Finally, the third section, Absence, features artworks that explore perspectives and phenomena that are excluded due to systemic inequalities, erased by the passage of time or eliminated through deliberate decisions. Teacher-artists looked at exclusion both through choices and non-choices. Exclusions caused by choices prompt one to investigate the consequences of decisions and provide fresh perspectives of what could have been. Eliminations and absences caused by uncontrollable external factors encourages the subject to develop methods and processes to overcome or live with it. To identify and acknowledge the absence of elements will make one examine the importance of these elements and make a clear distinction if one should allow such absence to continue or there should be attempts for restoration to the past. Exploring absence on both personal and societal levels, the works invite the audience to ponder over social exclusions and rethink the availability or non-availability of solutions in today’s society.
The declining status of one language in multilingual Singapore was a common concern of two teacher-artists. Fahmy Bin Said’s painting, National Languish Crass, updates Chua Mia Tee’s National Language Class (1959) in two ways: First, the classroom originally occupied by Chinese students learning Malay, then the newly appointed National Language when Singapore gained self-governing status, is now empty. Second, the Malay phrase “Siapa Nama Kamu” (What’s your name?) handwritten on the blackboard in the original has been replaced by its Chinese translation, “你叫什么名字?” Through this work, Fahmy wonders if the reduced usage of Malay language is due to the dominance of Chinese language and culture in Singapore today. Aini Azidah thinks otherwise; for her, Singlish is the culprit responsible for countless misspelt Malay words. Each of Aini’s “Interment” paintings shows a single word (such as “jelat”) in stark black acrylic on white canvas. On closer look, the lost letters in the original word (here, the letter “k” in “jelak”, that sick feeling after an overly rich or greasy meal) are discernible in the background as a faint texture, alluding to its displaced status as a linguistic phantom. Even as Aini is aware that language evolves, she wants to highlight the value of research on how the original words have gotten out of use over time.
In Goh Yu Jie’s highly personal and specific work, she explores the world of her son, who has autism, through the use of illustrations. Goh’s exploration of the theme ‘x’ examines exclusion due to inequalities. Her book is inspired by the true story of the arduous journey that her son has gone through since birth. Recalling instances such as the moment that her son was asked to leave his kindergarten because of lack of staff manpower, Goh addresses the inadequacy of the system and the general public in supporting children with special needs. By portraying the world of her own child, she invites audiences to have a peek at not only the struggles but also the imaginative worlds of these children. It is her hope that this absence of support can be mitigated and the world will be more inclusive in the future.
Boing! Boing! Boing! is a collaborative work by a quintet of teacher-artists: Nurrulhuda Shaik, Farah D, Anna Tay, Wang Hong Wei and Fatimah Sawifi. The work references a pinball machine to explore the ideals of feminism as it ebbs and flows over time. At present, the group feels that being a modern woman is increasingly demanding and energy consuming, just like the compressed spring on a pinball machine. Women step into multiple roles, not just at home but in society and at work—as a daughter, sister, mother, wife, colleague and even a boss lady. Like the pinball machine, the teacher-artists feel that although society’s expectations of women are high, there is satisfaction in juggling and fulfilling their roles. All that is needed is a little more energy.
The artworks in this exhibition mark the teacher-artists’ artistic responses to the exhibition themes of desire, decision and deletion distilled from the symbol ‘x’. While some works represent teacher-artists’ wish for a better situation, others revel in embracing whatever that comes their way. A number of artworks reflect conscious decisions while others embrace the unconscious and uncertain as conditions to manage. Many also examine the erasure of experiences due to marginalisation or passage of time.
Importantly, these works are the results of the relentless drive for art teachers to reflect, innovate and practice, no matter the situation. As you experience their artistic outcomes, whether offline or online, take some time to ponder over what art practice and art education mean to you in light of local and global concerns. While we look forward to better days in a post-pandemic world, these artworks serve as fodders for the imagination.
Teacher-curators Victor Gan and Maisarah Kamal, with Guest Curator Michael Lee
View the artworks here.