Here's My Story #3: Coda Culture's founder Seelan Palay recaps his meteoric rise from expelled student to independent art gallerist
In his own words
Born an artist
Growing up, I used to draw on the walls of my family's first HDB flat in Woodlands. Most working class parents would beat their kids if they did something like that. My mother, on the other hand, repainted the entire house using a washable paint just so I could draw wherever I wanted.
My parents are not highly educated. For most of her life, my mother has been a factory worker, while my father has been a truck driver or taxi driver. Yet, my parents never wanted to stifle my natural inclination towards art.
In fact, she signed me up for art classes at the local community centre when I was about five. The art classes were interesting, but they were traumatic experiences. On the first day, I realised that I was the only non-Chinese in attendance out of 30 students. The teacher spoke only in Mandarin, completely ignoring the fact that I was present. It was the first time that I felt invisible. Until that point, I didn't know that I was different. I tried asking the boy next to me for help, but he became annoyed because he wanted to focus on his own work. This experience left a very deep impression, and affected the way I thought and viewed society from an early age.
One of my other defining moments came when I was about 10. I recall watching a travel programme about France on television while my parents were at work. It referred to an artist called Picasso, and showed some of his Cubist paintings. I thought that it was an interesting technique, so I decided to do it myself. I took five drawing blocks and made five portraits in a Picasso-esque style, and put them up on my fridge. When my mom returned home from work, I held her hand and brought her to the kitchen proudly. She praised me, and I declared for the first time that I'm an artist and it was my first exhibition. I already knew that this is what I was born to do.
Roadblocks at school
I was bored during art classes in primary school. The lessons were about painting toilet rolls and plastic bottles, and I wasn't interested in that. Instead, I was keen on making my own things, creating new realities and landscapes. When I entered secondary school, my art practice evolved into illustrations and comic books, which I photocopied and distributed to my friends.
After my O'Level exams, I didn't have the heart to tell my parents that I wanted to study fine arts at Lasalle, so I enrolled into graphic design. I felt that it was unfair for my parents, because the fees were very expensive. I couldn't even use my parents' CPF, because they had used it all up to pay for the house. I had to use my uncle's CPF, which I had to pay back. I did make the switch to fine art eventually during my first year after some encouragement from my lecturers.
I completed my first year at Lasalle's old campus on Goodman Road. I then moved to the present campus on McNally Street for my second year. A lot of the students' expressions in the old campus weren't reflected in the new site. It felt like one of those corporate buildings in the CBD. I also didn't appreciate that the fine art department was placed in the basement. As painters, being exposed to sunlight is helpful for our practice. On top of that, it seemed like we couldn't express ourselves anywhere, but we were not informed of any particular rules. I decided to start the conversation.
I prepared a few spray cans after completing my classes at around 7pm one evening. I chose pastel tones to match the tiles and walls of the space. I made a stencil out of cardboard, which read "gotta start somewhere". I then went around the basement and sprayed it a few times. I also sprayed it on the stairs that led up to the first floor to signify that the expression will somehow permeate the rest of the school and create a discussion. It might have been idealistic.
I didn't think that it would ruffle any feathers. The old school was so free, so I believed that everyone was nervous to take the first step. I thought that the school would be fine with its students taking more ownership of the spaces they worked in. That didn't happen. The guards saw me on their surveillance cameras right after I did it. The police were called the next day. Although I was never questioned by the police, I heard that my lecturers defended me. It certainly helped, because charges were never pressed. Then, the school gave me an ultimatum. They said that I had to apologise or they'll have to expel me. I was willing to explain, discuss, and even remove the work, but I wasn't going to apologise, so they expelled me. The whole process happened over two days. They told me to pack my stuff, and I was escorted out of school.
I felt lost. My peers were still in school, while I was standing on the street with nowhere to go. I was afraid that I would lose my networks, and even questioned if I could still be an artist. For at least a month, I didn't know what was going to happen, but I never stopped exhibiting. I simply could not stop expressing myself through art. Being kicked out of Lasalle made me a full-time artist. While my cohort was going through lectures and assessments, I was already exhibiting. Before they graduated, I had already done my first solo exhibition. In fact, I sold most of the works, which encouraged me to continue, knowing that there are people who liked and wanted what I did.
Performing in prison
I began Coda Culture in January 2018, but I faced some prison time soon after in October. I've been locked up before, but this time, it was different. It was part of my performance piece 32 Years.
I dressed in the same shirt and pants that wore during the performance for my trial, on the way to the prison, and on the day I left it. I was placed in solitary confinement during my two-week sentence, and for the first seven days, I didn't even have my books with me. All I had was my mind. I did speak to the wardens, but I didn't interact with the other inmates. I heard them commending me on what I did, even though they didn't fully understand the performance.
While I was in prison, I needed my friends to take care of the space. I made copies of the key and gave it to four key people. I trusted them very much, so I left it in their good hands. When I returned to the gallery after some time, the room was full of mirrors (pictured below). I found out that they had organised an exhibition, and invited close friends and supporters to bring in mirrors.
Sincerity as currency
When I first started the gallery, I didn't expect 100 people to turn up to an exhibition's opening, or for sales to be enough to sustain the space. I always had to be self-sufficient in the past, and it might be the reason why I can run this space and put up exhibitions so frequently. I've been forged in flames to make it on my own.
Art school doesn't teach you to be an artist. Being an artist involves so many aspects: PR, marketing yourself and your work, and most importantly, having a sense of resilience. It's about knowing how to survive. If you can't be a full-time artist, you have to sustain yourself with other jobs. I did a bit of freelance video editing and graphic design after I was expelled.
Coda Culture's first year was about figuring out what role the space was meant to play. In our second year, we became self-sustaining. Looking forward to our third year, I see Coda Culture expanding, not just in terms of a more centrally located, larger physical space but venturing further into new areas such as publishing and merchandising to generate more income.
While I don't get to practice as an artist as much these days, I find my fulfilment in working with great artists who are contributing to Singapore's cultural landscape. The core of everything I do is based on organic growth and sincere intentions. I've never done anything solely based on money or fame. Sincerity is a currency that I live on.
Coda Culture's next exhibition, 'at second sight', opens on 2 August, and features new works by Khairullah Rahim and Leonard Wee, alongside writings by Samantha Yap. Coda Culture is located at 5001 Beach Rd, #05-05, Golden Mile Complex, Singapore 199588. Follow Coda Culture on Instagram and Facebook for more updates.