Connecting Latin America and Southeast Asia — National Gallery Singapore Presents Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America

In the heart of Singapore’s vibrant cultural scene, where art becomes a language that transcends borders, the National Gallery Singapore proudly unveils its latest blockbuster exhibition – Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America. Running from 18 November 2023 to 24 March 2024, it is the world’s largest comparative exhibition that uncovers the hidden connections between the seemingly distant realms of Southeast Asia and Latin America. 

I had the incredible opportunity to immerse myself in the vibrant narratives, tropical intersections, and artistic expressions of over 70 artists, including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Latiff Mohidin, and Affandi that converged in a showcase of more than 200 captivating works, right here in our own backyard! I am thrilled to share the inspiring journey that awaits art enthusiasts and culture seekers alike.

Tropical Exhibition: Ng & Kahlo
“Tropical” features art pieces from Southeast Asia and Latin America, including Patrick Ng and Frida Kahlo

The Tropical Intersection of Culture

Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America, or “Tropical” as termed by National Gallery Singapore, is an astoundingly unique experience. From the moment I stepped into the gallery, I found myself surrounded by a living tapestry of meticulously curated paintings, sculptures, films, prints, and installations spanning the 20th and 21st centuries. But the exhibition is not just your standard paintings on walls or sculptures on pedestals; “Tropical” is a dynamic exhibition that breathes life into Southeast Asian and Latin American art. 

The vibrant colours of the artwork of both cultures danced on the canvases. They seemed to tell stories beyond the brushstrokes, which beckoned me to explore a rich cultural narrative that beautifully mirrored the complexity of the two regions it represented.

As I delved deeper into the narratives, deeper layers of the two regions’ parallels were revealed. Beyond our shared colonial history and similar climate, as well as food, culture, attire, passion for sports and artistic practices, I couldn’t help but also feel the remarkable celebration of resilience, self-determination, and the unwavering spirit of artists, dreamers, and writers who defied norms in the wake of colonialism. 

Tropical Exhibition: Mother Nature's Bounty Harvest
“Mother Nature’s Bounty Harvest” by Edades, Botong & Ocampo survives to this day despite the destruction of many similar murals during WWII, representative of the resilient nature of Southeast Asians

Having been guided by a curator, each piece transformed into a testament to the strength of artistic voices that rose above societal and historical challenges. It’s more than an exploration of identity; it’s a personal journey through the corridors of art that resonates with the echoes of the past and the path we laid for the future.

The Displays of Artistic Expression

The visionary designs of architect Lina Bo Bardi took me by surprise as “Tropical” shattered traditional display methods. Artworks were not static entities hanging on walls; they were dynamic and told a story. 

Art pieces were presented on “crystal easels”, creating an illusion that they were ‘floating’ forcing you to interact with them from every angle. 

Tropical Exhibition: Crystal Easels
Paintings are mounted on “crystal easels” with the accompanying descriptions attached behind

Some pieces were on wooden lattice-like structures, constructed using planks salvaged from Jurong Shipyard in the 1980s, emphasising sustainable design and also adding a touch of Singaporean industrial history to the exhibition in a way that connects to the city’s past.

Tropical Exhibition: Wooden Lattice
A section of the exhibition features paintings mounted on wooden lattice-like structures that also invite observers to appreciate the art from all angles

There were also installations with interactive elements within an area where each piece challenged the conventional gallery space, creating an immersive encounter. 

Multi-sensory experiences like Lygia Clark‘s “Diálogo: Óculos” and “Máscaras Sensoriais” extended beyond visual engagement, creating a dynamic connection between art and observer, where you could don the unconventional robes and masks and actively participate in creating your own unique narratives.

Tropical Exhibition: Interactive Pieces
The exhibition features interactive pieces of art that visitors can “wear, feel, and participate”

My tour of Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America included the interactive reading zone within the Library of the Tropics, which offers a deep dive into some of the literary works that inspired the exhibition, including historic textbooks of the Pacific Islands to romantic novels that moved the body and soul. 

These books were curated to offer an added layer of context to the artworks on display, fostering a deeper understanding of the cultural intersections in a way that felt like embarking on a literary and visual adventure.

Tropical Exhibition: The Library of The Tropics
The Library of The Tropics features books and resources for those interested in learning more about the inspiration behind the exhibition

The experience extended to the City Hall Chamber, where Hélio Oiticica’s most influential installation, “Tropicália”, is realised in Southeast Asia for the first time. 

Oiticica is a critique of popular constructions of Brazil as a “tropical paradise,” the artwork interrogates complex realities of everyday life in the Global South. I was invited to step into the artwork, featuring concrete slabs, plants, sand, gravel, wooden structures — and a pair of macaws! 

Tropical Exhibition: Tropicalia
“Tropicália” by Hélio Oiticica is an installation that navigates the fine line between celebration and critique of the trope of a tropical paradise

I entered a multi-sensorial realm as I contemplated the stark juxtaposition between idyllic stereotypes and the harsh realities of Brazilian life. It was an immersion that felt like traversing through a dreamscape, blurring the lines between the observer and the observed.

The immersive experience of “Tropical” also split into public areas within the museum. The Singapore Courtyard, usually a transitional space, has been transformed visually by a new commission titled “Vientos Alisios.” A collaboration between Dolores Zinny and Juan Maidagan, this expansive installation added an extra layer to the overarching narrative, bridging the gap between the exhibition and the museum’s public spaces. 

Tropical Exhibition: Trade Winds
“Vientos Alisios” by Dolores Zinny and Juan Maidagan was commissioned specially for this exhibition and features in The Singapore Courtyard

As I navigated through the exhibits, the physicality of the art became palpable, blurring the lines between observer and observed. It was not just about looking, but also about experiencing and interpreting the art in a way that felt like a personal journey.

The Vibrant and Empowering Narratives

Structured into thematic sections inspired by legendary texts, namely “The Myth of the Lazy Native,” “This Earth of Mankind,” and “The Subversive.” The exhibition can also be a literary voyage for those familiar with the texts. 

Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America presented a thoughtful exploration of themes discussed within the books by “demystifying tropes” that challenged colonial stereotypes, showcasing powerful paintings that resisted narratives of the “lazy native.” 

Tropical Exhibition: La Molendera
“La Molendera” by Diego Rivera subverts the paradisiacal stigma of Mexico and depicts a mundane but realistic scene of the hardworking people of Mexico

By “reconstructing the self and hope”, the exhibition delved into the inner worlds of artists, exploring self-portraits and the transformative period of the 1940s. As well as “strategies for change and taking control”, which traced perspectives of artists who used modern painting and sculpture as powerful tools for instigating change in a way that felt like stepping into the shoes of those daring artists.

I was guided through narratives of self-determination, identity reconstruction, and strategies for change. Each section paid homage to the influential literature and provided a nuanced context that enriched the art on display. Each art piece became a chapter in a broader story, weaving connections between the written word and visual expression.

I found myself delving into the deep connections between literature, art, and societal change in “Tropical”, offering a nuanced understanding of the cultural shifts during the 20th century that felt like turning the pages of a living history book.

“Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America” is an invitation to embark on a journey of cultural exploration, self-discovery, and artistic evolution.

Having stepped into the immersive world of “Tropical” myself, I invite you to take the time to wander through the intricate narratives that transcend the two regions, eras, and artistic conventions. Immerse yourself in the transformative experience that lingers in your thoughts long after you leave the gallery. 

Immerse Yourself Today

Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America offers an array of exhibition programs, including performance activations of several works, curator tours, talks, family programs, and more. National Gallery Singapore ensures all visitors that there is something for everyone to feel like they are part of a community of art enthusiasts.

The Singapore Courtyard and the Gallery’s Coleman Street Entrance will be free to the public. Meanwhile, Standard Special Exhibition passes are priced at S$25 and S$15, for Singapore Residents and Permanent Residents, respectively.

Gallery Insiders enjoy free unlimited access, ensuring you can immerse yourself in the cultural journey whenever inspiration strikes and explore limitless possibilities of artistic expression. Meanwhile, Early Birds enjoy a 10% discount for online purchases until 31 December 2023.

Special Exhibition or All Access Pass holders who dine at Smoke & Mirrors from 18 November 2023 to 24 March 2024 will enjoy discounts on Tropical-themed cocktails. Likewise, for purchases at The Gallery Store by Abry for Tropical-themed merchandise, visitors will enjoy 10% off their purchase.

So embark on your cultural journey today by visiting the Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America exhibition!

Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America

Date: 8 November 2023 to 24 March 2024

  • S$25 for Standard Special Exhibition Pass
  • S$15 for Singapore Residents and Permanent Residents
  • Early Birds enjoy a 10% discount for online purchases until 31 December 2023
  • Free for Gallery Insiders

Location: City Hall Wing, Level 3, Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery and various locations around National Gallery Singapore

For more information on the exhibition and ticket details, please visit the National Gallery Singapore website

Photos by Jeffrey Lee and Russell Loh of the DANAMIC Team. Additional visuals courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Jeffrey Lee

A Singaporean raised abroad, you might want to see Jeffrey's different take on things — especially if you frequently find yourself swinging around a climbing gym or with a crossword in hand.

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