Meet the people representing Singapore at the arts scene’s equivalent of the Olympics

While everyone is still fixated on Joseph Schooling and the country’s first Olympic gold medal, the National Arts Council just announced that two Singaporeans will be heading to the 57th Venice Biennale, making it Singapore’s eighth year of participation. Multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning, together with curator and art historian June Yap will make up the artistic team from Singapore who’ll be there from May 13 to Nov 26, 2017.

Singapore’s installation at the event is titled Dapunta Hyang, and is the result of Zai’s research over two decades on Malay culture and its history in Southeast Asia as part of a broader theme of identity which includes his work on the Orang Laut (sea gypsies). It’s also an extension of the series that he’s been producing over the past few years on Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, who was the first Maharaja of the kingdom of Srivijaya. His earlier works have been presented at Ota Fine Arts, the Insititute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, the Esplanade, Art Basel Hong Kong and Palais de Tokyo. Dapunta Hyang is set to be his most intricate installation yet.

The Srivijaya Empire was located in the center of the maritime route between China and India, so you can imagine the amount of exchange there was in terms of cultural influences, religious ideas and goods through all that trade. Zai’s work reflects the success and influence of the empire. He said, “Dapunta Hyang allows me to delve deep into a history and heritage of Southeast Asia not commonly found in history books on the Malay peoples and culture. As an aesthetic project, however, it is not a presentation of history in material and object, or as ideology and in politics. Rather it is about a sense of fellowship and solidarity that arises from knowing who we are.”

He continues: “I am keen to have audiences spend time reflecting upon the elements the work combines: of craft in the sculpture of the ship, the subject of knowledge as embodied in the waxed books, the portraits of islanders and Mak Yong, and the voice of the Mak Yong master who speaks in a language rarely heard now in Singapore and Malaysia; even Indonesia.”

Dapunta Hyang will also recall the history and establishment of Old Malay as the region’s lingua franca. Currently, he’s the only Singaporean artist who’s actively exploring the collective regional history through the pre-Islamic era.

More information on the 57th Venice Biennale here.