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3 Jan 2003

martin in the raw

Fridae catches up with artist Martin Loh whose Men in the Raw exhibition - the first ever exhibition in Singapore featuring gay erotic drawings and paintings - is opening this weekend.

Martin Loh, an openly gay well-known Singapore painter and Fulbright scholar with a doctorate in History, talks about growing up, his hedonistic phase, having to leave his job in the Civil service because they discovered he was gay and mounting the first exclusively gay exhibition in Singapore where sex between men is illegal.

Top picture: Singapore painter, Martin Loh
æ: Men in the Raw is believed to be the first ever exhibition in Singapore exclusively featuring gay erotic drawings and paintings. What made you decide to do this exhibition now?

martin: As an artist, I've always believed it's important to express that which comes from the heart. For most of my artistic career, I've actually worked on nave Peranakan art, and that's because I'm partly Peranakan, hence it is only natural to depict the customs and ways of the Peranakans. Now I would like to depict that part of me which is gay, and this part of me is as genuine as the Peranakan side of me. For many years, I've been attempting to perfect my understanding of the male form. After some years, I've decided that there are sufficient works to stage an exhibition. Fortunately for me also, I've found in Utterly Art and Fridae.com a very positive response to stage this show, and we're all hoping it will attract the interest of others out there who see beauty in the male form.

æ: You're born and bred in Singapore, where sex and nudity is frowned upon, homosexuality - illegal and images of homosexuality - banned, tell us when and how did you decide to mount Men in the Raw which features not only male nudes but men having sex? What inspired you? When did you start painting male nudes?

martin: When I draw and paint, the last thing I think about is how well it's going to be received by the public out there. Whatever I do, it has to come from within. Without that inner interest, nothing can be sustained on a long-term basis. Likewise, in trying to depict the beauty of the male form, I've had to go through months of sketching and redrawing. I've also travelled fairly widely and sourced for suitable models. Some are more cooperative than others. I've never felt that anything that anyone does in the course of lovemaking can be considered anything but beautiful. I do not think there is anything dirty about the male nude. As a gay person, I cannot accept the proposition that love between two men is an inferior form of love, socially unacceptable or for that matter, deviant. To accept such mainstream definitions would be counter to my very existence. I depict what I am. I depict what others like myself are. I'm not afraid to do so. I'm not worried about crossing the boundaries. What I want to do is to depict as sincerely as I can one of things that are important to gay people.

æ: How do think Singapore, where gay sex is illegal, has affected you as a gay artist?

martin: Everyone has to operate within the constraints of his society, but this does not mean that I have to keel over and die! Neither does it mean that I've got to hide in the closet. I'm already approaching 51. It would be a joke if I've got to conceal one more day the fact that I'm gay. It would be extremely nave on the part of people who know me to assume that I'm anything but gay! So what am I saying or doing that is not already known?
If you want to be legal about it, the law can only go after me for sodomy and not for being gay. I'm an artist first and foremost. I didn't start off depicting gay subjects - I started exciting people with my Peranakan images. Now I've decided to move on to something different.

Top picture: Singapore painter, Martin Loh
æ: How did you become interested in art and how did you become an artist?

martin: As a child, I've always been interested in drawing and doodling; more importantly, I was a big-time daydreamer. Throughout lessons in class, I never absorbed anything because I was daydreaming. Like everybody growing up in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s, one had to be mad to contemplate art as a career. The advice from teachers and parents was to pursue something more practical, and I was as practical as I could possibly be, but even then I still majored in History, not a very practical subject. But in Singapore, it is the degree and not the specifics, and I did just enough to pass examinations and to make it to the University. With a degree in Arts and Social Sciences, I started off with the civil service, and then I went for postgraduate studies on a Fulbright scholarship and came back with a doctorate in History.

I rejoined the civil service. After a few years, I had to leave because they discovered I was gay. I then became a journalist, and then a stockbroker. Somewhere in that transition, I took up brush and paper again, and resumed where I left off as a child. After a couple of years, I decided to stage my first exhibition. That year was 1992, and the exhibition was called Nave Images of Days Gone By. I recall telling my mother that I would be happy if I could sell a few pieces, enough to defray the costs of the exhibition, but to my surprise, I sold everything at that show. That was how the art started. After the show, T.K. Sabapathy and a host of other art critics came to give their opinions on my quaint, nave art, and that was how Singaporeans got to know about Martin Loh.

æ: Some of your early paintings reflect a strong sense of Peranakan heritage and are typically rich and vibrant. What are your influences?

martin: For the Peranakan works, I worked from my own memory of life in a Peranakan household and growing up with Peranakan relatives. I draw heavily from old photographs and stories that I've heard from my uncles and aunties. To be sure, the Peranakan life that I depict is highly embellished, partly in keeping with this penchant for drama and colour, and partly for my own intolerance of reality. I cannot accept life as it is. I've always believed that there must be something better. I'm less interested in what has happened; in art, I'm more interested in what should happen, hence in most of my Peranakan works, life is always made to appear more colourful, more enchanting and more beautiful. Insofar as I depict what I think life would have been like in the 50s and 60s, many people have found the works highly nostalgic. This is traceable to a larger social phenomenon - that Singaporeans are now ready to embrace their past: the shop houses, the disappearing trades, the quaint costumes because we are already so many decades removed from the poverty of the 50s and 60s.
æ: When did you come out as a gay person? And what was the process like?

martin: When I was young, I went through the normal fears that people would discover I was gay. The funny thing is that when one is dismissed from the civil service, it can be such a liberating experience! And in recent years, I believe that it is no longer a question of coming to terms with my sexuality, it is more a case of going overboard! I can't say there was that magic year that I came out of the closet - nothing that momentous. It was something gradual, and fortunately for me, every setback I have suffered in being a gay person has not incapacitated me. It has made me even stronger. What I do with my art is not calculated to offend; it is just an expression of what I am. I hope those coming to the exhibition Men in the Raw will be sufficiently tolerant to take the view that even if this were not his or her cup of tea, he or she would not deprive someone else of the opportunity to view the show.

Top picture: Singapore painter, Martin Loh
æ: How does it feel to be putting on a gay exhibition for the first time as compared to other shows?

martin: I suppose one has to be cautious. I think Utterly Art and myself have taken the necessary precautions not to offend people who do not particularly care for this type of art. We are not sending out regular invitations so as not to offend the general public. Invitations are by way of e-mails and through Fridae.com so that this exhibition is made known only to members of the gay community, which incidentally is our objective. The employment of the website is to reach out to a larger gay market. We will also be posting the necessary precautionary notes outside the gallery during the four days of the show. In this way, we hope to minimize the possibility of mother and toddler stumbling on the show. Deep down, it is my belief that Singaporeans are for the most part, tolerant. People are simply too mired down with their own problems to worry about how other people gratify themselves or what they choose to exhibit on the wall. For those who want to see something different, Men in the Raw is highly recommended!

æ: There are some images of men having sex in your works, have you encountered any form of negativity so far?

martin: Not many people have had a chance to see these works, other than friends and a few regular buyers. These works have not been shown to the public before. I'm a positive person; I do not like to imagine adverse or negative reactions before they actually happen. I believe that the average person for the most part is tolerant or has simply too many problems of his own in today's recessionary conditions to worry about the private indulgences of an artist. I hope that those who come to the show and who do not care for this kind of art will be sufficiently tolerant to walk away without feeling that he or she has to curb someone else's access to it.

There are times in our life when we have to stand up for the truth. There are also times when there is no truth, and when life becomes an accommodation of interests. Art is one such area, and this exhibition should be seen in that light.
æ: Your biography states that you are in your "hedonistic phase - sensual and erotic subject matter erupts from his active paintbrush." Would you like to share more about these experiences and how it has contributed your work?

Top picture: Singapore painter, Martin Loh
martin: I enjoy life. For the most part of my life, I have been told that there is life after death. There may be, there may be not. I'm not sure there is one now. If I can't bring myself to state categorically that there is no life after death, it is because the Catholic upbringing in me has made me afraid to challenge God so blatantly! I believe I still have time to come to terms with Him. In the meantime, there is so much to be lived for, so much to enjoy. So much to partake. So much to savour! When I'm finally done with this hedonistic phase, who is to say I will not embark on a religious phase of works?

æ: We understand that you travelled extensively and all of the men featured in the "Men in the Raw" collection have posed for you. How did you approach them?

martin: The men are friends of mine from Thailand. Some of them have been very cooperative. The juicier depictions at the exhibition may or may not come from actual poses. There is an ambiguity that should be allowed to remain. I have to add, I also have a very fertile imagination. I have a way of making the dullest man look the greatest stud on earth! That is the prerogative of the artist.

æ: Have you had any interesting encounters with your subjects?

martin: As I said, some of the guys are not just subjects; they are also friends, and sometimes short time lovers

æ: Which male celebrity would you be most interested in painting in the buff? And why?

martin: I can't think of any. And after having been to Thailand for so many years, I still believe it has the most gorgeous men. And they are so accommodating too

æ: To wrap this up, other than depicting the beauty of the male body, are there are any other messages you are sending out? What kind of social, political and/or artistic impact do you want this show to have?

martin: For the most part, people see beauty only in the female form. For some of us, life is a series of restoring a corrective balance. As an artist, I want to balance the yin with the yang. I'm not unfamiliar with the beauty of the female form, although I may not be the most appropriate person to depict it. Some friends of mine insist on telling me that my female breasts look like male pectorals, so I've decided to stick to the male form.

Event info
Men in the Raw preview
4 Jan 2003, Saturday, 7.30pm
Drinks and refreshments will be served.
Utterly Art Exhibition Space
208 South Bridge Road
2nd Level, Singapore 058757
Tel: 6226 2605
E-mail: utterlyart@pacific.net.sg
Mon-Sat 11.30am - 8pm
Sun 12noon - 5.30pm
The exhibition runs through to Jan 7.

Singapore

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