Tapping Singapore’s Story

Artist Madhvi Subrahmanian talks about her latest installation paying homage to the Indian migrants who worked in rubber plantations

4/16/2018 2:55:02 AM
written By : By Joyotee Ray Chaudhury Print

Madhvi Subrahmanian, an artist, curator and writer, was born in Bombay and had her first training in ceramics with Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith at the Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry. She went on to get a Master’s in Fine Arts from Meadows School of the Arts, Dallas, Texas. Singapore has been her home for the last ten years. Her sculptures and installations can be seen in several private and public collections such as the Mumbai Domestic Airport, India, Shigaraki Ceramic Sculptural Park, Japan, and Fule museum in Fuping, China.  

India Se: Congrats, Madhvi on being curated for this show at the Indian Heritage Centre (IHC). Let’s start with you telling us about this project.

Madhvi Subrahmanian:The installation is called Ode to the Unknown and is part of a larger exhibit Symbols and Scripts: The language of Craft. The installation draws its inspiration from the rubber-tapping cup in the museum’s collection, not for its inherent beauty or form but because it contains the story of Singapore. 

India Se: Can you elaborate on how these cups contain the Singapore story? 

Madhvi Subrahmanian: The rubber tree evolved from the seeds brought into Singapore by the British that eventually spread all over Asia and Southeast Asia. Different parts of the world use different containers to collect the latex from the trees but here they used ceramic cups. The Chinese indentured labourers brought ceramic technology to Singapore and because Singapore had such rich clay deposits they made ceramic cups for harvesting rubber latex. The Chinese made the cups and Indian labourers used the cups in the plantations. This was the start of a cross-cultural dialogue and it laid the foundations of multi-cultural Singapore. 

India Se: It’s a very colourful installation with photographs in between.

Madhvi Subrahmanian: These cups are reinterpretations of the original monotoned rubber-tapping cup. I wanted to draw on the colours of Little India that refer to the diversity of India and Singapore. The cups are deliberately colourful, attractive, glossy, almost candy-like juicy, because I want to draw the viewer closer to look at the family-sized photos in between the cups. The photos are of the migrant workers -- the nameless, faceless workers who toiled on this soil before new immigrants like me came to Singapore. The installation is an ode to them -- the unknown makers and users of the rubber-tapping cup. The cups are the same but slightly different from each other in form and individual in colour, just like the forgotten labourers. 

India Se: One often sees the finished work of a ceramic artist and does not know the journey from concept to installation. Can you tell us more about the process. 

Madhvi Subrahmanian: Often people don’t think about process behind an artwork. There is the conceptual process and then the physical process. Ceramics is a long and inverse process. This project was very personal for me as I work at one of the last two remaining dragon kilns in Singapore where the rubber tapping cups were made. The dragon kiln at my studio, Guat Huat, is about 40 m long and was built in the 1950s. I wanted to make the reinterpreted rubber tapping cups drawing on the energy of those that laboured the same space before me. 

A large amount of time in my project was spent on testing the Singapore clay, coloured slips and glaze before the process could have started. 

Making 1008 cups involved a daily laborious and repetitive process. Each cup was individually thrown on the potter’s wheel, trimmed and, once dry, painted over with coloured slip then fired. The first firing called bisque takes place at 980C after which the works are glazed and re-fired to 1220C in a gas kiln which takes about 15 hours to fire and another 15 hours to cool .

India Se: In conclusion, what would you say was the highlight of this project for you?

Madhvi Subrahmanian: I really enjoy working on this project but it is the way people connect to the installation, with their stories in the visitors’ book of their grandparents or parents in the plantations is what totally moves me and comes full circle to completes the project.


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