Singapore: American artist Joan Marie Kelly did not want to paint picture-postcard views of this glitzy Southeast Asia city. She chose the red-light district instead.
Foreign construction workers and prostitutes are among those who posed by a neon-lit coffee shop next to a row of brothels for portraits in an exhibit that opened on 10 May at the Basheer Graphic gallery.
She’s among a growing string of foreign artists and filmmakers attracted to the charm of the Geylang neighborhood, whose cheap food is as popular as its seedy karaoke bars and brothels.
Geylang is a little-known oddity in regulated Singapore, whose reputation for government-enforced order, cleanliness and efficiency is well established. The neighborhood is proof that even Singapore has an underbelly. Still, the brothels are only licensed to operate in the city-state’s designated “red-light area,” sex workers must carry a government health card and solicitation is actually illegal.
It is this controlled sleaze that artists such as Kelly find alluring. Thai film director Ekachai Uekrongtham also took to the streets of Geylang in January to shoot his latest movie, “Pleasure Factory,” to be shown at this month’s Cannes Film Festival.
Kelly, an art professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University who has had shows in New York and her native city of Baltimore, stumbled upon Geylang while visiting an art gallery. “It’s so different than going down to Clarke Quay,” Kelly said, referring to a popular riverside nightlife promenade that offers a cliched glimpse of Singapore, bustling with well-heeled locals, tourists and Western expatriates.
For an island-state whose scenery is largely concrete high-rises and expanses of lush greenery, Kelly believes it is the mix of people in Geylang that evokes her artistic expression most. “These faces here are the most interesting faces I’ve seen in Singapore.
The Geylang crowd is equally intrigued by Kelly and her easel. Some are drawn to the $20 she pays to those who sit for her portraits. “They can’t believe it; they think that I’m joking,” she said. Some have asked her why she chooses to draw “ugly people or drunkards” instead of landscapes.
Kelly has completed 16 portraits that will be shown as a single art piece along with photographs of Geylang’s people taken by colleague Philip Baldwin, a New York set designer. The series has a price tag of $6,600 which is fairly steep by Singapore standards.
“But it doesn’t really matter to me if I sell them or not,” she said. “It’s about the process of doing them and engaging with the people through the artwork,” is how she would like to sum up her artistic sojourn in Singapore.