It’s time to take revenge on Raffles

OH! Open House is no stranger to immersive art experiences. Since 2009, the company has garnered a name for itself—for its art walks and tours that go deep into unexplored neighborhoods, and illuminate the heritage of the place from inside people’s homes. You might recall their walkabouts in Joo Chiat and Tiong Bahru, or the 2016 eye-catching void deck display at a Potong Pasir HDB block. This year, however, OH! takes to Emerald Hill, for a provocative discussion of Singapore’s relationship with colonialism.

In its eighth edition taking place Mar 3-25, the annual art walk explores Emerald Hill and the surrounding Orchard Road area. The artworks by 22 artists are housed within Peranakan shophouse homes, storefronts within Orchard Plaza and Chatsworth International School's heritage campus. Via the story of the nutmeg plantations and botany that characterized the area in the mid-19th century, three curated tours confront and challenge Singapore’s history of colonialism.

Emerald Hill is Singapore's first designated conservation area

According to OH! co-founder and artistic director Alan Oei, the motivation behind this edition stems from the confusing fact that Singaporeans have been taught to, almost blindly, accept and celebrate our colonial history. Referencing the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles along the Singapore River, recreated in 1972, he said, “It’s a really interesting thing—most postcolonial states, on gaining their independence, the first thing they do is to pull down the colonial statues and buildings. In Singapore’s case, we build and erect new ones.”

“It happened because there was a Dutch economist, Albert Winsemius, and he advised Lee Kuan Yew to keep our colonial statues to show to the West that we are open for business; please come, we like you,” he added.

No surprise then that the accompanying artworks are audacious, uncomfortable, and anything but subservient. As part of the second tour, “All the King’s Painters”, artist Jimmy Ong will present two installations centering on (and mocking) the famous stance of the Raffles statue.

Seamstresses’ Raffleses by Jimmy Ong

The first, Seamstresses’ Raffleses, comprises a row of stuffed, headless effigies—Ong made the first one, and recruited Javanese ladies to recreate the subsequent models. Enlisting the Javanese seamstresses was vital; and a reference to Raffles’ reputation as a villain in Java after his assault on Yogyakarta in 1812. “Every time they made (a model), they would pierce and stuff; it’s a kind of visceral violence against the body of Raffles,” said Oei.

The second, Open Love Letters, is another controversial work that’s one part gruesomeness, and two parts humor. Still in the stance, Raffles is reproduced and cut in half—where one side is used as a charcoal grill to cook kueh kapit love letters, and the other a cooling rack for the finished goods. Audience members are even invited to eat the roasted love letters.

Both works serve as open invitations to participate in acts of vengeance on Raffles, to rethink our founder’s intentions and behaviour upon his landing in Singapore.

Luckily for the public, not all the artworks share the same blatant aggression. The first tour, which focuses on the 19th century “nutmeg mania” that swept the nation, includes an installation that transforms an Emerald Hill shophouse into a sensorial spice warehouse. Audience members also have the opportunity to go into the actual home of a family living in a restored Peranakan shophouse to explore two site-specific works. Of particular interest is Your Touch Turns to Gold by visual artist Anthony Chin, a giant reproduction of Prince Albert’s foot that fills the entire living room.

Your Touch Turns to Gold by Anthony Chin

Chin’s sculpture, a literal symbol of the large, crushing foot of colonial oppression, is made in black and coated with nutmeg essence. Touch it, however, and it turns to gold—reflecting the relationship between Britain and its colonies, wherein the British took spices and raw materials from the East that eventually turned into sources of wealth for them.

Artist Anthony Chin, crushed by the weight of his own sheer genius

The two-hour tour wraps with a mini exhibition in Orchard Plaza, consisting of storefronts repurposed for installations. Aptly, the artworks evoke the language of retail and consumption—a direct challenge to today’s age of consumption. Salvation Made Simple, a mixed-media installation by photographer Lenne Chai, comprises vending machines that sell new-age worship items like bottled “blessed water” and fortune-guaranteed wristbands. The work plays on cultural appropriation and the modern need for instant gratification—so much that it even commercializes religion to the most extreme.  

Salvation Made Simple by Lenne Chai

The time for conversation is now—given that 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of Singapore’s founding by Raffles. Do yourself a favor and sign up; with luck, you’ll be asking why we’re even celebrating this milestone after.

OH! Emerald Hill Art Walk takes place Mar 3, 4, 10, 11, 17, 18, 24, and 25 at Emerald Hill. Tickets are $30 and available here.