Artists working on their respective walls. Image courtesy of Monster Day Tours.
by Cynthia Wang and Bianca Goetz, BA(Hons) Fine Arts Level 2 (2019)
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up” — Pablo Picasso
Gelam Gallery is Singapore’s first permanent outdoor art gallery. Located at the back alley of Muscat Street, within Kampong Glam, it is supported by the Singapore Tourism Board and One Kampong Gelam. The project involved 30 local artists and art students, among them are various LASALLE alumni and current students. The aim of the project aligns with One Kampong Glam’s agenda to conserve and enhance Kampong Glam’s rich cultural and business history. It also seeks to give voice to local artists, both established and previously unknown, and to renew tourists’ interests in Singaporean arts scene.
The project hopes to reinvent the previously untouched back walls of Muscat Street, where shophouses leave their garbage bins along the back alleys and which is frequently ignored. Each artist chooses a wall to work on to bring their designs to life. Among the rules, artists have to print sticker reproductions of their paintings, and design the walls to interact with the paintings with either 2D means (painting, spray painting, drawing) or 3D (interactive installations, relief sculptures etc). The walls are then exhibited to the public starting from 6 July 2019, where tour routes are organised to bring the public to explore Kampong Glam, including Arab Street, Haji Lane, Sultan Mosque, as well as the open art gallery.
Cynthia shares her experience:
I first knew about this project from one of my BA(Hons) tutors, Woon Tien Wei. He had sent me a poster for the open call for participants for Gelam Gallery’s newest project. Having freshly entered the June holidays, I was on the lookout for fresh projects and part-time jobs daily. This was the perfect opportunity to challenge myself, having never worked with a huge wall or public space before. I instantly expressed my interest to him, and was put in touch with Jun, an illustrator and graphic designer who had graduated from NAFA and is working with Gelam Gallery.
After some correspondence with Jun, I decided to create my designs first before adapting them to whichever wall I was assigned to/chose in the end. I immediately set to work brainstorming ideas, and came up with four designs with the intention of complementing the structure, size and height of the wall. After feedback from Jun who encouraged me to proceed with my design of females gazing from the frames at peacocks on the walls, I decided to settle on one of the remaining walls which, as it turned out, was one of the highest.
This necessitated the use of a cherry picker, a huge machine typically used by construction workers to ascend high places. Due to the huge demand for this machine and given the condition of the walls provided to us, the company was very accommodating and even provided a cherry picker course with an operating certificate for each of us at the end.
We all attended the cherry picker course in mid-June, a full-day condensed training session with both a practical and theoretical part to teach us the functionalities of the machine as well as basic safety procedures and harnesses. At the end of the session, we took and passed a multiple choice test to earn an operational certificate.
Throughout the duration of the project, participants took turns using the cherry picker based on a pre-arranged schedule. I managed to complete most of my work within a week. It was a strenuous, nerve-wrecking week scaling up and down the tall wall to spray paint using my own stencils. It was a truly mind-opening experience, not because it was my first time doing graffiti or using a cherry picker for my work, but also because I had never taken part in anything of such a scale, both literally and figuratively. Curious tourists and passers-by constantly snapped photos of me working or nonchalantly posed against a part of the wall. Kinder strangers approached me to ask if I needed help.
Throughout this whole journey, my biggest insight was from observing how mutual cooperation from people around us was vital in any project. I did not collaborate with anyone on my wall, but I did take time to help my senior, Victor, with his. While he was sometimes at work, I agreed to help him paint a small part of his wall. The tenants of a nearby shophouse, Mr Shyam and his wife were both extremely humble and friendly, and for the convenience of the participants, even agreed to let us park the cherry picker at the entrance of their house for safekeeping and recharging overnight. The overall experience taught me the valuable lesson of how working on a project in a public space sometimes requires compromise, understanding, and sacrifices. With this new addition in my schedule of my otherwise bland June holidays, I am ever more grateful to have had this opportunity to work with One Kampong Gelam for this refreshing project.
What made this experience more enjoyable was my fellow classmate and artist Bianca who was also a part of the project and worked on the wall diagonally across from mine.
Cynthia Wang’s mural. Image courtesy of Cynthia Wang.
On the day of the opening, there are other concurrent events around Arab Street, such as the So Gelam market, which sells trinkets, drinks, handmade bags and bowls. The kampong vibes were further enhanced by buskers in the middle of the stalls, heartily belting out songs. A fashion show, projeKGlamway, held in an elongated tent in the middle of the streets, showcased garments inspired by traditional Malay fabric that paid homage to Arab Street’s traditional textile business. It featured the works of five designers, each of whom had a different interpretation of Kampong Glam.
In all, this project helped bring attention to the bustling, lively and extraordinary streets of Bugis and the lives of the people and shops within it. It is indeed a refreshing change from the rigidity of school life and an alternative to working away in one’s studio. This experience has made us much more appreciative of places in Singapore which still preserve its traditional businesses and is thriving because of/despite it. To fellow artists looking for something different to fill their holidays, we recommend giving this a go.
Mr Shyam, a friendly resident of Muscat Street, looking up at Bianca’s work on his wall. Image courtesy of Bianca Goetz
Bianca shares her experience:
I too also had the pleasure of finding out about Gelam Gallery through my advisor, Woon Tien Wei. I was fresh out of year 2 and was eager to take on a challenge. I have done a few murals in the past but none quite as big as the one I was about to tackle. After sending in my proposal and receiving a positive go ahead I was ready to start!
My artwork involved a lot of pattern-making, symmetry and geometry especially through the forms of mandalas. It was what first got me into the art world and has ever since been a constant in my art practices. I truly believe that I make art to brighten up a space, as corny as it may sound, I like to see the happiness it brings to people. My idea was simple, I would create multiple mandalas of various sizes. For the 3D aspect, I chose to create a mosaic watering can that stuck out of the wall, something a little bit interactive, that would appear to ‘water’ a flower just below.
Like Cynthia, I also had one of the highest walls which demanded the use of the cherry picker. Like Cynthia, I had never used one before, which added to the excitement of this project. As soon as I got my license I was ready to go! I had never painted before, so my body ached for days after, but it was a good kind of ache. I felt very accomplished and proud of the final outcome. Even though there were slight complications, like heavy rain, it all came together wonderfully.
As Cynthia mentioned, although this was not a collaboration, we most definitely had a great support system. I was fortunate to be painting the house of Mr. Shyam and his wife Mrs. Jyotshna. They were immensely helpful throughout the entire process and supported us every step of the way. Their hospitality and kindness made this whole journey a whole lot easier and for that I am forever grateful. I remember one night when I was attempting to project my designs on the wall, I underestimated how much work would actually go into doing a seemingly simple task but much to my delight, I was surrounded by many helping hands – Mr Shyam, his neighbours and my family all chipped in to get it done. I am grateful especially to my grandma who was such a champion for keeping me company and helping me everyday I was painting. I could not have pulled this off without any of them.
I think I can speak on behalf of Cynthia as well, when I say that it was an experience we will both cherish for a long time - we are very happy as artists to have been a part of a beautiful project.
Bianca operating the cherry picker, working into the night. Image courtesy of Bianca Goetz.