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In Conversation with Curator, Syaheedah Iskandar

Syaheedah Iskandar portrait

Syaheedah Iskandar is the IMPART Awards 2020 winner and an independent curator who works with vernacular ideas of visuality within Southeast Asia. Her projects aim to unpack knowledges that inform and counter hegemonic systems of seeing, while exploring collaborative ways of presenting.

In this post, we speak with Syaheedah about her latest exhibition, An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season, which she was invited to curate at National Gallery Singapore as part of Proposals for Novel Ways of Being, a collective response by the visual arts community to the global pandemic and its impact on the community.

The title, Proposal for Novel Ways of Being, recognises the critical situation we are experiencing, while noting, that Covid-19 is not the first global crisis the world has encountered, and will not be the last. The exhibitions in this project suggest how we can adapt, and how new ways of existing are possible, necessary even, as we evolve.

An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season looks into contemporary art practices that highlights local articulations that mirror the many undercurrents the world is grappling in light of the pandemic. The exhibition features ten local artists Aki Hassan, Clara Lim, Fajrina Razak, Ila, Izzad Radzali Shah, Kin Chui, Norah Lea, Sufian Samsiyar, TiniAliman, and IMPART Awards 2019’s Visual Artist winner, Priyageetha Dia.

Source: National Gallery Singapore

Congratulations on the opening of your exhibition! Can you share a bit about the inspiration and curatorial process behind An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season?

SI: Truthfully, the idea came from the headspace of being in a pandemic, which translates into the “glitch” that we are experiencing. Apart from disrupting global routines, the pandemic spotlighted pre-existing issues that have been swept under the rug for a long time. In these past few months, there have been rigorous questions about the ill-effects of globalization, our unsustainable modus operandi, the climate crisis, an upsurge on tackling systemic racism, to name a few. We saw these issues exploding like ticking time bombs during the escalation of COVID-19.

Art, for a long time, has participated in these introspections of trusting our intuition. In mirroring the state of mind we are in, the exhibition embodies these intricate processes of contemplating possible pathways of action while being confronted with not one – but many elephants in the room.

We understand that the show was put together within two months. How did you and the artists you worked with manage such a challenging feat? What new modes of working emerged from this?

SI: If it is one thing to produce a new artwork within less than two months, producing in the middle of a pandemic for the largest art institution in Singapore made the challenge a twofold. We had to be ready and comfortable with the decision to take this on. Apart from not being able to access materials and the studio during that period, there were also manpower restrictions during the installation of the exhibition. Only a number of people were allowed in the gallery at any point. The teams were also split into two, with each week focusing on a different group of artists and installation team. Adding to this pressure, was the delay in getting supplies for fabrication materials from Malaysia due to closed borders.

Most of the artists in the show saw this as an opportunity to integrate new ways of creating art, by using digital means to amplify the meaning of their works. There are those that also use it as a way to bring in conversations about the limitations of the digital. It was also a luxury to be showing an exhibition for 5 months – previously the longest I have worked on was 3 months – so we also had to consider practicalities of long-term display while maintaining the integrity of the artworks.

3GHz by Clara Lim, 2020

You previously shared that with such a tight timeline, the focus was on seeding rather than harvesting artworks for the show. To borrow from your phrasing, what fruits do you hope such efforts might bear in the long-term?

Yes, I felt that it was crucial to help seed the practices of the artists rather than harvest their artworks for a one-time show realized in less than three months. Especially in this period of uncertainty, some of the ways we can continue to support young artists is by helping them expand their current exploration of a subject into a series of work. Such an approach is more sustainable in the long run as these concentrations of artworks eventually speak and evolve together with their practices, beyond the exhibition.

You also co-curated a work by Ila for the exhibition Time Passes with Samantha Yap, can you share more about the collaborative process?

As Ila’s work There can be no touching here addresses conversations surrounding sexual assault, boundaries and harm, Samantha and I (with support from Ila), decided that because of the nature of the work, it was important for both of us to collaborate as a way to exercise collective solidarity. There can be no touching here also had connective strands to both exhibitions – one of thinking about new pathways of action (An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season) and the other, from thinking about strategies of care (Time Passes).

Pokokyna: Organic Collection by Tini Aliman, 2020

How was your experience like working on large-scale exhibition with resources but also departments to negotiate, versus your experience as an independent curator so far?

It definitely gave me a wider perspective on the mechanics of large-scale institutions such as National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum. One vital experience that really struck me was understanding the need to cater to a wide-range of audiences falling under the umbrella of the ‘general public’. Due to limited resources, there are less expectations on what could be provided in terms of physical or information accessibility in a much smaller, independently-staged exhibition. It made me think about what we mean exactly when we say we need more “inclusive” spaces – that in our efforts to create extensive accessibility, are we limited by the resources we have on hand?

In the blink of an eye, it’s been almost a year since you won the IMPART Awards in January! Has winning the awards changed anything for you?

Yes – on top of the recognition, the cash prize was undoubtedly helpful for me as an independent curator during these challenging times. What made it most significant was having my parents understand the nature of my work better, and seeing what their support – even without knowledge of the arts – has amounted to.

The pandemic has affected all of us in one way or another, what is something that helps you stay grounded to your calling?

Productivity is an overrated virtue! I’m quoting what Eve Hoon from the Art Outreach team shared on her #AOSpotlight here because it resonated with me a lot. It is easy to get lost in the process while trying to realize an idea. Especially in these times when the pandemic has pulled a global emergency brake, the extreme discomfort of having to drastically change gears after says a lot about the unsustainable rate we have been functioning in.

What’s one piece of advice you have for budding curators?

It is essential to acknowledge that exhibition-making is not a flawless concept and has its own inequities. Failing is part of the process, but what matters most is the relationships and dialogues you built with the artists that will supersede the duration of the exhibition.

An Exercise of Meaning in a Glitch Season is currently showing at the National Gallery Singapore from now to 21 February 2020.

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