Speeches at the launch of The O.P.E.N.: Ong Keng Sen and Vali Mahlouji

Ng Yi-Sheng

June 23, 2016

I've already posted what Ong Keng Sen said about the censorship of Newsha Tavakolian's I Know Why the Rebel Sings. But I feel I ought to set that statement in context. (And I can, anyway, because I started transcribing his speech almost as soon as it started.)

OKS: We decided that one of the ways to have more engagement with the content of the festival was to have a three-week pre-festival of ideas where the audience can navigate the larger themes of the festival.

We are the Singapore International. It does immediately place a perspective: it is not just what his happening in Singapore but also the rest of the world.... We started more with “Legacy”, where we looked at the past of the 20th century, and then we moved on to the present with “Post-Empires”, and now in the our third year we’re moving on the future with “Potentialities”. So Potentialities is trying to be optimistic about the future. And we have young children in the audience: and I’m thinking maybe it’s the right choice that I didn’t have a child. I think I would be hard put to have a child in a time when the future is so grim. 

So we are looking at the potentialities of the disastrous situation the world is in right now. So we are looking at various aspects of the world as it is right now. We are looking about terror, radical Islam, migration, financial crisis. And we try to spin a different narrative: we try to look at the world positively, look at the world with a sense of beauty, not just aesthetics, but also with hope and optimism, which I think is present in Newsha’s work, where she tries to fill in the black pages in photo albums. There are six protagonists, and they are showing blank pages can be filled up.

Newsha Tavakolian
Blank Pages of An Iranian Photo Album

Iran (2014)
[Source]

(At this point Keng Sen starts talking about his work on the jury of the Prince Claus Foundation, and how he's been involved in giving out 44 awards over the past four years. This has given him the opportunity to invite many recipients over for SIFA, including Perhat Khaliq. Newsha is the only mid-career artist [born in 1981] to have received the Principal Award of 100,000.)

OKS: Newsha was the Grand Laureate last year. And I just want to state what the jury said about her, because it’s important to give some kind of context as to why her work is of value to us right now. So this from the 2015 Prince Claus Award report:

“Newsha Tavakolian is awarded for her beautiful and moving testimony of the complexities and ambiguities of contemporary Iran; for effectively combining photojournalism and art in a potent visual language; for her commitment to women’s voices and her support of young photographers; for courageously persevering in conveying social and political realities of Iran’s history and culture, providing critical insight; and for evoking human bonds through photography, creating intercultural understanding and compassion.”

With all that I would like to launch the exhibition open. 

(And this is when he began talking about the censorship issue. Transcript of the core of his speech here.)

OKS: So we had to make a decision losing The O.P.E.N. and calling someone our open inspiration... It’s the kind of situation where we can cut off someone’s ear or leg and act as if the person is still a normal person who is able to walk.

(Newsha couldn't be present because she was at a Magnum Retreat, which is a condition of receiving a recent award. I'm unsure if it has anything to do with contraceptives or the world's greatest ice cream. So the curator Vali Malhouji stepped in to speak.)

Vali Malhouji: It’s been a really great joy for me to work on this project. It feels like a bigger show, it has bigger passionate issues about it, but it feels like it’s interesting because it feels like it fits into big themes there. And one thing I was talking to Newsha about was the potential for hope. Because in these photos there is always hope in the shadow of terror. 

There is something else I took out from the booklet called “Be open to the individual in you”. And this also fitted in very much with my relationship with Newsha, because everywhere I looked, I saw the human figure. So I based a lot of the exhibition on bringing out and highlighting the catch the individual and the human figure. 

(He wanted to give a lengthy tour, but we didn't have a sound system downstairs, so he just gave us some general explanations. They're mostly in the booklet that you can get when you enter—I'll mention more of what he said in my next post.)

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  • 2016