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Chloë Manasseh / Artist

Home is where the art is

How one artist's roots in Singapore helped her discover an evolving and innovative new arts scene.

Viewing time: 3 min

Artist Manasseh's wall mural at Facebook's HQ in Singapore (Photograph by Matin Latif, courtesy of Facebook Artist in Resident programme)

Chloë Manasseh's grandfather was a leading architect and artist born in Singapore — and two generations later his granddaughter has returned to his birthplace to discover a cutting-edge arts scene that champions innovation. This creative hub, and the community that has sprung up around it, is embracing new talent and original ways of curating works. Manasseh found a young and exciting scene attracting art enthusiasts keen to experience contemporary works that draw inspiration from Singapore itself. The artist's own pieces, which hang in some of the city's most iconic spaces, reflect not only her own family history, but also the evolution of Singapore itself.

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The exterior of Eden Hall, the British High Commissioner's original residence (Photograph by Art Porters Gallery)

Creative inspiration

The mental image of Singapore that Manasseh had as a young girl, conjured from stories passed down through the generations, was one of jungles and roaming wild animals. When she arrived in the city to take up an Artist-in-Residence position, she found the reality to be very different. However, those early childhood images and stories are still evident in her work. Her inspiration is deeply rooted in family and nature, resulting in a style described as “exotic escapism”, with which she is today closely associated. This can be seen in the art she created for Eden Hall, the house where her grandfather was born, which draws on the residence’s foliage and birds, and other, more fantastical elements.

This was indeed a homecoming for Manasseh, who discovered photos she had never seen of her family on the walls of Eden Hall and gained precious new insights into their lives. "It was very special to come back and have the opportunity to research, which is a really big part of my art practice, and to delve more into that part of my identity, my roots and my heritage, which I didn’t know that much about at the time," she says.

As her past and present began to intersect, she found in Singapore a vibrant arts scene — one that has fully embraced her. With no real contacts in the art world here when she arrived, Manasseh quickly immersed herself in local art fairs and galleries, making "strong connections" within the community. She describes the experience as "really wonderful and unique to Singapore. It is so intimate here." It wasn't long before her work was being showcased across the city, and today it hangs in landmark locations such as the Raffles Hotel Presidential Suite, Changi City Point Atrium and Facebook's Singapore headquarters.

From the contemporary arts cluster that is the Gillman Barracks, to the groundbreaking Cuturi Gallery, which champions local artists, to the Art Porters Gallery — which represents Manasseh herself and occupies a beautiful Peranakan shophouse — a whole new way of enjoying art is emerging in Singapore. Manasseh says the word “dynamic” best depicts this visionary new scene. "I feel very lucky," she says. "I've found a wonderful community here, which is ever-expanding."

"Dynamic" best depicts this visionary new scene. "I feel very lucky," she says. "I've found a wonderful community here, which is ever-expanding."

Chloë Manasseh

Manasseh working on her 'CASA' collection in her studio (Photograph by Racy Lim)

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Manasseh's art on display at the iconic Raffles Hotel (Photograph by Gilman Barracks - Façade)

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Gillman Barracks, formally a military residence, is the epicentre of Singapore's art scene (Photograph by Gilman Barracks - Façade)

New concepts

The Covid-19 pandemic had a transformative effect on the Singapore arts scene, forcing artists to pivot in the way they produced and communicated their work. This changing climate has influenced Manasseh and her art. "It is an exciting time of creating and of being engaged," she says, and she has reacted with "new vigour." In a creative new approach that allows for social distancing in outside spaces, for example, her work will shortly be brought alive in an immersive experience at the upcoming Art Encounters. This exciting new presentation series is housed within repurposed shipping containers that move between different public spaces in Singapore and allow viewers to actually step into the art itself. As is often the case following challenging times, projects such as this mobile and constantly changing way of bringing art to the public reflect the groundswell in creativity that is occurring here and reflects the way that such imaginative work is becoming more accessible than ever before.

As advances accelerate, technology is playing a greater role than ever. Recently there has been a burst of originality in Singapore as consumers and artists alike embrace new visions of the art scene, underpinned by technology and innovation. New platforms have sprung up, such as the Excelsior Shopping Centre-based Islands, an experimental gallery that repurposes shop windows, encouraging artists to develop novel concepts and ways of exhibiting. Established institutions have joined in, too. The National Gallery recently digitised many of its works, projecting them onto canopies across the city, while Singapore Art Week was partially hosted digitally to allow greater access to its exhibitions.

As for Manasseh, when she ran out of canvases while working from home, she switched to painting on any available surface in her parents' house — including her mother's handbag — in a boundary-pushing explosion of creativity. This sense of reimagined perspectives is not only reflected in her own work, as she "used the time to explore new ideas," but also across the wider city with galleries becoming "a lot more imaginative" about the way art is communicated. "It doesn’t necessarily have to be in a traditional gallery space, or in a traditional manner anymore," she reflects. "There's been a wealth of creativity and exhibitions." There is no separating the unique, evocative landscape of Singapore from its arts scene, and, as Manasseh observes, "It is constantly changing, constantly evolving, and really feeding off the location itself and the communities working here together."