Non-Dominant Discourse: Rachel Zeng, Sha Najak, Ezzam Rahman & Seelan Palay

Art has been known to speak out of turn. In Singapore, there is a phrase, ‘O.B. marker’, that in local parlance is used to describe topics that are considered officially ‘out of bounds’. The phrase, borrowed from golfing terminology, to designate spaces where play is not allowed, on an island with limited land but a surprisingly large number of golf courses, is seldom used with irony, even if with a knowing nod.

Ezzam Rahman, "SO?", 2010, printed paper, plastic ribbon and chocolate

Humor aside, the presence and ubiquity of the expression ‘O.B. marker’ points to a condition of censorship and self-censorship that is made to seem unremarkable and is officially rationalized as necessary defense against riots on the streets and a descent into gratuitous depravity. Yet the boundaries of the topics that are ‘marked out’ are ambiguous at best and oppressive at worst, and it is generally understood that they include the subjects of race, religion, permissive lifestyles (usually referring to non-heterosexual relations), explicit sexual activity, and critique of the government. Interestingly enough, violence is not one of them, even though it may be said a certain violence is wrought upon the community unable to speak on these proscribed subjects.

Censorship of art dealing with these topics comes in different forms. Between 1994 and 2003, performance art was subjected to a de facto ban by the National Arts Council due to an unfortunate media incident involving art, after which ‘unscripted’ performances were deemed a threat (‘Art’ acts at Parkway Parade vulgar and distasteful: NAC, The Straits Times, 5 January 1994). While arguably less such over-reactions have occurred since in the visual arts, as compared to say film, theatre or the literary arts, censorship still exists even if by other means. Funding conditions, licensing, and venue availability and terms of use, are areas where censorship and self-censorship have become institutionalized.

Rachel Zeng, "Thou Shall Not Hear", 2010, mixed medium on stretched canvas.

On 3rd August, 2010, an arts community position paper on censorship and regulation was submitted to the Censorship Review Committee (2009/10) and the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (that oversees the National Arts Council and the Media Development Authority), calling for an end to censorship, and bearing 1,786 supporting signatories from the community and public. The paper arguably acts as a minority report to the official CRC report that was produced by the Committee and its secretariat, the Media Development Authority. While the exercise of reviewing censorship appears benign enough, it remains an exercise on government terms.

The exhibition Non-Dominant Discourse at Post-Museum featuring the works of Rachel Zeng, Sha Najak, Ezzam Rahman and Seelan Palay is an attempt at opening up ‘space’ for dialogue within the community through art. Quoting Martin Luther King at the opening of the exhibition, “almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world a better place,” Seelan Palay more modestly added, that while the four artists may not be able to improve the conditions of the world, they hope at least to make Singapore a little better, and doing so for them means having room for thought and expression beyond dominant and official terms. Reflecting on the challenging subjects of civil, social, cultural and political concerns, the artworks are notably measured meditations.

Rachel Zeng, (L-R) "Happily", "No High Falutin Ideas Please", "Thou Shall Not Say", "Blissfully", "Thou Shall Not Hear", 2010, mixed medium on stretched canvas

Rachel Zeng’s series of five mixed-media canvases, approximating propaganda and campaign posters, speaks of the ways in which one is taught to silence one’s views, and to accept official ideas and decrees without question, including how one should be censored or should censor one’s self. She says, “people accept censorship even though it bothers them, but they do so because they fear more than they get annoyed by the State.” While artists may appear to be the ones bearing the brunt of state censorship, the issue of censorship goes further than that. She says that people need to realize that censorship does not simply involve the removal of purported harmful material, supporting censorship legitimates the prevention of access as a principle.

Ezzam Rahman, "SO?", 2010, printed paper, plastic ribbon and chocolate

Ezzam Rahman’s ‘SO?’, an ordered, but non-chronological, display of images of Cultural Medallion winners from between 1979 and 1999 taken from the National Arts Council’s publication Narratives: Notes on a Cultural Journey: Cultural Medallion Recipients 1979 – 2001 (2002) is a lighthearted critique of cultural legitimation by the state who awards these medallions an annual basis, together with a grant of funds. The low-resolution reproduction of the faces of the recipients is less a judgment of their worthiness, as it is a commentary on the state’s hand in ranking artistic practices and the production of ‘national culture’, as evidenced by the chocolate-coin and plastic ribbon medallions that accompany the images. A billboard of seemingly anonymous faces, the artist also makes an attempt at kindling audience’s curiosity as to whom these individuals are, who one might recognize, and what they have achieved. For a relatively young nation, the subject of cultural heritage is closely tied to its nation-building narrative, a process that generally remains unquestioned.

Seelan Palay Accomplished, Staying, Changes, Recession, Deja Vu, Payday, Dangerous, 2010 Sweet’, Collage on Paper

Seelan Palay presents two series of works, both of collages, utilizing publicly available print material. One series of two works, ‘Belakang Mati (Behind Die)’, of stately-looking uniformed figures with animal heads, and ‘Kasi Siapa (Give Who?)’ of national statues and figures, comments wryly on the notion of patriotism and sacrifice for the nation. The other series of eight individual portraits, ‘Accomplished, Staying, Changes, Recession, Deja Vu, Payday, Dangerous, Sweet’, superimposes captions of these words, taken from the sports section of the local newspaper, Straits Times, upon images of ordinary individuals, that were compiled as an archive of street-fashion by art school students. Variably descriptive or disjunctive, the captions call to question what these headlines might mean for the common citizen, and the consequences of valuing citizens only through the ideals of nationalism, national success and patriotism. With an ethnically diverse population and a complex history of migrant movement, not to mention rapid economic development that has resulted in an increasingly widening income gap, suggestions of a singular national experience and identity would be possibly superficial at best, and not addressing the issues with all its complexities, unwise.

Sha Najak, “I’m still waiting for my passport”, 2010, installation series.

Finally, the work of Sha Najak, ‘I am still waiting for my passport’ (2010), an installation of enlarged photos of a passport and a letter written in Urdu, a side-table with a can of prickly heat powder (a common remedy for unbearable weather for an earlier generation), slippers, and an English translation of the letter, focuses on the relationship between her Muslim grandmother and Hindu grandfather, who due to disapproval of their inter-religious relationship, had to leave the family behind. The history of Singapore is complicated by both the earlier history of the region — its Malayan past, as well as the history of its migrant population, where both are essentialized to the island’s separation from Malaysia and its economic success, when in fact both these histories have contributed considerably to its present condition. The letter from her grandfather after he returned to India, is filled with the most mundane of questions asking for news of the family, if all are well and why the lack of replies — expressing a desire for intimacy that is being denied by religious intolerance. The reductive simplicity of racial categorization continues to be an obstacle for the artist herself, trapped in a category of ‘Indian Muslim’, a combination of religious and racial classification where while born a Muslim, the racial category of ‘Indian’ results in her often being mistaken as Tamil. The deficiencies of these categories fail to capture the cultural and ethnic richness of the artist’s heritage, and in its failure, then becomes a site of trauma and loss for her and her family.

Sha Najak, “I’m still waiting for my passport”, 2010, installation series

As a group exhibition, the subjects of the works appear quite disparate, from freedom of expression, race, state culture, nationalism and patriotism, seeming as if private grievances. However, arguably, it would have to be the case that these non-dominant discourses at first appear fragmentary, as the ruling ideology is constructed with the conscious exclusion of these other articulations. But as audiences, it is not hard to find meaning within the works, to relate to their broader concerns, and realize how putting them on the table could in fact result in a change for the better.

Yet, even in art, it is often the case that such dialogue is not possible within its own native environment. With the same reductiveness that renders these subjects tricky in its own home, they are seen as characteristics of the land and its people from a distance; and as much as they need to be discussed, it is within its own community where this needs to happen. Exhibitions that present purportedly sensitive artworks, those that cross the ‘O.B. markers’, are more likely than not, set within non-institutional spaces, if they should even succeed in being presented. As a rough guide of how far ‘out-of-bounds’ the various topics are considered, one could hazard a guess. In order of increasing proscription, it might read: explicit sexual activity, race, permissive lifestyles, religion, and then critique of the government. Here, the subject of politics within art expression is delivered the most dire of consequences, even if the other topics are not entirely devoid of politics as well. Given that these are of non-dominant discourses, it is unlikely they will succeed in becoming central concerns through direct means, and precisely for this reason, the chance of them being heard is through the art that makes it a point to give them expression.