Clara Yee in front of a mural by Speak Cryptic, a visual artist working and living in Singapore.
With a knack for connecting people across borders through art, designer and illustrator Clara Yee talks about her experiences as art director of two crosscultural art exhibitions, Singapore: Inside Out and Pasar Singapura: The Bazaar, which also showcase the country’s creative side.
BY KAREN TEE
PHOTOS JUSTIN LOH, SINGAPORE TOURISM BOARD
ost people would not notice many similarities between Singapore and Mexico, but the common threads, especially in aesthetic preferences, are striking to designer and illustrator Clara Yee.
“There is a heavy use of imagery in both our cultures – for example, in advertisements – and a preference for warm colour. You will notice that we hardly ever use cool tones,” Yee observes.
This became the starting point for art and culture event, Pasar Singapura: The Bazaar, in Mexico City last March, marking 40 years of diplomatic relations between both countries. It was part of Spotlight Singapore, an initiative organised by non-profit Singapore firm Global Cultural Alliance to promote cultural exchanges between Singapore’s arts and business sectors and the world.
As artistic director of Pasar Singapura: The Bazaar, Yee’s role was to commission art and performance pieces that would spark conversations and friendships. For example, DJs from Singapore and Mexico worked together to mesh the “soundscapes” of both cities to create a soundtrack for the event. In another piece, two street artists – one from Singapore and one from Mexico – created giant wall murals inspired by the theme “Conversations”, featuring iconic images from both countries. Interestingly, both artists included Singapore’s mascot, the Merlion, in their artwork.
The one-day exhibition used the concept of a marketplace to share Singapore’s creative side. Held in a public library, it attracted passers-by who asked questions about the displays and Singapore. Yee, 26, says: “When we talk about starting a friendship, it’s possible to speak different languages and come from very different backgrounds very far apart geographically. How we bring them closer is through a marketplace, through trading and exchanging of ideas.”
“When we talk about starting a friendship, itʼs possible to speak different languages and come from very different backgrounds very far apart geographically. How we bring them closer is through a marketplace, through trading and exchanging of ideas.”
Designer and illustrator Clara Yee
Yee, who opened her own creative agency in 2013, was named one of Singapore’s 30 rising stars under 30 last year by the country’s largest English daily, The Straits Times. She is also on this year’s Forbes’ “30 under 30 Asia” list of 300 trailblazers under the age of 30 from across Asia.
Her knack for fostering cross-cultural understanding stems from her days as a student at the prestigious Central Saint Martins college in London, where she majored in graphic design from 2009 to 2012. During the 2012 London Olympics, she and a group of student friends set up a hospitality hub known as Pop-Up Singapore House to showcase the country’s culture to visiting dignitaries and guests. Featuring art exhibitions, craft workshops and jazz performances by Singaporean talent based in the United Kingdom, the event was so well received that it returned for subsequent installations over the next two years.
She also created scarf designs for fashion label Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2011 collection, and did work for performing arts centre The Barbican in London, Bombay Sapphire gin and record company Warner Music.
Pasar Singapura: The Bazaar was just one of two international art projects she embarked on last year. The other was Singapore: Inside Out, a multi-disciplinary travelling showcase featuring country’s outstanding creative talent in design, food, music, literature and the performing and visual arts. Organised by the Singapore Tourism Board as part of the country’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, the exhibition travelled to Beijing, London and New York before returning to Singapore.
Yee was creative director for the ambitious project, which she describes as “a whole different level of cultural diplomacy”. She says its aim was to present Singapore’s creative landscape and culture to key cities overseas. Besides displays by some of Singapore’s top creative agencies including Phunk and Kinetic, there were also performances by local actors and dancers as well as interactive installations, such as an edible display by Singaporean chef Janice Wong, who created lollipops in local flavours like kaya (coconut jam) and bak kwa (barbecued pork).
From her perspective, the Singapore: Inside Out installation – a lattice scaffolding structure featuring exhibitions, film screenings and music performances within and roving theatrical performances throughout – were an important first step in sparking an awareness in these cities about the country’s artistic scene. She says: “This has helped to open more channels of discussion, and the connections between the artists and creatives that have been made in the various cities will have an effect in time to come.” For example, music acts have continued touring in the cities they have visited.
Yee says her work has given her a new-found appreciation for her country of birth as well as an awareness that people have similar mentalities and values all over the world, despite different cultures and identities. She says: “Singaporeans tend to say we are idiosyncratic, but eventually, I came to feel that we are not so different from everybody else. We can be kiasu (scared to lose), but the British are also like that. We focus on studies; the Americans do that a lot too. Sometimes, you have to observe from a distance to appreciate what you have.”
Clara Yee (centre) with Mexican street artist Aletss Murdoc (second from left) and Singaporean artist Clogtwo (extreme right) who worked together to produce two murals in the theme of “Conversations” for Pasar Singapura: The Bazaar.
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