NASA kinda sent everyone in to a spin recently when they announced that there was a 13th constellation – or at least those who flip straight to the back pages of their fave box fresh gossip mag to read their horoscope. Horror is about right. Waking up a conservative Cancer only to discover by lunchtime that you’re in fact a rather loud Leo, is alarming. But with the appearance of new snake sign, Ophiuchus (aka oh f**ck), the sane and rational among us will likely point out that this 13th sign was there all along, ignored by the Babylonians because it was just plain inconvenient to divide the year into 13 months and cycles. So it begs some questions…
For example: are our traits and characters as fixed to the heavens as we think they are? Are we really just a collection of random individuals that can’t be explained? Are we in fact the opposite of what we think we are? Will I really come by that financial windfall this month? And what the hell does all this have to do with art?
Well, like her stunning Expressions art series, visual artist of many mediums, Lakshmi Mohanbabu, has many faces. She is Singaporean but she grew up in Afghanistan. Her heritage is partly Indian but she has lived in Europe and Asia. She’s based on the Little Red Dot but her work transcends boundaries. She is an artist but she’s also an architect, fashion designer, teacher, jewellery designer and sculptor. She loves to work in pen and ink but she’s equally comfortable with acrylics, water colours and 3D design. Her work takes on complicated social issues and emotions but is very easy to understand, not to mention exciting to view.
Ultimately, Lakshmi is a dichotomy, a series of contradictions, and a whole lot of talent wrapped into one. Embracing the yin and yang is the focus of her work in Expressions. While the paintings depict facial expressions though, she’s not just taking on the many facets of a person, but the different faces of an entire nation.
Lakshmi’s work for Expressions came about in response to SG50, celebrating the anniversary of Singapore’s 50 years of independence. It sounds innocuous enough, given the steady and safe reputation of the nation state, but a little look back at history will tell you that Singapore had a rocky start and endured the kind of austerity, after the Second World War and its annexation from Malaysia, that makes modern Greece look like paradise (which it still is if you’re lucky enough to be a tourist).
The calm and control that Singapore exudes now has come at a great cost and collective effort, and the sanitized surface belies the extremes of anguish and momentous joy that its people and politicians have experienced. This is made even more curious by a national psyche that perhaps doesn’t like to dwell on past hardship and can be hard to penetrate. All this adds up to an amazing amount of rich content for the stark, fluid, expressive painting that Lakshmi applies to human emotion with alarming command.
Drawing on the melodramatic and extreme masks and makeup of Chinese Opera, Japanese Kabuki and Greek Tragi-Comedy, Lakshmi has portrayed a series of 10 pairs of black, white and red paintings that leap out of two dimensions to assault the viewer. The collection serves to show the spectrum of faces that Singapore must have worn to get to where she has. Amongst the expertly executed flourishes, jagged edges, wafting curlicues and sharp lines in red and black, lifelike eyes and mouths have the viewer wondering how so much can be conveyed using seemingly so little in the way of definition. Harnessing negative space charges these pictures with intensity and power. Much like Singapore itself. It’s eye-catching stuff that demands attention. Even more so than your two-faced Gemini friend (who may now be an introverted Cancerian?).