Stories > Magnum Opus

2021 • Issue 2

Magnum Opus


The diminutive stature of this former church dating back to the 19th century belies the big ideas contained within.

BY CARA YAP

F

lanked by neat hedges, beneath the shade of an umbrella-shaped tree along Middle Road, is a canary-yellow, pitched-roofed building bearing the serendipitous appearance of someone who sidestepped traffic for a moment’s respite – only to linger indefinitely. Well, over 149 years, to be precise.

The centenarian housing Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film (opposite page; inset) is overlooked in plain sight amid the glare and blare of traffic coursing through the busy thoroughfare. One of Singapore’s few architectural works rendered in the Gothic style, it frames views of the changing cityscape through pointed arched windows – a silent bystander contemporaneous with the Lion City’s several epochs.

During the colonial era, it accommodated the Tamil Girls’ School – better known today as Methodist Girls’ School – and, later, a church for the Straits Chinese community. The Japanese Occupation saw it re-imagined as a Chinese restaurant, while its post-independence incarnations include a car repair workshop and, subsequently, a sculptural arts studio and gallery founded by architect-artist Sun Yu-Li.

Today, more than two decades since being declared a historic site by the National Heritage Board, the outlier hemmed in by high-rise buildings has become something of a fixture within the film and photography community. Since 2015, it has been occupied by nonprofit arts charity Objectifs, which was established by a pair of investment bankers in 2002.

Drawing professionals and amateurs alike, the centre was conceived to nurture original voices in visual storytelling as well as broaden perspectives through the art form. “We first started with a very simple premise – to have a space where the community could come together. We are very proud of the fact that we have been consistently promoting Singapore photographers and filmmakers even before that became trendy,” says Emmaline Yong, the company’s co-founder and director, in an earlier interview with national broadsheet The Straits Times.

These local creatives include award-winning arts practitioners such as filmmaker Liao Jiekai and photographer Sean Lee. Many of them have benefitted from Objectifs’ short courses and residency programmes, which were ahead of their time given the relative dearth of educational pursuits in Singapore for aspiring filmmakers back in the noughties.

Objectifs’ mainstays are a documentary programme focused on global narratives, a mentorship programme for emerging photographers, as well as an annual showcase of works spanning issues such as gender, cultural identity and inequality. Standing appositely in the Bras Basah-Bugis cultural precinct, among established institutions such as Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Lasalle College of the Arts, the pint-sized hub clearly holds its own.

As a nexus of ideas, the centre partners with international arts institutes on reciprocal artistin- residence initiatives, thus serving as a fillip for cross-cultural dialogue while fostering networking opportunities. In 2019, Objectifs and the Documentary Dream Centre in Yamagata, Japan, co-hosted respective Singapore- and Japan-based visual artists working in the medium of film.

The centre’s roster of exhibitions, screenings, talks, workshops and school visits play out in a hamlet-like 8,000-sq-ft space that includes a two-storey raspberryand- beige annex building housing a gift shop and gallery. Separated by a courtyard, the main chapel gallery’s high ceilings, an open floor plan and cement screed floors set the stage for larger shows.

Notably, Objectifs documents the experiences of Singapore’s transient foreign community through the Migrant Workers Photography Festival. “It was interesting to glimpse the everyday lives of foreign construction workers, who often exist on the fringes of society. Having their perspectives take centre stage in an exhibition like this shows me that Singapore is more inclusive than we realise,” says Janina Sisson, a Filipino national who attended the inaugural event in 2019.

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