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Threads that bind
BEST known for dressing royalty - specifically the late Princess Diana - Singaporean artist-designer Benny Ong has, in his own words, "metamorphosed" from dressing women to dressing spaces with his textile-based artworks.
In his recent exhibition, titled The Pioneering Spirit by Benny Ong, the 66-year-old combines the traditional techniques of master Laotian weavers with his own bold, graphic sense of aesthetics.
"I appreciate the beauty and nature of textiles but fashion is limited to a degree; it is very transient by definition, and there is nothing wrong with that," says Ong, who was the first Singaporean to establish his brand in London and was known for his couture-like creations and timeless designs. "But beautiful textiles created for fashion are forgotten after a season, and the appreciation of textiles should not be subject to whims and tastes. I aim to be kinder and more understanding towards textiles, and showcase many more possibilities than what I can do through fashion," he explains.
Awarded the Singapore Design Golden Jubilee Award 2015 by DesignSingapore Council under the Ministry of Communications and Information for his contributions to fashion, design, and now his cross-disciplinary exploration of textile art, Ong often headlined the British capital's fashion week presentations in the '80s alongside his peers Jasper Conran and Zandra Rhodes.
Returning to Singapore in the 1990s, Ong began working on what he regards as "styling" - helming the design of corporate identity through uniforms, corporate gifts, ties, scarves and jewellery for the British Airport Authority, IE Singapore and the Raffles International Group of Hotels. He also began travelling the region in search of traditional weavers with whom he could collaborate on woven works of art.
"The reason why I use traditional crafts is because cultural heritage that has gone on for centuries will be lost," says Ong, who visited Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia before meeting a family of master weavers in Laos. "I hope to be a conduit between the past and the contemporary by showcasing a traditional skill through modern images."
The process of creating each woven art work takes over four months from concept to final product, and it involves an intense dialogue between artist and craftsmen.
Ong, who counts the weavers he has worked with for over a decade as family, would "challenge them to break out of their moulds and help them look at their own craft and culture with a new eye".
Often, the weavers will be astounded by the resulting artwork as Ong adds other elements like an actual dangling earring that adorns the woven portrait of a Laotian woman in traditional dress, or a stack of round mirrors that form the base of flowing threads to create the impression of ripples in a pool of water.
The works in his latest collection are indeed striking: a twist on traditional wall hangings that showcase Mr Ong's characteristic bold graphics, brought to life through the delicate entwinement of individually hand-dyed silk threads. Just like how Roy Lichtenstein juxtaposed traditional Chinese landscape subjects against modern Ben-Day dots, Ong has done the opposite, employing the traditional loom to convey contemporary visuals.
For example, a portrait of the Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew wittily incorporates the silhouette of our island nation into his shirt and is simply named, The Shirt; while an image of Buddha (a recurring motif in Ong's works) depicts the sage wearing a bowler hat and pin-striped suit.
As a top international couturier, Ong's works are in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Museum Singapore, as well as archival copies of top fashion glossies like British Vogue.
And the alumnus of Central Saint Martin School of Art and Design in London has always been fixated with the organic yet resilient quality of silk, regularly working with the precious fibre to create softly diaphanous dresses and separates for which he was known.
"I've always had a lot of embroidery in my fashion pieces, and silks," recalls Ong, who has created high-end designer pieces customised for private clients, but also collaborated with high-street brands like Marks & Spencer. "Even back then, I have always wanted to work with organic materials and reflect nature in my designs. And besides, silk is one of the strongest fibres."
His latest works see a greater spectrum of media employed, with brass plates resembling traditional receptacles intertwined with fluid drapes of loose threads, and even an umbrella hung on the side of his Brit gent Buddha, adding greater dimension and complexity to the medium of fabric. Next up, a three-dimensional metal qipao "embroidered" with silk.
As Ong adds: "We are all pioneers: Raffles Hotel (where the exhibition was held) is a grande dame of hospitality; I am a pioneer in my own right when it comes to fashion; and the Laotian master-weavers are pioneers in their techniques. You have to keep evolving to ensure that this dialogue between the past and present goes on."
The Pioneering Spirit by Benny Ong exhibition at The Raffles Hotel ended on Tuesday. To view the collection, e-mail email@example.com for an appointment. Mr Ong will also be showing other new works at the Art Apart Fair, Jan 22-24, 11.30am to 9pm, Parkroyal at Pickering Hotel. Tickets are priced at S$10