Walking through the glass doors of Emperor's Attic, a little shop tucked away in the historic alcove of Tiong Bahru, you are greeted by pots of foliage, some perched on antique Chinese chests, some nestled in Ming vases. You have just stepped into another dimension, a sort of fairytale-esque version of old Singapore made of both exotic jungle and oriental culture. And the artworks adorning the walls confirm it. They are none other than the works of Deboarh McKellar's Singapore Stories Shared, and the stars of this evening.
Deborah McKellar is an expatriate artist, and she is all for the Singaporean culture. Having blown in from South Africa some 17 years ago, she finds the local culture especially captivating. “I always thought I'd be a textile designer – I knew I wanted to work with colour and patterns!” she admits. And now, with her studio, Talking Textiles, she has made her dreams come true by marrying her fascination with fine art and her love for fabrics. Today, she gets to showcase her works in Singapore Stories Shared. Looking at her works, one notes how she romanticises the Singapore scene, particularly, old shophouses and Peranakan architecture.
Before making the move to these sunny shores, McKellar had a pre-conceived notion of what this city entailed – a treasure trove of Chinese heritage, perhaps something akin to the shop that now proudly exhibits her work alongside its pieces. Upon her arrival, however, McKellar discovered that Singapore had more to offer, particularly, the melting pot of culture that we so often boast of. Thus, the traditional Peranakan architecture, rendered lovingly in both splashes of bold colour and pastels, as McKellar finds that the heritage of the Straits Chinese is most unique to the island, with its elements of both Chinese and Malay culture. “I love the way that the Chinese culture came together with Malay culture,” she decides. “And the colours were so much brighter!” This is further enhanced by the motifs she throws into her pieces: batik flora and fauna, golden Chinese characters, creating a Southeast Asian utopia within her frames . She thus encompasses both the local culture with her Western roots, with misty effects and splotches of colour reminiscent of Impressionist art and the Romantic movement, which she claims she was also inspired by.
McKellar's materials and techniques, however, speak for her intention and are the real scene-stealers of tonight's exhibition. Here, McKellar mixes photography and screen-printing with painting, gold foil and embroidery, blending the old and new the way Singapore holds on to its heritage, yet embracing change as a modern city-state. In her talk, McKellar explains the creative process – a location catches her eye, and she photographs it before editing it and turning it into a silkscreen design, the latter of which is both an ancient Chinese method, and one that has been brought to fame by the Western pop art movement in the mid 20th century, making it a mix of both Eastern tradition and Western industrialisation after the war.
Following this, she paints on the image, and, by doing so instead of painting from scratch, McKellar does not merely create a romanticised visual, but rather enhances and beautifies what is already there.
Finally, she adds extra touches such as batik embroidery, a traditional Southeast Asian craft, and/or motifs in gold foil, particularly, Chinese characters, much akin to the East Asian use of gold leaf in their crafts, according to the aesthetics of her pieces. Sometimes, icons even more specific to Singapore will be embellished on the works, such as that of an old local postage stamp rendered in gold foil.
By using these methods to create her artworks, McKellar invents a new 'Nanyang Style', the term given to Singapore's first generation of artists who combined both Eastern and Western techniques to represent Southeast Asian subject matter. In contrast to the oils and watercolour of these masters, however, McKellar presents a fresher twist by also making use of technology in her works, thus capturing the spirit of a Singapore that is both cosmopolitan and cultural in nature, and frames this rich tapestry of a country in a neat square ready for a new home.
Pay a visit to www.talkingtextiles.asia for a complete tour of Deborah's productions.
Images courtesy of Sandra Macheroux.