The lack of Chinese-language information on the Georgette Chen: At Home In The World exhibition, which opened at the National Gallery of Singapore at the end of last month, has recently sparked controversy online.
In an opinion piece published by Lianhe Zaobao last Wednesday (2 December), the newspaper’s senior correspondent Ng Siang Ping recalled how a renowned art collector had fumingly left the exhibition, halfway through.
Ms Ng quoted him as saying: “This is totally unreasonable … [Museum labels at] the exhibition of such a heavyweight Chinese female painter did not bear a single Chinese word. Even the China-born artist’s Chinese name Zhang Li Ying was absent … Only Georgette Chen is used.”
Ms Ng lamented that the absence of the Chinese language in the field of visual arts has become more and more frequent in recent years.
Discussions about the Chinese language, she added, have shrunk — yet “people do not think this is a problem”.
“While the National Gallery is celebrating its fifth anniversary and had announced that its next aim is to ‘Let Art Embrace You’, it is very regrettable and ironic that there is the hurdle of language, creating a barrier where art and public could not touch each other,” she added.
Race, language and religion remain sensitive issues; need to be handled carefully and delicately: Senior Minister Chee Hong Tat
Her opinion piece also drew the attention of Senior Minister of State for Transport and Foreign Affairs Chee Hong Tat.
Noting that he was alerted by a resident about this issue during a house visit in the Toa Payoh Crest estate, Mr Chee said on Monday that this incident is an indication of “why race, language and religion remain sensitive issues in any society, and need to be handled carefully and delicately”.
While English plays a central role in becoming a “useful working language to connect with the world”, Mr Chee stressed that “English is not our mother tongue”.
“Singapore is an Asian society, we are not a Western country … We want to learn English well, but this does not mean we dilute the focus on our mother tongue languages,” he said.
“It is also a reminder that our multilingual society is one of Singapore’s strengths and a foundation of our diversity and identity. We must not weaken this. It will be a sad day if we ever become monolingual and lose touch with our mother tongue languages — whether it is Chinese, Malay or Tamil,” Mr Chee added.
Regarding the incident, the Senior Minister said that he is “sure National Gallery is reviewing feedback on the exhibition and that “they do not mean any disrespect”.
National Gallery director claims exhibition primarily presented in English to remain true to artist’s voice
Following the controversy, National Gallery Singapore director Eugene Tan told The Straits Times that in deciding on curatorial presentation of content, especially in monographic exhibitions, the Gallery takes guidance from the artist’s preferred language for communication when presenting their thoughts and artwork.
Referring to the late Georgette Chen’s exhibition, Dr Tan cited her previous artwork in the collection of the Gallery’s library and archive, including letters and diaries, which were “predominantly written in English”.
“Therefore, the exhibition is primarily presented in English so as to remain true to the artist’s voice,” he asserted.
He also assured that the Gallery will “continue to refine their language policy to improve the accessibility of the art” displayed, as the Gallery is “committed to its vision of inspiring an inclusive society”.
According to Lianhe Zaobao, the Gallery claimed that in order to reach a wide range of audience, it provides audio guides for the exhibition in Singapore’s four official languages, which are available on its official website.
The National Gallery also holds two Chinese-language tours every weekend.
Except for English, said Gallery, the explanatory notes in other languages “could not be printed as a booklet due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. Visitors can access them by scanning the QR code.
Alumni says Georgette Chen would only use English if there were Malay and English students in her class
Oscar Ng Hwee Leng, the head of Alumni Relations Office at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) told Lianhe Zaobao that many alumni who were under the tutelage of the late Ms Chen felt “excluded” after visiting the exhibition held for her, as though the exhibition was only for an Anglophone audience.
One of the late Ms Chen’s former students, an 80-year-old, recalled that Ms Chen used Chinese during her lesson, and would switch to English only if there were Malay and English students in her class.
Ms Chen was also reportedly proficient in French.
Born in October 1906 in Zhejiang, China, the late Ms Chen was the daughter of a businessman who dealt in Asian art and antiques. According to the Singapore National Library’s online database Infopedia, Ms Chen spent much of her early years travelling throughout China, as well as the European cities of Paris and New York.
Her pathway to an illustrious career as a painter began when she attended art classes at the Art Students League of New York between 1926 and 1927, and later studied art at the Académie Colarossi and Académie Biloul in Paris.
Ms Chen was known for her still life images and portraits in oils. She was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1982 for her outstanding achievements and contributions to art in Singapore.
Early on, she was influenced by the Realist and Barbizon schools of art. However, her later works were rendered in the style of late 19th-century and early 20th-century Post-Impressionists and Fauvists such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne.
Ms Chen passed away in Singapore on 15 March 1993 at the age of 89.