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Visual Arts

Amanda Heng

One of Singapore's most illustrious contemporary artists.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Art is life, life is art. To live and to ask questions [have] become the most important things in my life.

NAC Arts Awards 2010 interview

Amanda Heng is one of Singapore’s most illustrious female contemporary artists, well known locally and internationally for her collaborative and multi-disciplinary approach to art-making and her focus on issues of collective memory, national identity, gender politics, human relationships and other social issues in urban, contemporary Singaporean society. Born in 1951, the 2010 Cultural Medallion recipient has been a powerful force in the art scene, establishing and facilitating the Artists Village and Women in Arts Collective in Singapore, and co-curating, organising, speaking at and participating in contemporary art exhibitions, forums, workshops, performances and art interventions in collaboration with other artists and non-artists. Engaging, down-to-earth and always relevant, her works connect with people from all walks of life, speaking with and for them with honesty and empathy.

Amanda Heng had a later-than-usual start in the arts. At first a civil tax officer, she decided to delve into art as an adult and graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts with a Diploma in printmaking at the age of 37. She helped to establish the Artists Village, the first artist-run space in Singapore in 1988, then left Singapore to pursue further studies in art at UK’s Central St Martins College of Arts and Design, UK and Australia’s Curtin University of Technology where she attained a Bachelor of Arts (Fine Art).

Upon graduation, she became a full-time independent arts practitioner and a force to be reckoned with, embarking on an art practice that dealt with topics of Singapore’s collective memory, social identity, gender politics, human relationships, traditions, communication, and social issues in a contemporary, urban, local context.

While Heng started out using mainly her own body as a medium as a performance artist, today she adopts an interdisciplinary approach to her art practice, blending installation, photography, multimedia and performance in her art-making, unconfined by any particular aesthetic or media. Her works are also often exercises in collaboration. Usually involving much interaction, discussion and inter-involvement in working together with other artists as well as non-artists including members of the public, Heng’s works often give space to multiple voices from diverse cultures, backgrounds, disciplines and perspectives.

Through it all, Heng’s own voice rings clear and true. Speaking with honesty and perception, the pioneer of contemporary art who started working in the '80s is one of Singapore’s most gently vocal. Fuelled by her belief in the value of art as a tool for social awareness and change, and occasionally mistakenly labelled as a feminist artist because of her work with women’s issues, Heng brings to the fore a myriad of social concerns relevant to current times and ideologies.

In the early '90s, she introduced feminist discourse to the Singapore art scene with performance works that provoked thought about gender inequality and social identity. In 1999, she formed the Women In The Arts (WITA) collective, the first artists-run women collective in Singapore. From that same year, she began staging in Singapore, Japan, Paris, Poland, Indonesia, Sweden and Spain a series of street performances that were a response to the survival of beauty businesses during the Asian financial crisis in 1997, and made comment on women’s (lack of) progress in society. Entitled Let’s Walk, these had Heng and members of the public holding high-heeled shoes in their mouths and walking backwards using handheld mirrors to guide themselves.

During that time, she also began creating work that spoke about social identity and displacement. In 1996, she presented Let’s Chat, a performance piece that had Heng inviting members of the public to sit and chat at a table with her, while drinking tea and cleaning beansprouts together. Presented first at The Substation, then at shopping malls and markets, and to different communities overseas, Let’s Chat invited audiences to rediscover the simpler joys of kampong life, and to think about the losses sustained from material progress.

In the late '90s, she created one of her most moving works yet, a photography and mixed-media installation, Another Woman, a collaboration with her mother that sprang from her efforts to help her mother understand what she was doing and why. The culmination of a two-year project that helped Heng to reconnect with her mother, Another Woman, shown at The First Fukuoka Asian Triennial in 1999, highlighted the sense of displacement dialect-speaking, kampong-bred women such as her mother suffered as a consequence of “nation-building”, and her diminishing social identity as “another woman”.

Through the decades, Heng has created many other works that have urged us to think more deeply about current situations and personal and social ideologies, and to feel more deeply about their consequences and implications. 2003’s Home Service, which saw Heng cleaning Singaporeans’ homes as a domestic worker turned the focus on the plight of domestic workers in Singapore today. 2007’s Our Lives in Our Hands spotlighted the situation of the thousands of foreign labourers who build the city but remain willfully disregarded by Singaporean society. The online project Singirl, started in 2000, comprises photographs of a Heng dressed in the iconic outfit of a Singapore Girl at various old Singapore locations—old railway tracks, the Lorong Buangkok kampong, the old Thieves’ Market.

So far, the 2010 Cultural Medallion recipient has presented at the 1st Singapore Biennale (2006), the 1st Women's Performance Art Festival in Osaka (2001), the 7th Havana Biennial (2000), the 1st Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial (1999), the 3rd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia (1999), Cleveland Performance Art Festival USA (1997), Werkleitz Biennale in Germany (2000), Performance Art Festival in Spain (2001) and Channel N at Kyoto Art Center (2001).

Heng has produced performances, collaborative events and interventions and installations throughout Asia and further abroad at major galleries, festivals and artist-run projects. She has also co-curated, organised, spoken at and participated in many exhibitions, public forums, workshops, art events and projects such as The Space (1992), Women And Their Arts (1991), The 1st Asian Film Appreciation workshop (1994), Artists Project (1994), Memories and Senses (1994), Women About Women (1998), The Friday Event (2000), Open Ends (2001) and Exchange 05 (2005). She has also co-directed theatre production Bernard's Story written by Dana Lam (2001), and performed in theatre production A Woman On the Tree in the Hill directed by Ivan Heng (2001).

Her first solo exhibition, Speak with Me, Walk with Me, in 2011, took audiences through two decades of her art practice. The journey was a nostalgic and fascinating one, alive with feeling, gentle humour and irony. Along the way, always using her personal experience as a starting point, she prodded audiences to ask questions about ethics, values, tradition, communication, society and themselves to arrive at their own thoughts about nation-building, cultural identity and social responsibility and own sense of personal, social and national identity.

In her efforts to create art for the ordinary person, and with meaning and relevance to everyday life, Heng has created a body of work that is bold in its engagement with people, rich in meaning and strong in its acute relevance to the ordinary man and everyday life.

Timeline

1951

Born in Singapore

1988

Graduated from Lasalle School of Art with Diploma in Print-making.

Established the Artists Village.

1990

Research on Women’s Liberation Movement and Feminist Art, Central St Martins College of Arts and Design, UK.

1992

Participated in the 3rd Artists Regional Exchange (3rd ARX), Perth, Australia

1993

Attained a Bachelor of Arts (Fine Art), Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia.

1994

Organised and collaborated on Artists Project, an interdisciplinary experimental collaborative project (filmmaker, writer, lighting designer, installation and performance artists), presented at Raw Theatre, The Substation, Singapore

1996

Participated in Nippon International Performance Art Festivalin Tokyo, Nagano, Japan.

Participated in Rapport, Singapore International Art Festival, traveling exchange exhibition, Singapore, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane.

1997

Exhibited in Womanifesto and spoke at its Women & Art forum, an international women’s art exchange in Bangkok, Thailand

Participated in Cleveland International Performance Art Festival, Cleveland, USA

1998

Curated, organized and participated in Women about Women, a multi-media collaborative event with Singapore International Film Festival and Singapore Art Museum (SAM), Singapore.

Was Artist-in-Residence at Artists Unlimited in Bielefeld, Germany

1998 to 1999

Staged installation and performance work, Narrating Bodies

1999

Formed the Women in the Arts (WITA) collective

Staged street performance Let’s Walk

Participated in the first Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale as Artist-in-Residence, Workshop and Panel Speaker, Fukuoka, Japan

Participated in Rand Festival in Austria.

Participated in the third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art as Panel Speaker in Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney, in Queensland, Australia, 1999.

1999 to 2000

Co-organised and spoke at Friday Event, a series of public forum on Contemporary Arts & Culture in Singapore at The Substation, Singapore.

2000

Participated in Real Work-Werkleitz Biennale in Werkleitz, Germany

Collaborated on Names Changed To Protect The Innocent, experimental performance event by The Necessary Stage, Singapore

Participated in Tachikawa International Art Festival as Artist-in-Residence and Panel Speaker in Tokyo, Japan

Participated in 7th Havana Biennial in Havana, Cuba

2001

Co-organised, co-curated and participated in Open Ends comprising monthly talks on performance art issues and an exhibition of documentation on performance art in Singapore

Women Breaking Boundaries 21, exhibition and forum on networking, Tokyo and Osaka, Japan

Collaborated on A Woman in the Tree on the Hill, interdisciplinary, inter-cultural collaborative project (theatre, video art, sculpture, music, dance, performance art) with Wild Rice Theatre Company, Gong Myoung Percussion Ensemble, Korea, presented at Jubilee Theatre of Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Singapore International Arts Festival

2010

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual art.

7 Oct 2011 to 1 Jan 2012

First solo exhibition: Speak To Me, Walk With Me, a retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM)


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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