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Signature Art Prize 2018 winners interrogate historical narratives and give a voice to the voiceless

Below Thasnai Sethaseree in front of his artwork with the Jurors' Choice Award in his hand. Photo: Apipar Norapoompipat

'I feel like I'm walking into an execution ground," said Thai artist Thasnai Sethaseree at the end of June, a few minutes before the Signature Art Prize 2018 award ceremony in Singapore was about to start. "Personally, when I'm in a position that I'm judged, I feel uncomfortable. It doesn't have to do with winning or not winning. I just don't like getting tested."

Inaugurated in 2008, Singapore's Signature Art prize aims to recognise outstanding contemporary artwork produced over the past three years in Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific Rim. This year, 113 pieces have been nominated from 46 countries and territories, and Thasnai's massive-scale 2016 collage work Untitled (Hua Lamphong), along with 15 other artworks, have been shortlisted into the final.

Thasnai's collage, which explores political violence and manifestations of power, among other things, is part of a larger triptych that was first exhibited at Bangkok's Gallery VER in 2016. On the canvas are around 15 layers, consisting of monks robes, layered with photographs of Hua Lamphong train station, with the newly drafted constitution, and with traditional northern paper streamers. This complex layering of ideas and symbols, which comment and criticise Thailand's constant cover-up and over-ornamentation of its history, makes his visually stunning work reminiscent of an historical excavation.

The jury gave Thasnai's piece -- along with Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao's Pulp: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book. Vol 1: Written In The Margins -- the Jurors' Choice award. Rao's artwork is part of a 10-year project she's embarked on: researching the issues surrounding the destruction of books and libraries around the world. In her interactive installation, there are ink drawings, photographs, giclée prints with ink text, a book she wrote, and testimonies from those involved in the burning of the national library in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war in the 90s.

The Grand Prize, at SGD$60,000 (1.5 million baht) went to Vietnamese artist Phan Thao Nguyen's Tropical Siesta.

The work is a poetic and thought-provoking project, consisting of a 2-channel video and six oil paintings on X-ray film backing from the video. As part of her "Poetic Amnesia" project, Phan explores the life of French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes, who is considered to be the father of Vietnamese Christianity, by telling an imaginary tale of rural Vietnam governed entirely by children.

"One's cerebral, one's poetic, and one's visually stunning," said Malaysian juror Wong Hoy Cheong. "In my mind, when I chose the three finalists, it was important to show it does have variety and diversity."

All 15 of the shortlisted artworks, which are currently being exhibited at the National Museum of Singapore until Sept 2, have been selected by a distinguished jury panel made up of Australian art historian Gerard Vaughan, Singaporean curator Joyce Toh, Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong, Japanese chief curator of the Mori Art Museum Mami Kataoka, and Indian artist Bose Krishnamachari. Despite there being no official theme in place, the jurors' picks for the finalists definitely reflected a recurring pattern of historical narratives and stories of marginal peoples and characters.

"The Signature Art Prize 2018 exhibition provides a glimpse into the multiplicity of political, social and economic histories and realities across Asia Pacific and Central Asia, as told through contemporary art," said juror Mami Kataoka.

The People's Choice award, voted for by gallery visitors, went to Indonesian artist Gede Mahendra Yasa's complex and detailed painting After Paradise Lost #1. Through the impressively large canvas that is painted in a popular Balinese style called Batuan, he explores the art form's history and development.

"It's uncanny how the winning artworks, as well as the majority of other finalists, have engaged with history and marginal narratives in nuanced and visceral ways," said Wong Hoy Cheong. "From Pan Thao Nguyen's work which poetically reimagines the convergence of myth and history in Vietnam, to Shubigi Rao's work, which problematises meaning-making and knowledge and challenges you to think, and Thasnai Sethaseree's work, which layers historical and current political and religious undercurrents in Thai society in a visually stunning manner."

Left Grand Prize winner Tropical Siesta (2015-2017) by Vietnamese artist Phan Thao Nguyen. Apipar Norapoompipat

People's Choice winner After Paradise Lost #1 (2014) by Indonesian artist Gede Mahenda Yasa. Apipar Norapoompipat

Juror's Choice winner: Pulp: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book. Vol I: Written In The Margins (2014-2016) by Singaporean artist Shibigi Rao. Photo © Singapore Art Museum

From left, Thasnai Sethaseree, Phan Thao Nguyen, Shubigi Rao — the winners of the APB Foundation Signature Art Prize 2018. Photo © Singapore Art Museum

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