A Study in Singapore Bridges Artistic Expressions from Latin America and Southeast Asia with a Tropical Theme

It is whispered that in the heart of New York City, during the bustling era of the mid-20th century, a serendipitous encounter unfolded between the renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and the Filipino artist Victorio Edades. Legend speaks of a pivotal dialogue they shared, brimming with enthusiasm, on the influential role of murals in conveying political messages, as they exchanged visions of immortalizing their nations’ upheavals through art. Although concrete proof of this meeting’s occurrence remains elusive, the narrative of their supposed camaraderie has inspired artists across generations.

In this spirit, a collaborative mural by Edades, Galo B. Ocampo, and Carlos “Botong” Francisco titled “Mother Nature’s Bounty” (1935) inaugurates the exhibition “Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America” at the National Gallery Singapore. The exhibition explores the intertwined aesthetic and political threads in 20th-century art from these equatorial regions. The Philippine artists, in their depiction of their country’s revolution, drew inspiration from Mexican muralists, sharing a common historical oppressor in Spain. Both sets of artists portrayed laborers with a robust and monumental presence, creating dense and comprehensive visual narratives.

Adjacent to this mural is “Pobre Pescador” (Poor Fisherman), a 1896 work by the infamous French artist Paul Gauguin, who painted idyllic Tahitian scenes. The “Tropical” exhibition critiques Gauguin’s perpetuation of tropical stereotypes—visions of an eternal Eden, indolent inhabitants, and uninhibited romance. These tropes are particularly jarring given Gauguin’s exploitation of a young native girl as his muse and wife. Yet, rather than outright rejecting Gauguin’s legacy, the exhibition positions his oeuvre as a point of contention that many tropical artists sought to challenge. Similarly, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love,” a memoir recounting her self-discovery in Bali post-divorce, is featured to highlight its contribution to tropical clichés within a curated selection of literature.

The artworks on display challenge colonial narratives that romanticized pastoral scenes to justify territorial conquests, depicting landscapes lush with untapped wealth. Some of these landscapes are displayed on innovative structures designed by Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, a luminary of tropical modernism. For a museum in São Paulo, she showcased paintings on transparent vertical panels anchored in concrete blocks, aiming for a “marvelous entanglement” rather than a linear presentation. With labels placed behind the artworks, visitors are encouraged to perceive the collective essence of the pieces before distinguishing their geographical origins, focusing on their shared vibrant color schemes and thematic connections.

The collection predominantly counters the notion of passive, untouched lands with depictions of industrious figures, dynamic urban life, and active societies. Noteworthy are the lively urban paintings by S. Sudjojono, an Indonesian modernist pioneer, who championed the political potency of painting, asserting its origins in Egypt rather than Europe, defying its perception as a tool of colonial masters.

A striking pastoral commentary is presented by Semsar Siahaan in his 9-foot interpretation of Manet’s “Olympia,” where a reclining blonde woman in sunglasses and heels leisurely drinks from a coconut amidst a throng of locals who attend to her with a mix of servitude and curiosity. A telling detail is a brown foot protruding from beneath her bed, hinting at the subservience of those who serve the leisure of others. Siahaan also confronts the Westernization of Indonesian art with a series of sculptures he set aflame, originally crafted by his mentor at the Bandung Art Academy, which blended traditional and European styles, as a protest against the imposed “modernization” of his cultural heritage.