A collection of conversations with a diverse range of local and regional creatives
Library Conversations for SGABF2020
We examined the systems that support art book making and independent art book publishing in Singapore and the region.
A Closer Look for SGABF2019
We gathered perspectives on our zine and art book culture, and discuss the possibilities of self-publishing today.
21 Creatives for SGABF2018
We sat down with 21 creatives of various disciplines to learn about their practice and asked each of them to fill up a blank page in a notebook.
SGABF: Hi Syaheedah, for a start could you tell us more about your practice and what have you been up to in London?
SYAHEEDAH ISKANDAR (SI): I’m currently doing my MA in History of Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Before that, I was holding a full-time position as a Curatorial Assistant at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU CCA) Singapore from 2014 to mid-2018 before leaving for my studies. I was also juggling independent projects on the side from developing exhibitions to embodying another persona as a DJ.
I co-founded a female DJ collective, ATTAGIRL! in 2013 alongside Amanda Ang and Serene Ong as a platform for us to support women in underground electronic music as well as VJs, visual artists, music producers and performers. Though with so many things going on, I have taken a back seat in the collective for some time now, so I let the girls run the show without me. I would say everything is currently on a standstill. This was a decision I made when coming to London. I was at the point of exhaustion and needed to recalibrate. I wanted to feel like an audience again but more importantly, to have the time to just read and learn.
School has been challenging but absolutely enriching. As of now, my current research is thinking about modes of visuality within the Southeast Asian paradigm. I am absolutely grateful to be in this current state of mind now, so I am embracing these moments as they come.
SGABF: You were previously the Curatorial Assistant at NTU CCA Singapore. You’ve also curated If Home was a word for Illusion (2016) and Nyanyi Sunyi (2018). As a curator, what’s the most important thing to note in terms of joining forces with artists to put up their works based on your direction for the exhibition?
Photo: Courtesy of Artist, Publication Design by Fellow
SI: Not many people knew this but for the exhibition in 2016, it was the artists who approached me, and I was more than happy to take up that opportunity. To have that kind of support and faith, especially since three of the artists did not know me prior to the exhibition, is what I think builds meaningful communities.
To me, intention plays a huge role in that equation. In the Malay language, we call it “niat” which is always placed somewhere close with “ikhlas”. Ikhlas basically means sincerity. Sometimes we get caught in the process of trying to make the project successful, so much that we end up ignoring the hard questions on why we do what we do and to whom the project is for. It is in moments of disagreements or setbacks that I find these reflections (of niat and ikhlas) important for me.
Working at NTU CCA Singapore provided a different experience as opposed to working independently, and there were limitations on both ends, but I was aware of my privilege of being part of an institution. I had more access to resources but having worked in both the Exhibitions and the Outreach & Education departments, one thing that struck me was the challenge of sustaining organic engagement with marginalised communities – whether they are underprivileged, under-represented, physically or mentally challenged. A part of my job was leading tours for students of varying ages and backgrounds, and it shows by the questions they asked––their own accessibility to art depending on what school they were from. Coming from a neighbourhood school myself, I saw a clear distinction as compared to the elite schools. We still have a lot of work to do in that area.
SGABF: Exhibition catalogues often provide context to curatorial perspectives and the works of artists. Having been involved in print publication work yourself, how do you weigh the prospects of printed matter coming together with exhibitions?
SI: Exhibitions do not necessarily provide solutions, but they can invite discussions on the issues that are presented by the artists or curators. Printed matter allows that discussion to take place as an extension of the exhibition that is no longer confined to the restriction of space and time. It is also a source of documentation which I believe is important especially for future research. You would be surprised by the number of exhibitions that have been put up in Singapore featuring the same themes over and over again. It’s unfortunate that these exhibitions rarely have the opportunity to speak to each other. This was something my peers over at Sikap (run by Zulkhairi Zulkiflee and Nhawfal Juma'at) realised too, which pushed us to do a joint publication launch for our exhibitions; RUANG(2017) and Nyanyi Sunyi (2018). It made sense for us. While these ideas may not be new, printed matter can help integrate new modes of thinking which is reflective of contemporary discussions. As archives, they can bridge old and new discourse for the future.
SGABF: How would a long form publication (in a zine, art book or monograph format), for example, take shape in the context of curatorial projects and exhibitions?
There is definitely more room for experimentation which I think a lot of exhibition catalogues today have started to embrace. The content is no longer confined to essays and research papers. Materials such as poetry, annotated essays, visual essays, handwritten letters are some of the unconventional content that I have integrated into publications from the artists and collaborators.
For Nyanyi Sunyi (co-curated with Kamiliah Bahdar), we had an amazing designer, Zachary Chan, who sincerely believed in our project. Some of the content was difficult to work with, but we trusted him anyway. His design bridged both textuality and visuality without losing its purpose as a post-exhibition publication. I have worked with designers on an institutional and independent level, and I find letting them roll with their own ideas often times turn out to be best collaborations.
SGABF: In relation to the previous question, how necessary is wide circulation of ideas and opinions from communities represented by these exhibitions? What inadequacies have you observed from creative showcases?
Photo: Courtesy of Artist
SI: It is necessary for sure, but the challenge is sustaining the conversation after the project ends. Being able to work in the creative industry for some peers who share similar sentiments as me is a luxury. We do not have the luxury of churning exhibitions after exhibitions. Creative showcases whether in forms of exhibitions or publications are expensive and requires funding to begin with. Conversations eventually die out, and there are many reasons for it – people move to other interests, projects, lack of funding, priorities shift, and so on. Publications get shelved.
I had a full-time job and supportive colleagues who allowed me to do my own projects outside of the institution. It also helped that my parents were emotionally supportive. Support systems such as mine were critical but what about those who do not have such accessibility? Igniting conversations is one thing, but does it necessarily provide solutions? Apart from publishing articles, we need more spaces where we are allowed to come together as communities to speak about these issues. We need diversity in voices as well. More producers, cultural workers, curators, arts professionals from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Otherwise, we are stuck in an echo-chamber, speaking to the same group of people and leaving out opportunities to sharpen our own ideas further.
Personally, I consider myself part of the problem too – as someone who offer no solutions. This is an issue that needs to be discussed openly. Apart from providing spaces for marginalised communities, we need to re-strategise our modes of working given that climate change is the most urgent issue of our time now. Unsustainability is entrenched in our system. Art exhibitions are no exemption as they can be wasteful. With panel discussions and symposiums, if conversations are confined between the educated and socially mobile, is it really going to change anything?
The discussion on printed matter within the foreground of these issues has to start as well. I personally love print, and nothing beats the feeling of running your hands physically through a book. But we have to start asking the hard questions now. How do we move forward and celebrate print in the face of the biggest ecocatastrophe our generation will ever face? Our children’s future is being robbed in front of our eyes. It is more than just using recyclable materials for the sake of feeling better about ourselves.
SGABF: Have you had to go through a process of reflecting upon your past experiences in curation, art, music and writing in order to move forward with your current creative practice? What other processes did you have to go through that have informed your work and artistic beliefs today?
SI: To be in reflection after being in production mode for so long was a tough adjustment for me. I do sometimes miss performing on the decks as it was a form of outlet for me. I have been working since completing my O’ Levels to support myself through my diploma and degree years. There were struggling points, but I am grateful for them. These experiences are not unique to me, and I know of many peers, especially artists who resonate with these struggles. Having had similar conversations with my peers, a lot of these anxieties also stemmed from not wanting to lose momentum or the fear of missing out. By 2017, I was burnt out. It felt empowering to tell myself that I needed to take a step back.
Being in London, (while observing Singapore from afar) in an environment like SOAS with a strong student union, allowed me to be an active participant in social issues and discussions––from climate change, rethinking new modes of decolonisation, tackling racism, class inequality, and so on. Although the future is uncertain for me at this point, attending these discussions have informed and made me rethink my own ideas and practice.
There were definitely moments where I wished I had spoken, wrote and done things differently in past projects but I have learnt not to dwell in it. If anything, those lessons, mistakes, failures were necessary. People can hold you accountable for your naivete, and that is okay. We are not infallible. If we can sustain conversations that speak to us passionately, our language will in itself will mature and develop into better tools of expression.
SGABF: Finally, can you recommend up to three zines/art books that have had significant impact on your practice so far?
SI: It’s difficult to pin down absolutes, and this is a fairly personal question to me. I remember someone asking me a similar question on my “current reading list” to which I responded by asking if she was trying to read my intelligence.
So instead, I would like to make a tribute to three of them that remain unread on my shelves. These were some of the few that were recommended to me by close friends within the past year or so. They will be read soon, I hope:
Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie: Class Hegemony in Contemporary Art edited by Tirdad Zolghad, FIELDS: An Itinerant Inquiry Across the Kingdom of Cambodia edited by Charlotte Huddleston and Roger Nelson, Bubble Gum & Death Metal (BGDM) Issue 1: Sharing by Denise Yap
Syaheedah Iskandar is undertaking her MA in History of Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and was previously Curatorial Assistant at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (2014 – 2018). She is currently researching and writing on visual theory within the paradigm of Southeast Asia. She is the inaugural Emerging Writers’ Fellow for the academic journal Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, working on an article about ghaib (unseen) within the vernacular Malay world. She also embodies another persona as a DJ, under the moniker of Jaydah.