Amanda Heng’s artistic oeuvre spans over twenty yearsand employs various mediums: photography, multimedia, installation and performance. She was one ofthe key figures in founding the most important artists’collectives and networks in Singapore: the Artists’ Village andWomen in the Arts. Most importantly, Amanda Heng was one of thefirst to introduce feminist discourse into the Singapore art scene andhas been consistently raising awareness of women’s rights, genderequality and other feminist issues. She believes contemporary artconcerns are rooted in society and should be connected with peoplefrom the grass roots. Starting from her personal experience, Amanda’ssearch for her own identity has involved psychological, ethical,historical, linguistic and aesthetic aspects of a society in change.Above all else Amanda Heng’s works are about the art of engagementin everyday life.
Amanda Heng belongs to the generation of “midnight children” inthe Singapore context. She was born after World War II when thenation-building campaigns and the modernization processes in thisnew multiracial and multicultural country played the backdrops ofher identity quest. She grew up in a traditional patriarchal Chinesefamily. As a child, she experienced the different treatment of thefemale and male members in the family structure and saw howher mother lost her status as the “first lady” in the family when herhusband passed away. For the generation of Chinese immigrantslike Amanda’s mother in this region, which was defined as Nanyang(South Sea) by the Chinese, traditional Confucius values were stilldeeply rooted in family and marriage building. Confucius hadprescribed that a woman has to be obedient to her father at home:after marriage, she is required to be obedient to her husband andeventually to her own son.
Amanda Heng couldn’t stop asking such questions as: Who amI? What does it mean to be a woman? What role does a womanplay in society and who decides? It was the urge to articulate andfind answers to these issues that pushed Amanda to make her life’sdecision. She abandoned her regular government clerical job anddevoted herself whole-heartedly to make art. While she studied artin Australia in 1992, she encountered feminism for the first time. Asshe looked at her own origin, the hybrid of various cultural traditionsand values made the whole issue of identity complicated. After thefounding of Singapore, the island-state enforced a strict linguisticAll images: courtesy of the ArtistAnother Woman, exhibition view at Singapore Art Museumjune - july 2010 43S/hePerformance by Amanda Hengin Singaporepolicy. English was made the common language for business whileall the ethnic Chinese dialects were swept away from public media.All around her, English-speaking children had difficulties at home tocommunicate with their dialect-speaking parents or grandparents: thesense of loss and displacement was enormous.
In Amanda Heng’s first performance works from 1994, S/headdressed gender difference and identity crisis. Amanda hadherself covered with white thin cardboard and went walking andsearching with a stick in one hand and a lantern in the other. Musicof classical Chinese melodies mixed with a Western choir played inthe background. Then she sat in front of a mirror, painting strokes andscribbles on her face in traditional Peking opera manner while recitingConfucius quotes on women’s subservience to man. This workemphasized the theatricality of the performance art while the artist’sserious undertone was elegantly woven in the symbolism of gesturesand objects.
In 1999, Amanda Heng was invited to present her work togetherwith Richard Long, the English conceptual artist whose art worksexplored the boundaries of museums and galleries and expandedart to land and nature. Amanda Heng’s response to Long’s notion ofwalking was charged with women’s self-awareness rooted in theirown culture and social identity. With a high-heeled shoe in hermouth, Heng walked barefoot and backwards guided by a portablemirror through Singapore’s streets. The awkwardness of such walkingin public space was experienced by curious viewers and the artistherself as uncomfortable and odd. Amanda could make a strongstatement about what actually has happened with women’s progressin the society with discomfort of her physical presence. During the1997 Asian economic crisis, the most striving business success wasin beauty and slimming industries because anxious women believed(and perhaps still believe today) that it is the glamorous look thathelps them gain confidence in seeking employment.
Amanda Heng always wanted to make her mother understand whatshe was doing and why she’d given up a formal job to make art,but there hasn’t been so much verbal communications betweenthe mother and the daughter. The mother only speaks the Teochewdialect and the daughter has a very limited vocabulary in the dialect.But when one day the mother asked the daughter to take a headshotof her as is the custom for elderly Chinese when preparing for thedawning reality of death, Amanda found that doing things with hermother would reconnect them. This started a two-year long artproject that resulted in a series of photographs and mixed mediainstallations, Another Woman. The photographs were shown for thefirst time in The First Fukuoka Asian Triennial in 1999. The image ofthe artist herself as a grownup daughter embracing her elderly lookalikemother is compelling, touching and suspending all at the sametime. It intrigues viewers to take a further look at the representation ofthis mother-daughter relationship.
Body and objects played a significant roll in the process of makingthis project. Amanda recreated the process of pressing clothes asit was done in the old days together with her mother. She tookpictures of the whole process and put them together with theformed clothes. The art of cloth-making becomes an art work. Theartist’s mother understood the idea instantly. In traditional Chineseculture, physical contact and touch even between family membersare not common practices. But it was this process of the artistengaging herself in her mother’s world, her everyday life and herpremier concerns that broke the ice. “I hugged my mother. I wantedher to feel the connection and she understood it. I wanted to saythat we are two human beings hugging each other and it is all rightto do so.” Amanda recalled. This became the most moving momentin the making of the Another Woman.
The artist’s mother becomes the symbol of “another woman” who haslived her entire life taking care of siblings, children and grandchildren.After Singapore became independent in 1965, she was driven fromher kampong and moved to the newly built government HousingDevelopment Board (HDB) projects. The mother lost her socialnetwork. While her own dialect couldn’t locate the word “nationbuilding”, she has already been deprived of the right to listen to herfavorite local opera on radio. Her world became silent.
It was the fate of people like her mother that Amanda was concernedabout. Her performance work Let’s Chat brought alive life in thekampong in the old days. It was first presented in The Substation, analternative art space in Singapore, in 1996. Over seven days, people were invited to sit at a table with the artist, drink tea, chat and cleanbeans sprouts together. There was hardly any artistic technique orskill involved in this work, but purely artist sincerity in engagingparticipants to remember how life was before. Let’s Chat representsAmanda Heng’s belief in art that exists in everyday activities. Shesubsequently took the piece to shopping malls and to markets andeven overseas to different communities. By bringing art to real lifesituations, Amanda Heng urged us to think again about the changeswe have made in the name of progress and the loss of historicalsense in such development. Art becomes the remedy that brings usbackward into the past to rediscover and revere the history.
Through the years, Amanda Heng has been dedicated in findingwhat art can do to people and to society. She engages peopleto think about their origins, their histories and their identities bystarting with mundane everyday life. Her other works, such as HomeService from 2003 where she turned herself into a domestic workercleaning up Singaporeans’ homes to highlight the situation of thedomestic workers in Singapore; Our Lives in Our Hands from 2007was a performance event addressed to thousands of anonymousforeign laborers who build this country but are totally ignored bysociety. In her ongoing online project Singirl, Amanda returns to hercritique to gender equality, identity, colonization and representationby borrowing the image of the world famous Singapore airlinestewardesses in the mysterious exotic sarong kebaya dresses. Shecalls for women of all ages, shapes and colors to join the Singirlcommunity with the aim of forming a contingent of 100 Singirls toparticipate in the National Day Parade.
Josef Beuys once famously created the concept of “social sculpture”where the individual is encouraged to reconstruct their life asan entity of art. Amanda Heng has put this concept into a verySingaporean context. With her unique female sensibility, sharpfeminism commentary, down-to-earth attitude, and by using thebody as the most powerful means of communication, Amanda Henghas an important position in the development of contemporary artin Singapore and she represents a powerful woman’s voice fromSoutheast Asia in the international art scene.