Artists Brush In Singapore - Art Or Pornography?

Sarah Webb

Egyptian artist Ghada Amer says her work is inspired by erotica, pornography and the empowerment of women.

Amer and Iranian-born artist Reza Farkhondeh collaborate on delicately colored but unsettling works. She takes blown-up images from porn magazines, then he paints or prints birds, flowers, and pale washes on top, obscuring the underlying forms. The final layer is embroidered by Amer.

But as artists-in-residence at Singapore's leading print institute, Amer and Farkhondeh wonder whether their works -- juxtaposing oral sex and floral patterns, or a quote from the Koran framed by images of Wonder Woman -- will ever be seen here because of government restrictions.

Singapore bans pornography and has an ambivalent attitude to nudity. The government wants to encourage the arts so that Singapore can compete with cultural centers such as London and New York, but only last month stopped a commercial gallery from showing a painting of a female nude in a public space.

"When they invited me, they knew my work. In Egypt, they can't show it. I have no idea if it will be shown in Singapore," said Amer.

Within days of arriving in Singapore with her erotic images of women, she says she felt a frisson and wondered "do they want me to do something else?"

"All my work is about love, sexuality, the empowerment of women, it shows children with porn or erotic messages, because even when you are young, you are taught the same message, that one day the prince will come for you," said Amer.

"The power of woman, I am fascinated by this power. Is it power or not power, what are the limits?"

Excessive Nudity?

Singapore has spent handsomely on arts venues such as theatres, concert halls -- as well as the Singapore Tyler Print Institute where Amer and Farkhondeh are currently working.

But its art scene still veers toward the safe, rather than the controversial, and artists avoid subjects deemed sensitive in the city-state, including politics, religion, race and sex.

Unsurprisingly, there is little public debate on modern art.

The Ministry of Information and the Arts (MICA), which is responsible for encouraging Singapore's development as a "Renaissance City", sent a clear message that it was unacceptable to show a painting of a nude in a public space last month.

When MICA took over new offices a few years ago, it encouraged commercial galleries to open in the same building.

One gallery wanted to display a large painting of a female nude by Chinese artist Chen Xi in the atrium, but was told this was not allowed because children and young people might see it.

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