Inside The National Gallery Singapore

Inside the National Gallery Singapore
3 of our favourite things

1 March 2016

In November 2015, the National Gallery Singapore opened its doors to visitors, a good 10 years after the Singapore government announced that its old Supreme Court and City Hall would be converted into an art gallery. The transformation cost S$532 million (about US$374 million) and serves the dual purpose of preserving history and nostalgia in addition to housing the largest public collection of modern Southeast Asian and Singaporean art.

It’s been a long wait for this and our expectations were high, even if we weren’t altogether sure what we really wanted to see. All I knew was that I hoped for something impressive. Yes, such a lack of clarity, which makes me sound like an inexperienced client trying to brief writers and designers on a project.

Walking inside the two buildings and taking in the art on offer, my conclusion was that it was impressive. It has a bit of everything that one could reasonably demand of a world-class gallery – the outdoor art, the F&B (not cheap), the gallery shop (overpriced), the children’s section (very large) – but these weren’t what really captured my attention.

"Boschbrand" (Forest Fire), Raden Saleh, 1849. 300 x 396 cm. The largest painting in the gallery. Photo: National Gallery Singapore


Stark reminders of Singapore’s colonial past, the Supreme Court and City Hall buildings were designed by the British. The neo-classical City Hall – formerly known as Municipal Building – was opened in 1929, and the Supreme Court 10 years after. I was thrilled to be inside the buildings for a change. I’d only ever stood on the City Hall steps watching the rugby happening on the Padang across the road.

So much history resides in the walls, floor tiles and underground tunnels that it cannot help but be so much more than an art gallery. Many events of significance that every Singaporean child reads about in history class happened in these two buildings: Lord Louis Mountbatten announced the surrender of the Japanese forces on 12 September 1945; war crimes trials of Japanese officers took place in 1946; Lee Kuan Yew was sworn in as Singapore’s first Prime Minister on 5 June 1959.

A time capsule sits beneath the foundation stone that was laid by Sir Thomas Shenton Whitelegge Thomas on 1 April 1937. The capsule is said to contain newspapers and currency from that time and is scheduled for opening in 3000.

One of the permanent exhibitions is Authority and Anxiety, which is set in a courtroom. The courtroom itself is intact and its imposing atmosphere is so palpable even now that it gave me a bit of the shivers. The art collection - dictated by the architecture of the room - was also a tad imposing; chronicling origins, beginnings, museology, imperial courts and other old old things.


This was the law library of the Supreme Court building and it retains its scholastic aura with its high columns, domed roof and bookshelves. Most of the materials here are part of the Resource Centre, which visitors can access on the fourth floor. In the gallery itself are binders full of information that form the Indonesian Visual Art Archive (1857-1965). The quaintest thing about this gallery must be its reading corners, some fitted with videos to watch or quotes on the wall to ponder by people such as Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.

We have a soft spot for scholarly auras.


The diversity of the collection at the gallery stands out because it spans not just years or techniques, but also movements. From factual documentations such as Nguyen Van Nhan’s “Grande tenue de la Cour d’Annam” (Official Dress of the Court of Annam) of 1902 to the politicized art of Singapore’s pioneer artists such as Chua Mia Tee (“National Language Class”, 1959) and through to contemporary emotive pieces such as “Exotic 101” (1997) by Thai-American Michael Shaowanasai, which consists of a metal pole, a circular platform and a performance video. It can be found in the Re:Defining Art portion of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery.

Shaowanasai’s work is captivating. It is so funny and so sad at the same time. It is essentially a tutorial on being exotic; on getting that bum wiggle and gyration just right. Because an Asian person who doesn’t have a Caucasian parent and who, therefore, might not be “good looking” enough to make it as a model or TV star, can always turn to pole dancing. Skimpily clad dancers are why so many flock to the “exotic East”, is it not?

“The stainless steel pole can make you instantly exotic,” proclaims the video’s narrator.

This tutorial comprises five movements, the most moving being “Begging“, which is putting one‘s hand out to ask for money.

Visitors are welcome to jump onto the platform and whirl around the pole.

I didn’t.

Just across from Shaowanasai’s pole is “Reframing The Family #1, #4 and #5” by Hanh Thi Pham from Vietnam. It’s a collection of photographs of two women and their lives together. I was glad to see this because it was an indication that the gallery’s curators aren’t self-censoring.

A friend at the gallery whispered to me, “If people want a history of art, they come here. If they want a history of Singapore, there is the National Museum.”

"Reframing The Family #1, #4 and #5", Hanh Thi Pham. Photo: Carol


Art is many things; it is discourse, it is expression, it is subjectivity.

Oddly, galleries, like bookshops, demand quiet; just as a library does. Perhaps it’s because quiet offers room to think about the discourse, to appreciate the expression and to gawk at the subjectivity.

I’m glad that the National Gallery lets us do all three.


National Gallery Singapore


Text: Carol | Photos: Marc (unless otherwise stated)