Manjeet Shergill has exhibited her work in Berlin, Bangkok and Londonand believes anyone can be an artist as long as they are brave enough to show the world something of themselves. Vmag asks about her life of an artist and where art is heading in Singapore.
"I believe all of us can paint or draw," says Manjeet Shergill, " It's all about showing something original to the world. A lot of my workshop students are shocked what they produce, because they don't know it's there before they start painting. But the point is you don't have to be brilliant or fabulous, you just have to reach out to people. Art is all about asking for attention. The artist is someone who is brave enough to stand bare before the world."
Manjeet Shergill has taken the idea of bareness and art to some extremes. In fact she lived with nothing but her work, a single bed on the floor and her clothes basket for many years. She looks back on the period with some nostalgia as a time when she had no distractions, no relationships, no complications, to keep her from just being an artist. "I have a friend who has a beautiful studio but she says she can't work. I tell her it's because she's playing housekeeper. You cannot have more than one role - you have to concentrate, you have to shut out everything else," she explains.
Manjeet's career began with just the act of painting. After the deaths of her grandfather and father, the end of her long term relationship, Manjeet says she used painting as a kind of therapy. This was the beginning of her life without material possessions, without anything but her and her work. All the grief she could not put into words came pouring out on the canvas instead, giving her work an amazing energy that was to resonate with audiences as well. "I came to the end, and I thought. 'Well, what am I going to do with them?' and then I decided I might as well sell them, as I needed some kind of income after all." It sounds so simple, but that was the beginning. She hung the paintings in an exhibition, which was a very strange experience. After all that time working on her own, to put herself out there like that, in the space of a gallery, with no identity bar the paintings must have been daunting to say the least. But it worked; she sold. She says first thought was "Great, now I can pay my rent," and her second was "well, I suppose this is what I'll do."
It can't have been easy making that sort of decision in Singapore, a country that until recently was all about economics. The nation is still very young and its formative years were spent more in survival than finding the time to be creative. Where older societies have a long history of rich 'patrons of the arts', Singapore is only just beginning to build an artsnetwork. Recent initiatives from the National Arts Council include an arts outreach programme to take art into schools and grants for those who undertake overseas projects. But these are relatively new initiatives, in fact the NAC itself was not even formed until 1991. At the moment, there are many art schools in the city state, including a branch of the London school of St Martin's. But the situation was very different when Manjeet was studying. She was one of the first batch of students to go through what was then St Patrick's Art Centre and what became LASALLE.
"At the time, the only art school was NAFA (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts), which was very conservative and influenced a lot by the Chinese tradition. Brother McNally wanted to introduce something more European and more international, so he employed practising artists to come in as teachers. Iskandar Jalil, the famous potter, was there as was my teacher, a Belgian man called Stefan Newmann who worked as an illustrator. The school was one room with a big table in it for the students, and then Brother McNally's office which doubled up as the library. I remember the time as a period of learning, not just of art but also literature. It was the first time I learned how to read novels and be inspired by them, by their sensitivity and their eloquence."
It was seven years before her two year training translated into a career. I asked her if things might have been different if she'd been a student in New York or Europe. There, art follows a more structured career path as there is more of an expectation that students will make a living from their studies. "I often wonder about that." she muses, "But do you know, I'm glad that I'm here in Singapore. I think being closer to the East, which at the moment is much more creative and less commercial than the West, helps me with creativity. The Eastern art scene still has a quality of innocence, of wanting to tell a story that I think has been lost in the West. When I went to Berlin I was struck by how intellectual art was over there, with an intellectual audience too. I kept wanting to ask, 'Well do you like it or not?' Isn't that the point?"
The artist is not alone in having this view of Western Art. Tracey Emin nearly won the Turner prize in 2003 with a piece called "My Bed", complete with fag ends, dirty laundry and used condoms. Damian Hirst did win the same award ten years earlier with "Mother and Child", a couple of dissected, pickled cows. Both artists are accused of being more shocking than talented, leading people to question the purpose of modern art even in the country that awarded the prize. This shift of emphasis, from engaging the public to challenging them, is something Shergill sees as "emotional tiredness". Her own work maintains an ingenuous quality, which partly comes from her constant exploration of the medium.
She says her period of painting a lot of women partly arose out of herfascination with how much raw emotion they could create. She did a collection on Indian women ("which was an excuse to work with strong colours"), followed by a collection on Javanese women, which showed their aggressive side ("Asian women may be submissive, but they're not weak"). This lead to her classification as a 'woman's artist'.so her reaction was to start painting monks. Their eyes were all closed and they had an aura of calmness, reflecting the fact she'd had enough of overwhelming emotion for the time being. "People tell me I still hide myself behind a few layers in my work. Sometimes I feel I don't have a lot to say because I'm not a particularly complex person.perhaps that's the Singaporean aspect. At the moment my work is about the beauty of painting, why people do it, what the history is.rather than my life. I don't paint my son or my friends, for example."
Yet her life at the moment is encroaching on her art. Having a baby boy and all that goes with him means that she cannot easily find "the moment of calm" that she needs to start painting. She carries out her workshops, works hard on making her gallery an inviting place for the public, but has only completed eight or nine paintings since he was born. She finds her materials look lonely now they are not used every day. It is an adjustment that has been difficult for her to make. "He is the picture and I am the frame," she says, "I don't even have time to sleep properly any more." It is possible that this is a period of absorption which will take later work in a new direction? Only time will tell.
copyright © 2007 shergillstudio