Picture yourself somewhere tropical. What do you see?
Perhaps azure oceans, sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, exotic birds, and a golden sun?
No doubt these visualisations may draw from personal experiences, but they are also influenced by romanticised depictions of the tropics in popular culture. These portrayals trace their roots to Western paintings, travel posters, and guides that became widespread at the turn of the 20th century as a result of colonialism and technological advances in transportation.
Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America is an ambitious and sprawling exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore, aiming to overturn stereotypes of the tropics. It redefines the term “tropical” as a site of agitation (rather than something purely geographical), and establishes connections amongst artists from so-called “tropical” regions who have challenged colonial narratives and reclaimed their identities as agents of history. The arrangement of over 200 artworks is thematic, spanning three primary galleries and drawing inspiration from influential texts that critically examine colonialism.
Indolent natives, reframed
The first gallery, titled “The Myth of the Lazy Native”, begins with French artist Paul Gauguin’s Pobre pescador (Poor Fisherman, 1896). This painting, depicting a humble yet dignified fisherman against a picturesque landscape, exemplifies the widespread ‘noble savage’ trope and romanticised view of the tropics in Western art at the time. Subsequent artworks by Southeast Asian and Latin American artists are presented as a challenge against the Western gaze. One potential drawback of this framing, stemming from the West outward, is the risk of privileging the very premise that the exhibition aims to challenge. An emphasis on dichotomies such as ‘Western/non-Western’ and ’coloniser/colonised’ poses the risk of undermining the situatedness of the artistic production emphasised by the exhibition. An alternative approach for the Gallery could have been to initiate its presentation by a deliberate and specific spotlight on artworks from Southeast Asian and Latin American artists, and progressively introduce its critique of colonial narratives at a later stage.
Nonetheless, this section of the show effectively unites artists through their depictions of the harsh realities of everyday life, with a particular focus on labour. Tarsila do Amaral’s Trabalhaores (Workers, 1938) and Victorio C. Edades’ The Builders (1928) are compelling examples. In Indonesia, left-wing artists like S. Sudjojono and Hendra Gunawan used art to highlight the lives of the working class, connecting their struggles with broader social and political issues. This commitment resonates with the works of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who viewed art as a tool for political awakening and social transformation. Illustrating this is Rivera’s La molendera (Woman Grinding Maize, 1924), portraying the daily task of Aztec women as a symbol of the Mexican people’s tenacity, infused with a fervent revolutionary spirit. Numerous featured artists were deeply influenced by Marxist ideology and actively engaged in political movements. This association is implied through excerpts from the various artists’ manifestos displayed around the gallery walls.
In search of identity
The second section, “This Earth of Mankind”, explores identities through a vast number of portraits and figurative paintings. These works often carry tensions and contradictions as artists wrestled with national identities, blending tradition with innovation. The pairing of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey (1945) and Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s Self-Portrait (1958), vividly portrays the intricate interplay of race, class, gender, and sexuality in shaping identity within in the context of nation-building.
Notably, both artists borrowed visual iconography from cultures to which they did not belong. Kahlo’s Tehuana attire signifies her solidarity with Mexico’s indigenous population, while Onn’s self-representation as a Malay woman in batik questions Malayan identity politics through a queer lens. Kahlo’s portrayal of herself as an indigenous woman aligns with the post-revolutionary period in Mexico, marked by a national endeavour to forge an identity that transcended the history of colonialism. However, these romanticised narratives present a challenge by oversimplifying indigenous experience and overlooking their everyday realities. A more nuanced exploration of the complex and thorny aspects of cultural representation would have enhanced the exhibition.
Two paintings by Singaporean artist Cheong Soo Pieng, Malay Woman (1950) and Lumba Jong (1955), raise questions about the othering of indigenous bodies. The depiction of Malay fishermen in the latter is reminiscent of Gaugin’s painting in the first gallery. While the exhibition highlights Cheong’s formal experimentations, viewers are also reminded of the artist’s persistent focus on Southeast Asian nativism, often resulting in the exoticisation of his subject matter, particularly the female body. This tendency is also evident in the works of Nanyang artists Chen Wen Tsi, Chen Chong Swee, and Liu Kang, who, alongside Cheong, notably embarked on a painting trip to Bali in 1952, in search for a visual expression that was uniquely Southeast Asian. The Gallery should offer a safe environment for open discussions on these issues, enabling a more profound exploration of the historical, cultural, and social factors that shaped Nanyang art’s development, along with the complexities of the artists involved in the movement. Cheong’s technical innovation and aesthetic achievements undoubtedly played a significant role in the development of modern art in Singapore; however, it is essential to recognise the potential issue of objectifying native bodies.
Noteworthy also are works of Emiria Sunassa and Maria Auxiliadora da Silva, portraying historically marginalised subjects like the Papuans and Afro-Brazilians, far from the centre of political power. What sets their works apart is the deep resonance of solidarity, empathy, and proximity that permeates through the canvas. The exhibition catalogue is worth a read as it aptly delves into the artists’ extensive biographies, navigating the intricate webs of social, political, and cultural hierarchies that have both impeded and inspired their artistic endeavours.
A prominent thread that emerges from this gallery is the incorporation of traditional crafts, particularly textiles and weaving as conceptual devices. The works of Malaysian artist Grace Selvanayagam and Sri Lanka’s Barbara Sansoni’s exemplify challenges to the conventional boundaries between art and craft within the established hierarchy of Western art. However, given the depth and complexity of this subject, attempting to fully encapsulate it within a small section of the exhibition proves challenging. The exploration of this theme alone is substantial enough to warrant an entire dedicated show.
Subverting grand narratives
The final section, titled “The Subversive” presents a dynamic array of artworks that challenge grand narratives of all sorts. They include installations, videos and sculptures, providing insights into diverse contemporary practices. For instance, the artworks of Singaporean Malay artist, Sufi mystic, and healer, Mohammad Din Mohammad, consists of diverse items with mystical significance, serving as talismanic objects. Filipino artist David Medalla’s kinetic sculptures, Sand Machine – Blue Bamboo Batangas (1963-2019) and Cloud Canyons No. 24 (2015), draw inspiration from personal memories, giving form to the formless and rendering visible the elusive.
Especially striking are the intensely biographical paintings of Bali’s I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih. Through her pleasure-seeking, shapeshifting figures with exaggerated erotic body parts, the artist liberates herself from social conventions, gender norms, and personal trauma.
Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America stands out particularly for its revival of the radical exhibition display methods pioneered by Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. Her “crystal easels”, first introduced at the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo in 1968 and located in the first gallery, defy established norms in European museology and museography by breaking down structural, temporal and hierarchical boundaries. Their enduring contemporary appearance after 55 years underscores the timeless nature of Bo Bardi’s designs. The subsequent galleries retain an open-ended concept, presenting artworks on a wooden grid system and free-standing structures constructed from timber salvaged from Jurong Shipyard, in line with Bo Bardi’s commitment to sustainability.
Bo Bardi’s ethos of making “high culture” more accessible is also evident in the strategically placed interactive works throughout the exhibition. In Lygia Clark’s multisensory, wearable artworks like Diálogo:Óculos (Dialogue: Goggles, 1968) and Máscaras Sensoriais (Sensorial Masks, 1967), viewers transition from passive observers to active participants. Hélio Oiticica’s immersive installation, Tropicália (1966-1967, remade 2023), in the City Hall Chamber, subverts the idea of Brazil as a tropical paradise. The work invites viewers to navigate a maze-like islet, vividly capturing the complexities of Brazilian life with bright hues, concrete slabs, sandy stretches, thriving flora, make-shift structures reminiscent of favelas, and live, captive macaws.
Tropical is an immensely ambitious project flawed by its noticeable omissions. Despite 70 percent of the showcased artworks originating from Southeast Asian artists, there exists an imbalance, notably with a substantial focus on artists from Indonesia and the Philippines. Singapore and Thailand are only minimally represented and artworks from Vietnam are entirely absent. Moreover, there is a regrettable lack of representation of female artists, with only 20 per cent of the featured artists being women. Art historian Linda Nochlin, in her ground-breaking 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, highlighted that the limited visibility of women artists is not due to a scarcity of female artists but rather stems from systematic and institutional barriers. Within an exhibition aiming to challenge entrenched historical biases within traditional art canons, neglecting proactive measures to address the gender gap in art history represents a missed opportunity.
While some connections are well-established and tensions thoroughly examined, others remain less discernible. Given the sheer abundance of works in the exhibition, doing justice to the depth and significance of all the pieces proves to be a difficult task. In the exhibition, a notable challenge arises in navigating the slippery nature of terms like “modernism” and “tropical” within the broader context of Southeast Asia and Latin America. The definitions of these terms are so fluid and expansive that at times they verge on becoming all-encompassing. For instance, the exhibition intentionally broadens its scope beyond traditional notions of Southeast Asia by including pieces from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Hawaii, and New Zealand. Whilst this inclusion aims to challenge and question the definition of Southeast Asia, it also dilutes the exhibition’s focus.
Nonetheless, Tropical commendably strives to highlight connections between two important equatorial regions, showcasing how both Southeast Asian and Latin American artists have challenged a previously exclusionary artistic canon and paved the way for new modes of art-making. The embodied ambiguity and curiosity within the exhibition also yield advantages, opening up new discursive spaces for contemplating postcolonial challenges, and fostering solidarity across communities of the global south.
Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America runs from 18 November 2023 – 24 March 2024 at the National Gallery Singapore.
Header Image: Installation view, Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America, National Gallery Singapore, 2023. Image credit: National Gallery Singapore.