Women artists in Singapore: working in and out of the box

Seven creative women of Singapore
Photo sources: detailed in article

Seven Singaporean women from various creative fields tell us what it is like to practice their art in a society that emphasizes efficiency and conformity.

While Singapore is better known for its glitzy buildings and shopping centers (see Crazy Rich Asians), a vibrant arts scene has been growing for the past two decades thanks to increased state funding in the arts and cultural sector. However, with such a heavy reliance on government financing, many artists struggle with creative limitations, authentic expression, and creating an artistic culture where art can be duly appreciated (and funded) by the public and private sector without involving the state. These seven female artists share their experiences working with a unique set of advantages and constraints in this cosmopolitan yet conservative island-state.

Balli Kaur Jaswal—novelist

Balli Kaur Jaswal (Credit Epigram Books) novelist
Photo source: Epigram Books

“Singapore is a relatively convenient city for me to have the time and space to create. There’s a supportive literary community here, and many readings and workshops to attend. There’s a thirst for literary gatherings, and coupled with a late-night culture, it’s entirely possible to have a full-house reading in a tiny bookstore on a Tuesday night. However, there needs to be a cultural shift where reading is an integral part of daily life—there’s way too much emphasis on measurable outcomes in our current culture, so even if some (well-intentioned) educators and parents are encouraging their kids to read, they’re aiming for tangible rewards like an improved vocabulary, or better comprehension skills. The best rewards of reading are magical and abstract.”

Balli has written three novels. Her first novel, “Inheritance”, won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014, while her third and latest novel, “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows”, was released to international acclaim in 2017—its movie rights have been sold to Scott Free Productions and Film4. Find out more about Balli’s work here.

Deanna Ng—photographer, artist, and educator

Deanna Ng photographer artist educator

“I teach photography to different communities—students, elderly, and those with special needs. I try to show them the possibilities of a photograph; that it goes beyond being a document of memory or a pretty image. I find it hard to be creative in Singapore—there’s a need for things to be flawless. I struggle to get some of my students to try new things because of this fear of failure and this need to conform. However, art is a process and a journey. Experimentation is key to creativity and we need more of that here. I did an art residence in Iceland in 2015, and Icelanders would often say, ‘Things will be ok’. I am trying to practice that mantra and just be chill when things go wrong. This helps me focus on what I want to convey, rather than worrying if my photographs are too weird.”

Deanna was selected as an International Participant for the Missouri Photo Workshop in 2006, and was one of Asian’s emerging talents profiled on Nikon’s “Through Asian Eyes” campaign in 2011. In 2015, she was one of the 60 artists included in the book “Singapore Eye—Contemporary Singapore Art”. Find out more about Deanna’s work here.

Christina Chan—dance artist

Christina Chan portrait by Tan Ngiap Heng
Photo source: Tan Ngiap Heng

“Singapore provides many opportunities and much support (e.g. generous government funding) to learn to do creative work. These have helped me get the training and experience that I need in my craft. However, creativity is not really encouraged in our education system and way of life—technique and skill tends to be rewarded over creativity. While this can be a little isolating and stifling at times, it also means that I have to be more creative in the ways I teach, or reach the audience. In fact, I always deeply consider the audience’s experience in my work, regardless of platform. I believe that accessibility and artistic integrity can walk hand in hand, and this does not mean having to change or lose myself. Our job as artists is to inspire everyone to reconnect with their own natural imagination and sense of wonder.”

Christina was the winner of local national choreographic competition Sprouts 2011 and Best Dancer in Sprouts 2012. She has also danced and choreographed for Frontier Danceland and Singapore Dance Theatre. She is presently part of Dance Me A Sheep, a duo collective with French artist Aymeric Bichon. Click here to find out more about Christina’s work.

Jo Tan—actor and writer

Jo Tan (Credit Crispian Chan, Courtesy of Theatreworks) actor writer
Photo source: Crispian Chan, Courtesy of Theatreworks

“I’m inspired by how Singapore is such a contradiction. It forces me to think out of the box. You have to be creative to stay sane while juggling things like a Western outlook with Asian values; or first-world technology with some of the (to me) third-world views you see on any online discussion on women experiencing sexual assault (e.g. comments on whether the woman is deemed conventionally attractive). That being said, Singapore has a huge and wonderful creative arts scene ranging from music to poetry. Social media is massively used here, and plenty of creative art is instagrammable. I’m in a play right now called ‘13.13.13’ where the actors all come from very diverse backgrounds, and we are all going on different paths to find our characters. I’m happily sucking up all kinds of different influences.”

Jo Tan does not just act and sing, she also writes plays and is a scriptwriter for stand-up comedians. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards 2018 for the role of a warrant officer in the play “Frago”. Find out more about Jo’s work here.

Li Lin Wee—filmmaker and teacher

Lee Lin Wee filmaker and teacher
Photo source courtesy of Charles Lim Yi Yong

“Filmmaking opportunities are not easy to come by, so I’m grateful for the support I have in Singapore. I have received grants and commissions which have allowed me to further my craft and I am also still a ‘squatter’ at my family’s home, my husband who is a local artist, supports me as well. There are also great local actors, producers, cinematographers and art directors that I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with. I feel that Singapore Artists (in all their forms) are gaining more momentum, and more Singaporeans, in particular millennials, are drawn to the arts because they have a stronger sense of pride and identity in being Singaporean. I hope to continue making the best films I can, and remind myself not to exact self-censorship. I need to speak my truth in confidence—this is important for our collective creative psyche here in Singapore.”

Li Lin is one of the pioneering female filmmakers in Singapore. She has made short films, telemovies, commercials, and two feature films. Her works have been screened at prestigious film festivals around the world, such as the Tribeca Film Festival and Shanghai International Film Festival. You can find out more about Li Lin’s work here.

Ling Nah Tang—artist

Ling Nah Tang (Credit Lei Yuan Bin) artist
Photo source: Lei Yuan Bin

“My works are inspired by the transitional spaces in this city—alleys, corridors, underground passes, public housing, void decks etc. I am intrigued by the mysterious corners of an interior public space in a busy and crowded country like Singapore. However, there is still a lack of a substantial and appreciative audience who truly values art and artists from Singapore. Even art galleries here do not promote local artists enough. Some institutions and businesses are still not paying an artist fees for commissioned work because to them the exposure itself is ‘payment’. This is one of the reasons why I made the film Dreaming in Black and White: Portrait of a Singapore Artist—Tang Ling Nah, I wanted to show artists as “regular” people who need to earn a living. My hope is that more people here can see how art can help them slow down and appreciate the beauty and imperfections of things around them.”

Ling Nah is best known in Singapore for her architectural charcoal works, but she also works in other mediums, such as site-specific installations with performance and filmmaking. She received the Young Artist Award in 2004 (Singapore’s highest award for young art practitioners). Click here to find out more about Ling Nah’s work.

Sharul Channa—stand-up comedian and actor

Sharul Channa (Credit KC Eng) standup comedian actor
Photo source: KC Eng

“When I graduated from acting school six years ago, there were almost no opportunities for English-speaking Indian actors like myself in theatre or television. I really did not know where to place myself until one night, while I was supporting my husband (also a stand-up comedian) at an open mic, I decided to go on stage myself. I found myself really comfortable with this medium that allows me to be my own writer, actor, director and producer. As the first female stand-up comedian in Singapore, some people found me scary because our society likes Asian women coy and shy, but I feel it is necessary to challenge this norm. I have a bittersweet relationship with Singapore. Its constraints inspire me to churn out all these jokes. It’s like being in a relationship with a man who cannot emote and controls you, but actually loves you very deeply.”

Sharul is the first Singaporean woman to do her own solo stand-up show, “Pottymouth”. She is also the first Singaporean comedian to be selected for The Melbourne International Comedy Festival and has performed around Australia and Asia. Find out more about Sharul’s work here.

Interested to find out more about Singapore’s arts scene? Fancy meeting a local artist or attending an arts event while you’re in Singapore? The A-List is a great starting point with events listings and interviews with local artists. There’s also Arts Republic, which has plenty of thoughtful reviews on the latest exhibitions and shows.

Melanie Lee

Melanie is a writer and lecturer from Singapore. She mostly writes about the arts and heritage, and has also published an award-winning picture book series, “The Adventures of Squirky the Alien”.

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