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30 Apr 2007

too beautiful

Barely six months after Singapore-born, world-renowned fashion photographer Leslie Kee's book, which features nude images of Asian celebrities, was banned by the Singapore government, 150 of 500 photographs made it past the censors and are now on exhibit. Fridae columnist Alex Au visits the exhibition and gives readers a low down on what to expect.

When was the last time I bought a lifestyle and fashion magazine? Like eons ago? So what am I doing here? I asked myself as I crossed the 5-minute mark in the Leslie Kee Super Stars photo exhibition.

Top of the page: Photo of Leslie Kee taken from lesliekeesuper.com; above: images such as the one of Japanese singer Masaki Imai were not shown at the exhibition.
Yes, that's the one with pictures from his art photography book by the same name, with limited-edition release to raise funds for tsunami victims. The book was banned by the Singapore government because about 10 percent of the pictures in it were too explicit for our censor's tastes.

For this exhibition, organiser Hideki Akiyoshi of Style Asia went through each one of some 500 photographs with the censors to obtain their approval, resulting in a whittling down to 150 art photographs on display, according to the Straits Times.

The exhibition is being held at the National Museum until 4 May 2007. Admission is free.

Given the careful sifting, what does the exhibition represent? Just what the photographer might have intended in the first place: a showcase of his work and nothing more. He had no political statement to make then, and it seems, no political statement to make now, the ban on the book notwithstanding.

Then again, not making a political statement is also a form of political statement. He could have refused to hold the exhibition in Singapore, the same way that the organisers of the Singapore International Film Festival prefer to cancel the screening of films rather than accept any cuts demanded by the censors. But in the case of Super Stars, this was a path not taken.

On the other hand, it could be argued that Kee had never expected the more explicit pictures to go on public display, but were meant only for the book. If that is so, it wouldn't be as if the culling for the exhibition went against his wishes. Yet even so, it does seem a little strange that even in the face of the ban, thus frustrating the expressed aim of raising funds for charity through book sales, Kee still didn't see the need to make some kind of statement.

And not just in terms of deciding whether to hold the exhibition in Singapore. Fridae tried to get his views via Akiyoshi on a few issues but was unsuccessful.

Then again, there are people who are just not political, who even in the face of sanctions would not have much interest in resisting. Perhaps - and we don't know because he has been so silent - Kee is such by nature. It's his prerogative.

Stunningly beautiful
Certainly, his works, while stunningly beautiful in their aesthetics, make absolutely no social commentary; they are very much in his genre of fashion photography - thus my feeling, as I was there, of merely looking at a lifestyle magazine. There's a certain emptiness, almost a soullessness, when everything is skin-deep and fabric thin.

Having said that, Kee took the trouble to infuse most pictures with something about his models' backgrounds. Without recognising their faces, it was still possible for me as a viewer to discern from the way he has posed them that this one was a kick-boxer, that one a motorbike enthusiast, and over there a ballet dancer. Yet, because it was done with so much polish - an admirable quality, no doubt - you have to wonder were they really such, or were they merely posed as such?

Reality dissolves under so much gloss.

Technically, they were flawless. To start with, all the pictures, obviously taken over a lengthy period of time, had amazingly consistent lighting. The celebrity models were posed with flair and character, with not a few shots captured as they were in mid-air. And when it came to the composite shots, you cannot but marvel how seamlessly they have been photo-edited together.

How gay was it? Let me put it this way. Even a straight guy's ne'er-used gaydar would beep to life within five seconds of entering the room. You can't fail to notice that virtually all the male celebrities who modelled for Kee showed skin. If not skin, then torn denim, ripped tanktops, swimming trunks, body paint... you get the drift. The females? Nearly all opulently swathed in silk, lace, frills and feathers, often in multiple layers. Complete with hats, gloves and pouty lips. The role reversal of the clothed and unclothed (censor permitting) leaves one with no doubt whatsoever.

That much of titillation over, there wasn't much more to look at. You really can't see anything behind the faces or the poses - they are just too manufactured. Sure, they're very beautiful - there's line and form and colour - but like nouvelle cuisine at its most self-obsessed, it's doesn't fill you up at all.

In the basement
Minutes later and one floor below, I was in a different photo exhibition. This one comprised pictures taken by various photographers working in the Middle East from the early 20th century to the present.

One series had the Arab elite posing in their faux-Versailles living rooms with their servants. The mistresses would always be dressed well and sitting on an opulent couch. The servants would always be in uniforms, standing stiffly by the side at least an arm's length away from Madame. As the photographer remarked in her notes, these pictures speak - no, scream - of a sickening class divide.

Another series showed Shiite refugees in Beirut living in what looked like slum tenements, except that the building was once a palace. Immediately you cannot but ask what long-running conflict has done to precious lives as well as these nations' cultural heritage

A third set showed scenes from Egypt - men in galabiyyas crowded into confined spaces formed of ancient walls and low arches. Indeed, a study in old culture and conservatism. And then you notice that in every picture, there's a crucifix or Bible or a priest with an incense burner. You read the notes and it says 10 percent of Egyptians are Christians, primarily of the Coptic denomination.

Yet another series of pictures is also from Egypt, but taken by a studio photographer 60 years ago. Ordinary people - well, those who could afford it, at least - went to him to have their portraits taken. But what's stunning about them is that these Egyptian women were in skimpy clothes, leaning forward like Hollywood temptresses, and you cannot but wonder if people still take such pictures today when Islam is resurgent.

No, this other exhibition was not gay at all, but was it richer! Fifteen minutes at Leslie Kee's was more than enough, 90 minutes here and I don't want to leave yet. Life must be more than skin, fashion and consumerism. Being of a minority is worth nothing unless we draw from our experience an empathy for others in worse plight and a questioning mind that engages with larger issues of the day.

Go visit that exhibition. It's one part of a broader program bringing the Middle East and North Africa to us, called Under the Crescent Moon - until 21 May. If you have time left over, visit Leslie Kee's Super Stars.

The National Museum of Singapore (www.nationalmuseum.sg) is located at 93 Stamford Road. Opening hours is from 10 am to 6 pm daily. Free Admission.

Reader's Comments

1. 2007-05-01 00:31  
totally agree
2. 2007-05-01 02:37  
cool exhibition man
all the best
too bad i cant come to singapore to see it...
am just crazy once i saw a preview of it in the local newspaper
wish i cud get my hands on one of the Superstar portfolio here in Bombay...
the censors are worse here.....
All the Best... may you have many more to come
Bombay India.
p.s. pass on my regards to Edison Chen... am a big fan.
3. 2007-05-01 04:35  
can i get 'Super Stars' here in the UK?

please drop me any details, i will v much apreciate all contribution


Comment #4 was deleted by its author
5. 2007-05-01 06:21  
I love LEsLiE kEE

his work is amazing, and not to mention HOT.

he's very much like an Asian David LaChappelle in that he always photographs people and celebrities in wild and fantastic ways.

Just clicked you can order Super Stars (and his photography magazines) on the site, have done so myself.

If you think Masaki Imai looks hot in that picture wait till you see Kozo Takeda and his samurai sword.

6. 2007-05-01 13:37  
Great critique Alex. Sort of strange that your article's intro blurb by Fridae mentions only one exhibition when in fact its about two, & comparing them for the depth of the messages they give you.

I see your a gay asian man with a fighting social conscience and get the impression your a rarity but a breath of fresh air in asia. Obviously this is a reflection of the repression of gays in your city state and has made gay rights more of an issue there than say in Thailand where gay lifestyle choices are either officially or unofficially sanctioned.

But lets face it so many gay men are shallow and skin deep. Go no further than Fridae Personals to see all those hard won gym bodies, budding models and amateur porn stars! So much about gay life is eye candy, instant gratification and titilation. I admire gay people who break this mold and have values greater than this.
7. 2007-05-01 20:44  
anyone know if the book is available yet at Page One in Hong Kong? Who really cares if the book isn't available in SG....gay boys and girls can buy these things called "flight tickets".
8. 2007-05-02 00:26  
Of course, I'd luv to see Asian male celebs in their birthday suits!!!
9. 2007-05-06 09:36  
Now even the Father of Singapore acknowledges the gay community, why the government is still so stubborn?

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