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WHEN Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) artistic director Gaurav Kripalani was in Bogota, Colombia last year for the annual convention of the International Society of Performing Arts, he was often asked if he knew a certain theatre director in New York.
"Oh, you're from Singapore. Do you know Meiyin?" he'd be asked by international theatre and festival directors he met. "It seemed like everyone knew Meiyin!" quips Kripalani.
He did indeed, because Meiyin was once the resident playwright at SRT and is still its associate artist. This would be Meiyin Wang of the highly regarded Public Theater in New York, who is director of the theatre group's Devised Theatre Initiative and co-director of the company's very successful Under the Radar Festival.
Wang was born and raised in Singapore by her Taiwanese parents, studied here and then Yale in the US, and had served as resident playwright and director with SRT from 2002 to 2003. After that, she returned to New York to study for a Masters in directing, and joined Public Theater in 2006. She is also part of the growing group of Singapore-born and/or educated arts professionals who are now shaping the contemporary arts scene.
Khairuddin Hori, former Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and National Heritage Board (NHB) senior curator, is now deputy director of one of the foremost contemporary art spaces in France, Palais de Tokyo. He just curated an eye-catching, content-rich exhibition on contemporary South-east Asian artists at the space as part of the Singapore Festival in France and his job scope covers all aspects of the space's programmes.
Strides outside Singapore
Former Singapore International Arts Festival artistic director Low Kee Hong is now into his second year as head of artistic development (theatre) in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District. Operating in that territory too is Qinyi Lim, who was appointed as curator of Para/Site Art Space three years ago, marking the first time the non-profit has taken on a permanent curator. Lim also used to work at SAM and NUS Museum, from 2005 to 2011.
On the independent scene, there are arts professionals like Annie Jael Kwan, who has been working as an independent arts producer in London for more than a decade - who started plugging into the network of Singapore artists four years back.
Just as Singapore artists have long gone abroad - and increasingly so since 2000 - the administrators and facilitators in the visual and performing arts world are also taking wide strides outside Singapore.
"I think we're seeing more of this now because over the last 10 years, the arts have developed much more as an industry here in Singapore," notes Tay Tong, managing director of TheatreWorks Singapore. "So individuals have gotten experience and training, and are better skilled. And I think the working experience gained is quite specialised. So, yes, more Singaporeans in the arts industry today would be able to fit into the arts industries abroad as well."
And that knowledge and expertise is being acknowledged by the international institutions, he notes. "We needed to have that growth in Singapore before we could be considered to have a suitable experience, which I think started in the 1990s."
TheatreWorks' artistic director Ong Keng Sen was perhaps one of the first few theatre directors to get international recognition when, in 2000, he was invited to create and curate an international festival for the House of World Cultures in Berlin.
"It's wonderful to see more Singaporeans spreading their wings and it bodes well for the arts scene. Two things could happen. Hopefully, there'll be a time when they choose to return, and their breadth of knowledge and database will prove invaluable. And if they choose to stay overseas, then they're great ambassadors for Singapore arts," notes Kripalani.
Citing Wang's case, Kripalani says that her CV clearly states she's an associate of SRT. "That's great that she's proud of her roots . . . and talks of Singapore and SRT to people she meets. Her network is wonderful. I attend events, festivals and conferences all over the world, and so many people I've met know her." And if SRT ever wants to take a show to New York or anywhere else in the US, Wang will be its first point of contact.
There's definitely no doubt that Singapore artists will find it easier to have their work understood and communicated on platforms curated and designed by their counterparts overseas. While there hasn't been a cutting-edge Singapore act yet picked for the Under the Radar Festival, Singapore visual artists scored a one-up against their performing arts counterparts when about 12 of them got selected to show at Paris's Palais de Tokyo (PDT) recently.
The Secret Archipelago exhibition in France's foremost contemporary art space focusing on South-east Asian artists was curated by Khairuddin. His appointment is in part because of the museum's commitment to create a bigger "window" into contemporary art of South-east Asia and Asia. But his role isn't just to curate but to manage the space's programmes as well, notes the graduate of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). He considers his varied arts experience - and being "on the street", doing everything from fundraising to developing people skills - as having prepared him for his role today.
"For me, great art managers, curators and institutional professionals understand the needs of the artist, its public and the environment they engage with. These skills cannot be gotten solely within the 'industry', but also in the streets where real life and art happens," says the artist and former associate director at Teater Ekamatra, a Malay-language theatre company.
The proliferation of visual arts activities and rise of collectors in Asia has caused a major paradigm shift in the art world in the last decade.
The spotlight on South-east Asian art which encompasses Singapore art was certainly further primed with the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative in 2012. Singapore's June Yap, an independent curator, was appointed to curate the South and South-east Asian art section for acquisition and exhibition. Before that, she'd curated a few international exhibitions as well - hence getting known for her work.
"There's definitely a slow but growing interest in contemporary Asian art in Europe today, whereas traditionally, 'Asian art' has always meant antiquities or fine classical art," notes Kwan in London.
A 1996 theatre studies graduate of Goldsmiths, University of London, Kwan stayed on after graduation as there were more opportunities there compared to Singapore in the late 1990s. Becoming an independent producer in the mid-2000s, she has been working closer with Singapore and Asian artists as a curator since 2012.
It was then that she started exploring ideas of the globalised world and migration through projects in visual arts. "The more I discovered Singaporean artists, the more I wanted to show their work as their work ran parallel to my own creative journey," says the 2013 festival producer for SEA Fest in London, which showcased a large number of Singaporean films. For visual arts, she is the founding curator of Something Human, that has worked with Singaporean artists such as John Clang, Jason Wee, Malvina Tan, Teow Yue Han and Hanqing Miao. Her next project will feature Singaporean and British artists at the Brick Lane Gallery in London.
Meanwhile, Kwan also set up The Asia Projector, a new initiative with a programme of screenings, panels and talks through the year - focused on promoting Asian and South-east Asian films and moving image works.
"But for the audience to engage with the contemporary artworks, it's about finding how they can have discussions of the works in context. I avoid putting up just 'showcases' of art," Kwan stresses.
Yap shares that it's been interesting curating internationally. "In addition to the perspective of looking from Asia, there's the non-Asian perspective looking back at Asia - in order to contemplate ways of framing Asia beyond our assumptions of being Asian that prevent our seeing this," she says.
No preferential treatment
Ultimately though, it doesn't mean that Singaporean artists get preferential treatment, of course, as curators Lim and Khairuddin point out.
"To think that is a generalised and dangerous assumption. As curators, we acknowledge our geographical bias but that shouldn't stop us from working with other artists; especially as it's mainly about quality rather than where the artist is from," highlights Lim of Para/Site, Hong Kong's oldest independent arts space.
"I am sure that it is not the task of curators such as myself to feature more Singaporean/Asian or South- east Asian artists just because that's where I'm from," says Khairuddin. "All artists have to be producing sincere and good art before they will be considered for any kind of engagements, especially at international levels. Networking and favouritism can only bring an artist so far if the art is not of substance. Nevertheless, I do try to open paths when and where I can, but mostly at strategic levels with foundations, institutions, etc."
As Tay Tong notes, it's definitely about who the artist is rather than the nationality: "I think individual artists and cultural managers get noted because of their experience and what they do,"
The global view that permeates all realms of the economy in Singapore and also its arts has put its practitioners in a good position then, to become arts managers in any context.
In an email interview, Wang notes that her development as an artist began and was nurtured in Singapore. "I produced two of my plays independently, and I developed a lot of my drive and do-it-yourself attitude from that experience," she recalls.
"Before I left for the States, it was a really fertile time in the arts in Singapore. Theatre companies were thriving, the indie music scene was maturing, there were opportunities for young artists to make work."
She was sought after for her international perspective, as a previous interview with Mark Russell, founder of the Under The Radar Festival revealed. Russell had pointed out how her "understanding of the international theatre scene will keep American artists from being too parochial and place them on equal footing with the most adventurous artists from around the world".
And this international perspective is crucial as the world of theatre becomes more global, he noted.
Low also acknowledges how the international network and experience he brings to his role in Hong Kong is an important component to keep the global conversation going. "I pretty much work with and access the arts, cultures and artists from everywhere. Artists who circulate and whose processes and work are relevant to the international circuit are testament to their wider worldview," he adds.
And the arts world is taking notice. A theatre company director who asked not to be named reveals that he was invited to apply for the post of a festival director in Europe recently. "But I chose not to do it as I still had a lot to do in Singapore. But the fact that they wanted an Asian to helm a festival in the West was telling, and flattering. Why? I think there's a certain awareness of the skill sets that we have built up," he says.
Arts development aside, the more practical among observers would also look to the economy. After all, a big part of the reason why the West has started taking note of Asia (and Singapore in particular) is also because of the languishing economy in the West.
"Western economies, not being in such great shape, they see Asia as another market to take their shows and find their talent," points out SRT's Kripalani. "There's nothing wrong with that. Whatever the driver might be, they're paying attention now. So we have to seize the day.
"It's very important that Singapore artists don't ignore the world stage - because we live on a very tiny island that's plugged into the whole world. While it's great to have art created by Singaporeans for Singaporeans, we also have to create art for the world."
Tay Tong concurs: "Our performing arts scene is still very Singapore-based. What needs to happen is that we need to create a situation where our Singapore artists are moving around, getting opportunities to work and then gaining respect and recognition for it.
"But people will come to Singapore for collaborations because the general understanding is that we have the resources or funding potential."
Even if arts professionals working overseas wanted to fly the Singapore flag, would they have enough to choose from and to work with? That remains to be seen if more Singapore artists would make art that is universally relevant and appealing.