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The Art Ambassador
Artist and educator Milenko Prvacki helps bring Singapore art to the world through his passion for cross-cultural interactions.
BY TAN HWEE HWEE
PHOTOS LASALLE COLLEGE OF THE ARTS
ingaporean artist and educator Milenko Prvacki has a provocative approach to teaching art.
“I try to ‘displace’ my students, get them out of their comfort zone,” says Prvacki, 65, a senior fellow at Lasalle College of the Arts, an arts educational institution in Singapore where he has taught since 1994.
This led him to start Tropical Lab at Lasalle in 2006. Tropical Lab is an annual residential art camp that brings together more than 20 postgraduate students from art colleges and institutions in Indonesia, the United States, Japan, Singapore, as well as other countries all over the world.
The two-week event, which explores a different theme each year, includes workshops, talks and seminars by established international and Singaporean artists. It culminates in an exhibition, held at Lasalle, of the students’ work that responds to the theme of the camp.
A highlight of the event for the foreign students is the field trips they take around Singapore, which provide a better understanding of the country based on the theme for that year. For instance, for the theme of Land in 2012, students visited the now-defunct Bukit Brown Cemetery and an underground train station that was under construction through specially arranged trips.
“Itʼs always good when students work with artists from different environments. Theyʼre used to their own lectures, so when you bring in someone from another culture with another teaching method, that helps them to get different perspectives on the same things.”
Milenko Prvacki, senior fellow at Lasalle College of the Arts
Tropical Lab grew in part from Prvacki’s own experience of participating in symposiums and residencies in countries like the US and Australia for over 40 years. He says: “You learn that every culture is different. You meet artists from all over the world – from South America, Europe and Africa. Their culture is all part of their work, and their work reflects their culture and the history of their region. Through their art, you learn what their country is about, and what their culture is about.”
He cites the example of a Berlin-based Colombian artist he met during one of his residencies. He says: “Even though he lives in Berlin, his art is different from the Germans’ because he’s Colombian.
It follows the heritage of South America, and is equipped with a different history.”
Prvacki, who was born in the former Yugoslavia and trained as an artist in Romania, was also struck by how the both of them were dislocated from their home countries because of conflict. He moved to Singapore in 1991 during the Yugoslav Wars and became a Singapore citizen in 2002.
These cross-cultural experiences have impacted his work.
Prvacki says he started Tropical Lab to help Singaporean students see these different perspectives and network with foreign artists. He adds: “It’s always good when students work with artists from different environments. They’re used to their own lecturers, so when you bring in someone from another culture with another teaching method, that helps them to get different perspectives on the same things.”
“Working with Lasalle students to create and construct my art for the fi nal exhibition was great fun. Their energy, curiosity and technical capacity made it a pleasure. I learnt so much from our exchange and was glad to share my own creative process.”
Daniel Dallabrida, American artist
Lasalle student Hannah Tan, who participated in Tropical Lab in 2016, says the camp helped her to make new overseas friends and share interesting facts about her home country – for instance, Singapore’s public housing scheme, which enables a majority of Singaporeans to own homes, and how the Republic deals with the challenges of land scarcity.
She adds: “One interesting thing I learnt was that most of them do not travel out of their countries as frequently as Singaporeans. I guess coming from nations that are much bigger than Singapore, they are able to travel to different cities within their own countries instead. It is exciting to know friends in so many different nations now. We continue to keep in touch with one another on social media such as Facebook.”
Artist Daniel Dallabrida, from the California College of the Arts, who attended Tropical Lab in 2012, says: “Working with Lasalle students to create and construct my art for the final exhibition was great fun. Their energy, curiosity and technical capacity made it a pleasure. I learnt so much from our exchange and was glad to share my own creative process.”
ENRICHING LOCAL ART
Prvacki is a prominent member of the local and international art scenes, having exhibited extensively in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Sydney and Jakarta, as well as in Europe and the US. As an art educator at Lasalle, he has helped shape the local art scene. Many of Singapore’s top artists trained under him, including contemporary artist Jane Lee and performance artist Lee Wen.
Through his participation in artistic residences around the world, Prvacki has played the role of an ambassador for Singapore art, sharing about the country’s contemporary art scene, as well as its unique blend of East-West cultures. He says: “The people at these residences know very little about Singapore, so they have a high degree of curiosity to gain a better understanding of Singapore art. I showed them the similarities between Western and Eastern art, and why I have Eastern influences in my art even though I’m not Asian.”
He has also corrected misconceptions about Singapore. He says: “During my overseas stints, I noticed that not many people were aware of where Singapore is. Some even think that Singapore is part of China or Malaysia.”
His artistic contributions earned him the prestigious Cultural Medallion in 2012. It is the highest artistic honour given by the Singapore Government annually to individuals who have shaped the country’s arts and cultural landscape.