A feminist artist with a penchant for questing performance pieces, Singapore’s Amanda Heng has turned heads for over 20 years. As a retrospective of her work gets under way, Tania De Rozario looks back at the 60-year-old artist’s colourful career
First published on 23 Sep 2011. Updated on 16 Nov 2011.
When a woman dons the sarong kebaya of Singapore Airlines’ iconic SQ Girl and combines it with a gas mask and a gun, she’s clearly not pulling punches. And anyone familiar with the work of 2010 Cultural Medallion winner Amanda Heng, whose distinctive oeuvre first thrust her into the spotlight at home and overseas more than two decades ago, knows she means business.
A feminist artist who has dealt with the representation of women, bodies, collective memory and national identity, Heng has challenged notions of everything from mother-daughter relationships to memories of the Japanese occupation of Singapore.
But while her work has often been confrontational, the artist’s demeanour is anything but.
Now 60, with long, braided grey hair, Heng speaks softly, with the clarity of someone who has been there and done that.
A former tax officer, Heng decided to take a printmaking course at LaSalle College of the Arts in 1986 and soon went on to found two of Singapore’s most important art collectives: The Artists Village and Women in the Arts.
‘I always knew that I wanted to say something about what was happening around me,’ she says. ‘I just did not know that it was art that I wanted to do.’
But she’s been doing it ever since. Though primarily known for her performance art, her work has gradually developed over the years into an eclectic, multidisciplinary practice combining video, photography, installation and text, eventually earning her Singapore’s most prestigious award for artistic excellence last year.
October sees the opening of ‘Speak to Me, Walk with Me’, a major three-month exhibition at 8Q SAM that showcases over 50 pieces from her archive. Many of the exhibits comprise iterations of artworks spanning many years which have never been displayed in Singapore before, including two new recent projects.
It will also feature video and photo documentation of some of Heng’s earliest performances, such as ‘S/he’ (1993), which depicts the artist in front of a mirror, painting her face with traditional Chinese opera make-up while reciting the words of Confucius.
Heng was one of the first artists in Singapore to challenge notions of what constitutes both art and appropriate gender roles – concepts she continues to question to the present day.
In ‘Let’s Chat’ (2000) she replicates the set-up of a coffee shop and invites audiences to pluck beansprouts, a domestic activity which often ends up as a nexus for social interaction.
‘Singirl’ – the SQ Girl piece, first performed in 2002 – calls to account representations of Singaporean women as domestic, subservient and perpetually smiling.
Other highlights include the acclaimed ‘I Remember’, a performance piece first staged in 2005 in an effort to question our individual and collective memories, and how they are mediated.
One performance culminates in Heng getting the titular words tattooed across her back, while others are documented and presented in this retrospective.
‘Another Woman’ (1997) – originally shown at the Singapore Art Museum, and later at Japan’s inaugural Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in 1999 – will also be shown, a collection of images in which the artist embraces her elderly mother. The series is said to have been a vehicle for stimulating conversation between both women.
A likely forerunner to images by emerging photographers such as Geraldine Kang and Sean Lee, who have talked of using photography to open lines of communication within families, ‘Another Woman’ is a critical and creative investigation of blood relationships, both between two women and between two individuals separated by a generation.
Heng believes that this, her first solo exhibition on this scale, will also be the last major retrospective of her lifetime. ‘It is a very important show for me to take stock and reflect on my practice, and move on to the next phase of my life,’ she says.
For viewers unfamiliar with Heng’s work, the title of the exhibition, ‘Speak to Me, Walk with Me’, is largely indicative of her modus operandi: process is often product, and social exchanges that arise from the pieces she assembles are often seen as the work itself.
Always significant and critical, Heng is one of the few local artists of her time continually developing a unique visual language which is understood by international audiences – but which also unflinchingly addresses issues of national importance.
This retrospective is one not to miss: a show for anyone with an interest in contemporary art, and issues surrounding gender politics and notions of identity.
‘Speak to Me, Walk with Me’ is at 8Q SAM from 7 Oct-1 Jan 2012.