When one receives an opportunity to see a Frida Kahlo painting, one should grab that chance and never miss it.
My first introduction to renowned Mexican painter Kahlo was when I watched the Salma Hayek-starrer movie released in 2002. It was a graphic retelling of the life of Kahlo, how she became an artist and her tumultuous relationship with her husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera.
But there is nothing quite like seeing one of her works in person. Her Self Portrait with Small Monkey, originally from Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico, is currently on display at the National Gallery Singapore as part of its Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America.
The exhibit has been branded as the first large-scale museum exhibition to take a comparative approach across Southeast Asia and Latin America, uniquely animated by their struggles against colonialism.
Comprising over 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, performances, and sensorial installations, the exhibit is divided into three main sections – The Myth of Lazy Native, This Earth of Mankind, and Subversive.
The Myth of Lazy Native, in Gallery 1, explores the dissenting voices that challenged the colonial rule in Southeast Asia and Latin America. This section challenges the perceived and often distorted views of being “native.” The artworks here provide truthful presentations of being Southeast Asians.
This section features The Builders by National Artist Victorio Edades, one of the prized artworks in the 21st Century Art Museum Collection of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Approximately 1,050 x 3,670 cm, the oil on canvas artwork “was one of Edades’s major works exhibited at his 1928 one-man show. Here the subject was far removed from Amorsolo’s images of the countryside. Shown is a group of builders working to construct an edifice. The setting is not specific; neither do the builders have individualizing features.”
“Edades emphasized linear and structural composition above other pictorial elements in his work. His mural, basically a horizontal composition, is composed of a semicircle mesh of bodies at the center, closed in by isolated figures on both the left and right edges. Almost no negative space is left on the canvas; neither are there any bright hues, the painting being entirely in shades of gray and brown.” (Source: CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Digital Edition)
Known as the Father of Modern Art, Edades aimed to reshape Philippine art dominated by Amorsolo and Tolentino. Gallery 1 hosts “The Library of the Tropics,” featuring Bali and Tahiti artifacts pivotal in 20th-century art narratives of paradise and exotic cultures. “This Earth of Mankind” explores portraits, reflecting artists’ self-representation during World War II’s transformative era.
In “Self-Portrait with Monkey,” Kahlo subtly references indigenismo politics and indigenous beliefs, highlighting the cyclical connection between humans and the natural world. “The Subversive” concludes the exhibit with 15 bold propositions, embodying a defiant Tropical attitude. Artworks arranged on freestanding structures resemble a constellation of ideas.
The exhibition portrays Southeast Asian and Latin American artists as advocates for the dispossessed, reclaiming remnants of dissipating colonial shadows. It invites audiences to experience narratives of artists, dreamers, and writers challenging conventions and fostering solidarities across regions.
With over 200 groundbreaking artworks by 70+ artists showcased in collaboration with WOHA architecture firm, the Tropical exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore promises a worthwhile exploration of Southeast Asian and Latin American stories.