LGBT art in Singapore
||This article possibly contains original research. (April 2009)|
This article documents art from the LGBT community of Singapore.
Amongst the various definitions of 'publication' are 'any picture or drawing, whether made by computer-graphics or otherwise howsoever' and 'any photograph, photographic negative, photographic plate or photographic slide'. A publication is deemed 'obscene' if 'its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.'
A publication is 'objectionable' if 'in the opinion of any controller, it describes, depicts, expresses or otherwise deals with - (a) matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty, violence or the consumption of drugs or other intoxicating substances in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good.' Also if it '(ii) exploits the nudity of persons or children or both' and contravenes '(d) the standards of morality, decency and propriety that are generally accepted by reasonable members of the community.'
The offences section states, 'Any person who without reasonable excuse has in his possession any prohibited publication or any extract therefrom shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction for a first offence to a fine not exceeding $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both, and for a subsequent offence to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.'
Despite these caveats, local gay artists have, since the 1980s, been pushing at the boundaries to enable the general public to develop an appreciation for their emotional expression crafted through art.
The first openly gay artist, Ted, held a pioneering exhibition of homo-erotic art entitled "Out of the Closet" in the early 1990s .
From February 20–28, 1993, Tan Peng and American artist, John C. Goss, held Singapore's first openly gay-themed art exhibition entitled Flowing Forest, Burning Hearts, at The Substation public gallery. This two-man show was Tan's third exhibition of homoerotic work, but the first in which he came out publicly in the press as a gay man. His large pastel drawings tackled issues of importance to local gays: oppression, pressure to marry, invisibility, repressive religions, safer sex and HIV caregiving, and police entrapment. Some of his works from this watershed exhibition are archived here.
In 2000, Straitsborn Chinese or Peranakan artist, Martin Loh, discreetly displayed a series of nude male paintings at the upper levels of the John Erdos Gallery as part of his solo exhibition of largely Peranakan-themed artworks entitled 'Heightened Senses'  .
Martin Loh's 'Men in the Raw' exhibition in January 2003 was the first in Singapore to showcase homoerotic art. The exhibition showcased pieces such as 'Forbidden Kiss' (1999, pastel on paper), 'The Nibble' (2001, mixed media on napkin) and 'Size Matters' (2000, mixed media on paper). The versatile artist also experimented with a diversity of media, displaying full-figure acrylic portraits on canvas, riotously colourful male pairings in mixed media on paper and sensual traces of male outlines captured with felt pen or brush .
In 2003, gay photographer Jason Wee held a joint exhibition, together with straight female artist Parvathi Nayar, entitled 'Celestial Encounters' at the Utterly Art exhibition space in South Bridge Road , . He presented an intelligent inquiry into identity and its distortion as a consequence of misplaced notions of fashion, integration and ethnicity. Using the Chinese zodiac as a case in point, he proposed that people follow astrological predictions as a predestined or predetermined mould for themselves, rather than chart the progress of their own lives empirically. The visual devices that Wee enlisted included 1) naked male models to represent man's essential selves, 2) tattoos, gestures and contortions to represent the adoption of foreign identities and 3) digital layering of ikat images and text as garments to signify the complexity of the final self that man presents to the world.
In August 2004, 3 LGBT art exhibitions were held at local galleries: 'Red + White = Pink' at Utterly Art), 'Erotica' at Art Seasons and 'Private Edge' at B2G Gallery. These featured the oeuvres of gay artists both from Singapore and the around the region. The participating artists included Genevieve Chua, Tania De Rozario, Jane Porter, Aidah Dolrahim, Teng Nee Cheong, Martin Loh, Desmond Sim, Ernest Chan Tuck Yew, Justin Lee, Michael Lee Hong Hwee, Han Kiang Siew, Zulharli Adnan, Brian Gothong Tan, Lim Jit Hwang, Sazeli Jalal, Jason Wee, Daniel Poh, Wong Hong Weng, Nicholas Chai and Aiman Hakim.
In May 2005, artist-photographer Jason Wee, now based in New York, held a local installation art exhibition at The Substation gallery entitled 'Bao Bei'  which examined the ways through which identity is reconstructed through online personal ads. In particular, gay photographic self-portraits found online were scrutinised for their codes and tropes, and how these tropes may reveal the effects and consequences of larger political forces. One of the ground-breaking features of this exhibition was the display of nude male photographs with erections pixelated, but still discernible if one looked closely enough. He also recreated as photographs cultural works that were previously censored, such as Justin Lee's flag painting, Royston Tan's 15 and Ryan McGinley liplocked with his boyfriend in i-D magazine, which was systemically sliced from every issue sold and repackaged by Singapore's Media Development Authority (MDA), the guardian of public morality in the media.
Change in regulation
At the end of May 2005, in an amendment to the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act (Chapter 257) , nine categories of arts entertainment events including 'displays or exhibitions of art objects or paintings' were exempted from having to apply for a Public Entertainment Licence from the Media Development Authority (MDA). The landmark decision was made after consultation with MDA's arts advisory groups, following the recommendations of the 2003 Censorship Review Committee appointed by the Government arts watchdog of the time, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MITA) to exempt more 'innocuous' arts entertainment from licensing. Jason Wee's exhibition (see above) featuring pixelated erect male genitalia was mentioned in the press release and was finally deemed to be 'innocuous' by the Government.
IndigNation art events
In August 2005, gay activists, bolstered by broad-based grassroots support organised Singapore's first month-long gay pride celebration called IndigNation. The latter moniker was a clever play of words representing the gay community's displeasure at the unexpected official ban of the annual Nation mega-parties which had been approved and held without incident 4 years in a row prior to 2005 .
An exhibition by openly-gay artist Martin Loh was opened in July 2005 at the Utterly Art exhibition space in South Bridge Road. It was entitled Cerita Budak-Budak, meaning "Children's Stories" in Peranakan Malay. It was Loh's maiden foray into the genre of book illustrations. His work - colourful, naive fantasies - was used to illustrate the book Malaysian Children's Favourite Stories .
On Thursday, 4 August 2005, Singapore's first widely publicised and government-sanctioned gay poetry reading session entitled Contra/Diction– A Night With Gay Poets was held, also at Utterly Art. The gay community felt that it was time the mainstream public recognised that LGBT people made significant contributions to life and society in Singapore. Much of the local arts scene would come to a standstill if not for these gay men and women. And yet many of Singapore's most talented performers had to remain closeted or ambiguous for fear of having their livelihoods threatened. As a sign of the changing times, an invitation was put out for a night of poetry where some of Singapore's openly gay and upcoming poets read the beautiful words they had penned, birthed from within the ecstatic, the agonies and even the mundanities of their lives and discussed how their sexual orientation impacted their works as poets. Wine and snacks were served. The Media Development Authority were very helpful in facilitating the procurement of an Arts Entertainment Licence (R18) for this event within 24 hours. The event was given coverage by "Today" newspaper .
The second art exhibition of IndigNation was held from 10 August to 16 August 2005 at The Box. It was entitled Solitary Desire and featured pieces by Ong Jenn Long and Steve Chua, both young, emerging talents .
Ong's works gave a sense of mystery, provoking the audience’s imagination through the clever execution of light and shadows. The seductive visual style of his works tempted the audience to examine the subject closer and left it entirely to their interpretation. Chua's graphic design background was significant in his pieces as they reflected modern day consumerism and the effect of commercials. His intention was, in his own words, to "focus and deal with the notion of desire / image / identity", and the effect of consumerism upon the self.