SINGAPORE — While heartland “getai” shows typically showcase live performances of Mandarin and Hokkien music, a crowd at Gillman Barracks on Friday night (Sept 29) was treated to a different version of it.
With a set list of Malay, English and even Japanese songs, perhaps the highlight of the half-hour show was a drag queen playing trombone to the tune of evergreen National Day theme song Home, which moved its spectators to sing along.
Entitled Queer-tai, the show was among a series of arts performances commissioned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU CCA) Singapore.
In line with the times, the public can expect arts performances that touch on themes relating to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.
This is because artists naturally explore a wide range of topics and will always produce work that “speaks to our times”, said National Arts Council (NAC) chief executive officer Low Eng Teong, who was attending the anniversary event as a guest of honour. He was speaking to TODAY on the sidelines.
As part of NTU CCA’s anniversary celebrations, a series of collaborative performances by the centre’s past contributing artists and artist-in-residence alumni members were commissioned.
Two of such shows were staged on Friday, including Queer-tai — a half-hour karaoke segment led by a few people, including some dressed in drag, followed by a DJ setlist.
Asked by TODAY about the significance of having arts performances with LGBTQ themes in public spaces and educational institutions, Mr Low said that regardless of where such performances are held, “artists explore all types of topics and themes and issues in their work, so I think that is something that is to be expected, in (that) artists will always want to make work that speaks to our times.
“It is for artists to be interested in issues like climate change, environmental, social issues, the different kinds of events, world events happening around the world and how it affects our lives, so I think this is part and parcel of the natural process of art.”
He reiterated that he was not commenting specifically about arts performances at educational institutions.
Intervention, the group that staged Queer-tai, describes itself as “a queer party collective”.
It has organised three parties since it was formed in November and was commissioned to perform at an exhibition opening at the Singapore Art Museum.
One of its members, residence alumnus Daniel Hui, feels that NTU CCA has a “very strong connection” with its artists and shows support for them during and after residency.
“So I feel like it’s very natural for them to call us back to be part of the anniversary celebration,” he said, adding that the aesthetics of Intervention’s events may be what makes them attractive to art spaces.
The centre’s current artist-in-residence Irfan Kasban, who is also a member of Intervention, said that part of Intervention’s mission is also to provide a safe and inclusive space for diverse individuals, not just in terms of gender identity but also ethnicity, among others.
For instance, the cross-disciplinary artist said that a lot of his music has roots in indigenous traditions, adding that he aims to let people dance to “other voices that are not primarily English”.
“Different kinds of beats, different kinds of sounds, that’s something that we also are trying to advocate for,” said Mr Irfan.
Asked to weigh in on how conversations around LGBTQ issues have evolved in Singapore, Professor Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of NTU CCA, noted that while the public has been relatively more “outspoken” about it in recent times, “it is not that it didn’t exist before”.
“I think as educators, we always have this role as mediators (in having such discussions),” she said.
Looking back at NTU CCA’s progress, Prof Bauer said that the themes tackled by the centre’s artists have evolved tremendously since the centre was born.
While many works 10 years ago explored themes like cultural identity, they have been “surpassed by much more global issues” today, such as climate change and geopolitical events.
“Today, the key issue and the fear is climate change. People hear about wildfires, sea level rise, and we see it in the news every day,” she said.
She envisions NTU CCA to also continue evolving to tackle issues that are relevant in the future.
“As an educator, I really do care about my students, their lives, their anxieties, and I think it’s very important to be there and that they feel a university is a place for thinking,” she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended to better reflect the views of those interviewed.