Departing and Arriving is the COVID-friendly theme of this year’s Singapore International Photo Festival (SIPF). Running from November 5 to January 30, the city-state’s exhibition is hosting more than 150 photographers from all over the world, displaying their work in institutions such as the ArtScience Museum and more alternative venues such as the DECK and subway stations on the Downtown Line.
“Despite the challenges of this year, we are hoping to continue our role as the region’s leading platform to discover, nurture and propel Southeast Asian photographers onto the international stage,” says Gwen Lee, Director and Co-Founder of SIPF.
Among the hundred or so photographers exhibited, four artists share with Blind the stories and the themes of identity and culture that dominate their series presented at the SIPF.
Maria Lax, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire (Finland)
In the series “Some Kind of Heavenly Fire,” London-based Finnish photographer Maria Lax depicts supernatural events in her hometown. “I’m from a small town in Northern Finland surrounded by a vast, sparsely populated wilderness. Most pass through the town on their way to someplace else without ever knowing it was a hotspot for UFO sightings in the 1960s,” the artist explains.
One fall, she set out to research these mysterious events, which made for popular news items. She first brought them up with her grandfather who, suffering from dementia, could not answer her questions. Then she found some eyewitnesses from back then, who claimed to have seen strange lights in the sky. She went digging through the city’s archives, pored over press clippings and flipped through her family photo albums, all of which led her to conclude that the UFO sightings coincided with a dark period for northern Finland, a time marked by unemployment and a rural exodus to the cities.
Her images have an X-Files-by-David-Lynch feel to them. While these are familiar places for the young girl, she deliberately gives them a magical aura. This gas station, for example, which she cleaned out, as a child, in the backseat of her parents’ car, becomes a place as magnetic as it is disturbing. “I wanted to give it a magical glow to share the nostalgia (…) It is a slightly surreal shot on purpose, because I like to capture real places so that they seem unreal.”
Anne Moffat, Forget me Not (Australia / Malaysia)
“Jia poh” is what young Malaysian-born photographer Anne Moffat called her grandmother, who died in 2019 at the age of 90 after a five-year battle against Alzheimer’s disease. The series “Forget me Not” takes us into the intimacy of her last moments in life and pays tribute to her.
“When my grandmother first started forgetting, my mother crafted her a number of small “life story” notebooks lovingly filled with images and handwritten memories of their lives together (…) These pages are memorialized and work in dialogue with my own images, providing context to my grandmother’s once full and vibrant life,” explains the artist.
Family meals, family games, gestures of tenderness, details of a room that housed her last dreams, her last breaths. Anne Moffat chronicles her grandmother’s last days down to the smallest moments, such as when she wakes from her sleep in this photo taken in April 2019, three months before her death. “Here jia poh wakes from an afternoon nap. In her final months, her memory and focus seemed to be clearest first thing in the morning, whereas by the afternoon, she was often lost in the depths of her own mind. She had always loved gardening and flowers; I loved the way all the different floral materials now hugged her.”
Kamonlak Sukchai, Red Lotus (Thailand)
Kamonlak Sukchai started out as a screenwriter before turning to photography when her father gave her a Pentax K1000. She then began to question the place of women in Thailand, who are often held back by the weight of religion and tradition. Her series “Red Lotus” (Kamonlak, her first name, means “lotus” in Thai) revisits different mythologies around a young girl.
“I use the structures of Thai folk tales that I’ve been interested in since I was young to create a new story (…) I want to show how they made and influenced today’s society,” the artist tells us. She herself claims to be deeply conditioned by the dominant way of thinking. How to be “a good woman” in the eyes of Thai tradition, especially when it comes to her sexuality and femininity?
Her photo-collages, saturated with colors and references, unambiguously reveal the oppression of the female body by religious entities. One photograph in particular stands out, which pictures a gutted out piece of fruit, surrounded by jewels and precious fabrics placed between the heroine’s skinned legs.
She explains this powerful image to us: “In traditional beliefs and folk tales, menstruation brings terrible luck, and it makes man’s magic disappear. In the same meaning, calabash, the holy fruits is a legendary fruit that is the origin of the birth of people in animism belief of Southeast Asia. But later the holy fruit became forbidden and will also make man’s magic disappear (…) Nowadays, women are still forbidden in some temples even if they don’t have their period.”
Nguan, Singapore (Singapore)
Three juvenile silhouettes emerge from a placid sea. Shrouded in the pink and blue light of late afternoon, they look up at a plane leaving the island. For Singaporean photographer Nguan, exhibiting this shot at the SIPF during a time of pandemic, lockdown, and a global travel ban is not insignificant.
“I also think of the picture as a pro-globalist statement. Being a tiny island nation with few natural resources, Singapore is reliant on interconnectedness for her very survival, and we have more than most to lose if the world enters an era of insularity.” he emphasizes.
Armed with his 35mm camera from the 1990s, he documents the unexpected softness of a city-state considered ultra-capitalist and authoritarian. In a place where everything is supposed to be efficient and impeccable, he captures the poetry and the easy-going side of it.
From the series “Singapore” emanates a sensual and misty atmosphere that is reminiscent of the work of Sofia Coppola, which the artist explains as follows: It’s “an attempt to reimagine the city as a surreal dream landscape using purely documentary methods. I think the tension between the realms of the true and the conjured lies at the heart of what makes photography so compelling.”
By Charlotte Jean
Singapore International Photo Festival
Through January 30, 2021