reluctantly excuse myself from the last two extremely packed installation days, to let Chan truly embrace curating on his own. But seeing how it all came together, I need not have worried much. 

The final outcome

Visiting the show on opening night was a delight. It was great to see the mix of different mediums and an actual cake being sliced and eaten (alongside Masuri Mazlan’s own cake-shaped sculpture!), and to speak to some of the artists directly about their works. 

At the start of the exhibition was Tay’s hanging installation, which featured stalagmite- and stalactite-looking hot glue formations that seemed to erupt or leak from items of clothing and a single face mask. They looked pretty explicit in person, especially when paired with old underwear and socks.

The formations were meant to capture moments of release, whether from an orgasm or from the emission of other bodily fluids like sweat or tears. Inspired by the tears depicted in Renaissance artworks, the installation prompted us to think about how these fluids embody the dualities of beauty and disgust, pride and shame.

Sean Tay's installation DON’T BULLY ME, I’LL CUM

Sean Tay’s installation DON’T BULLY ME, I’LL CUM 🙁 Photo courtesy of the artist.

On the walls were Xun’s recognisable, sparkly star- and floral-shaped works, which played with the idea that while glitter can draw you in, there is often an underlying desire to keep a distance from it, in order to avoid mess and fallout.

Nearby were Mazlan’s works. There was a colourful cake sculpture that touched on how birthday celebrations are joyous moments which rather ironically, also bring one closer to death. Under the stairs was a body-shaped installation wrapped in fabrics and surrounded by plants. Accompanying this was a selection of found objects, writing, and a painting of the artist’s partner. These came together to form a multi-faceted and vulnerable self-portrait that contemplated the artist’s relationship with himself and his loved ones.    

Black, taut, and shiny all over, Mazri’s Seek series evoked the textures of latex and the sensual associations of kink. One of the works depicted a ‘ring’ encased within patent PVC-wrapped wood panels, hinting at the artist’s sadness from being unable to wear a wedding ring on his finger. This sentiment sprung from the notion of how gay marriage is still illegal in Singapore, and acknowledges the difficulties in achieving the levels of emotional intimacy that might propel one to even consider such a union in the first place. 

Mus soft sculpture saw disembodied arms being locked in a frozen, suspended embrace — something that the artist has always personally craved but never received. There was an accompanying series of photographs depicting the soft sculpture wrapped around another person’s body, powerfully conveying his yearning for tenderness and care.    

I have seen Chan’s own work progress from his art school days, shifting from initially using the motif of parquet flooring to incorporating a delicate play of light and shadow. Gone were the initial works that took the forms of paper sheets imprinted with the aforementioned tiles and photographic prints.

In their places were clear acrylic structures arranged to look like parquet tiles, embossed with pale abstractions of photographs connected to his romantic relationship. This created a sense of depth in the mostly-transparent works, which played with the shadows on the wall.

Some works made me laugh at first glance, or simply assume they were about overt sexuality. But after hearing from the artists themselves, I came to understand that all the works expressed the duality of the pains and pleasures of being a part of the queer community. The artists also had to grapple with the ideas of masculinity and the cis-gendered heteronormative male gaze.

The works on display paralleled the artists’ experiences at large. They touched on the facade of being joyous, sexually open, and unapologetically proud, an image which is often incongruously paired with the reality of not being able to be legally married to those they love, or be accepted by their communities. On top of this, the works also grappled with the fear and shame of being in a same-sex relationship despite their efforts to overcome these issues. 

Being a friend of the show has also allowed me the opportunity to hear much more personal and in-depth stories behind some of these works, which to be honest, I’m not at liberty to disclose here. Some of these individuals are not fully out to their families or communities. This is the reality of being a queer person in Singapore, even when some progress has been made.

While Section 377A was repealed last year, this seems to only be the beginning. 

Shows like Serving Thots start the conversations that we need to have around how to hold space for each other when some of us are questioning our identities. How can we empower our queer friends and be better allies to them; and how can we make previous progress count while continuously striving for a more inclusive and accepting society? We should be able to openly celebrate the stories of all artists, especially those who serve us important thoughts and questions for discussion. 


Serving Thots runs from 9 – 18 June at UltraSuperNew Gallery. Click here to find out more about the show.

In the month of June, Singapore gears up for Pink Dot. Click here if you’d like contribute to their good work. 

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