'Yes, I speak Indian': What it's really like to be South Asian and work in Singapore's art industry
If you aren't Indian, the matter of diverse representation within Singapore's art industry might have never crossed your mind. Bold as that assumption might be, it's certainly reflective of what I've observed behind-in-the-scenes at our national arts and academic institutions, in curatorial teams of our prominent contemporary art galleries, and in the programming of the countless exhibitions and festivals that occur every year. Singaporean-Indian artists' works, voices, and identities are rarely seen, heard, and validated in our public cultural spaces. Worse yet, it's unlikely to see an Indian in any position of power to instigate change. A couple of exceptions come to mind, but you catch my drift.
This December, 11 Indian artists have banded together to explore this glaring absence through "From your eyes to ours' (FYETO), a first-of-its-kind event consisting of visual arts exhibition 'Yes, I speak Indian' alongside peformances, talks, workshops, and a film screening at independent art gallery Coda Culture, which was founded by Seelan Palay.
Things are starting to shift, don't get me wrong. The idea of an Indian culture editor speaking to a group of Indian artists about an exhibition at an Indian-founded gallery is, in fact, a privilege that I can't overlook in these times. In a WhatsApp group, we discussed everything from the importance of self-organisation, colourism against dark-skinned Indians, and the joy of reclaiming power. Race can be an exhausting topic to mediate, but if these young artists are any indication of the future, change is definitely in the air.
Hi everyone! How did the exhibition come about and what were your main motivations for doing it?
Divaagar: This exhibition came up from a few places. I initially came up with the idea with another artist, Vimal Kumar, entitled 'Yes, I speak Indian' last year. Meanwhile Seelan and Chand were also thinking of organising an all-Indian show. Since we didn't conceive either, we worked together to create this one. There have been a lot of efforts made by Malay artists and arts workers to create shows centred around their identities, folklore or culture, and we haven't had anything like that for Indian artists yet. Collectivising and putting it out there is the first step!
I can't recall another exhibition in Singapore that has brought together an all-Indian roster of artists. I wonder why has it taken it this long. After all, Singapore is pretty small and I'm guessing most of you would have known each other before this exhibition.
Divaagar: It's definitely overdue. There's a tremendous amount of labour and sensitivity in organising a show, especially one centred around minority experiences. As artists ourselves, it's twice as taxing to conceive a show that involves many artists as we work on our own individual projects as well.
Chand: When I was approached to organise this event, the biggest weight I felt was the possibility of balancing the multiplicity of experiences with sensitivity without being exploitative as there are narratives and identities that I am not part of. On top of that, we had to confront gaps within the contemporary art scene, including brown-centred events, by having very difficult and honest conversations with each other.
I would love to hear from some of the artists. What's it really like to be Indian and work in Singapore's art industry? Has there been an instance where your identity as a brown person has affected the way you produce, exhibit, sell, or promote your work? Starting out, did you ever think you had to dim your brown-ness in your art?
Priyageetha: Art institutions often dismiss the inclusion of brown-ness from the initial conceptualisation of a work. It doesn't make it any better having a token brown academic who does nothing to support it. I have deliberately erased my identity as an Indian person in order to fit in with the majority race who are dominating the fine art field, only much later to embrace it in my works as a form of subversion. Even then, I have to pronounce myself 10 times more than the average person of the majority race.
Chand: As people who occupy different forms of marginalised identities, we learn to navigate and move through the world in certain ways. The art world isn't any different. We have to move past the notion that the art world is more progressive or liberal. At times, it can be overt in the way it critiques brown artists (even by fellow brown art peers), invalidates our experiences and art practices, especially when it comes to marginalised bodies occupying a public space.
With regards to multiplicity of experiences, could you share more about the artworks you've chosen to present in this exhibition, and how it might support or defy traditional notions of Indian-ness, if at all?
Priyageetha: The text-based work that I've presented — the brown body is a black body — relates back to our invisibility and hypervisibility as an Indian person. This work is also accompanied by a blow up doll as a satirical exaggeration of the Indian female form. We also can't dismiss the anti-black sentiment amongst...
Chand: My work, as well, deals with the exaggerated Indian feminine form by comparing the lens that views Indian forms to the lens that created and obsessed over Sara Baartman, the hottentot Venus.
Div: To be Indian, specifically Tamil, Dravida or dark-skinned Indian in Singapore is to feel unwanted. You're almost always a second thought or a token. Lighter-skinned Indians are always preferred as they are more "palatable", quiet, and unobtrusive. I'm very lucky, as the youngest artist in this show, to have found such a loving community of friends and collaborators that I know care about me and my intersectional layers of identity.
The Skarekrow: My work is based on casual racism. Over the years, I've noticed that the term "apu neh neh" has been simplified to "ah neh". It sounds like they are respectfully calling Indians "anneh" (semantic extension of "annan", which means elder brother in Tamil), but when I listened carefully to their tone and observe the context, I'll was able to tell that our society has evolved to a point where racism can be masked. The negative stereotypes and fears of dark-skinned people is a part of our society that needs to die.
Sharmeen/Sifar: Creating the work has been a cathartic experience. To shed all the years of internal normalisation of self-loathing language that has been perpetuated. My work deals with researched headlines from our main newspaper. I worked with audio and digital print to present my research. Personally, it isn't about confrontation. I'm just healing.
I would love to hear more about Wokeshop. What's it about? Also, is there any particular significance behind using the diffuser in the exhibition's cover image?
Divaagar: The diffuser's my work, entitled Why this கோழி கறி di?. It's got curry inside.
Chand: As for Wokeshop, I first created it during Divaagar's Soul Lounge (2018) as a space where ethnic minorities could talk through their anxieties of performing the labour of existence. The second iteration was materialised at Grey Projects last month by Priya and me. It followed a more concrete theme of actual strategy planning of how minorities can take up and hold space for ourselves. It was decided that this iteration of Wokeshop for FYETO would follow the same theme.
Gender seems to be another key theme here. Does gender play a major role in your lives and art?
Divaagar: The majority of art students in Singapore are female, but that doesn't seem to translate to who is actually thriving and exhibiting. It is very much a male-dominated industry, coupled with how Chinese-centric the local scene can be. There is so much artistic rigour from female and femme-identifying brown artists that doesn't permeate our art scene beyond graduation shows. Because my practice revolves around queer issues, it was easier for me to work here, because there are already queer arts workers, galleries, and collectives (Grey Projects, soft/WALL/studs, Indignation, etc) who have built that foundation. There aren't so many for Indian artists. I'm perceived male and light-skinned but ethnic. I've been tokenized in quite a few exhibitions already, because of who I appear to be, but also afforded a lot of opportunities because I am — as Div mentioned — "palatable".
I've heard a lot about inclusivity and diversity this year. Do you think representation has improved and what more can be done, so more voices can be heard in our art scene?
Chand: Representation has improved due to the labour of brown creatives and academics insisting on creating spaces for minority narratives and perspectives. What representation can possibly mean is for the people who hold power to step up, put true representation on the forefront, and take a closer look at their exhibiting tendencies and policies, instead of relying solely on minority labour.
There seems to be a lot of anger, frustration, and resentment. It's pretty fitting considering what we've all been through. Personally, I'm just exhausted.
Divaagar: This tangent might paint us as angry Indian people. I just want to take a hint from Improv 101 and say yes, and? There's much about reclaiming power through this anger, but there is much more. Our artists also offer joy and brightness, and also find room in our complex positions to find humour and explore their situations on their own terms. This exhibition and the act of collectivising in itself is an effort in confronting these things, and maybe we can also shift the way we think of these displays beyond confrontation, as organising ourselves has never been more than an act of love. But yes, the exhaustion is real queen.
'Yes, I speak Indian' is part of 'From your eyes to ours', an event that showcases Singaporean-Indian artists exclusively and the fluidity of experiences within the contemporary art Indian community through a visual exhibition, performances, talks, and workshop. 'From your eyes to ours' is on view until 20 December at Coda Culture.
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