A former cultural curator, an experience maker, and an academic walk into our interview space –
Or so John, Clara and Hafiz could be summed up as, if not for their shared status as independent curators, proving that one's background or field of specialisation does not dictate their capacity to curate – something which might go against many pre-conceived notions about the profession. And it is in this informal setting – the mood is light and candid – that they reveal more about this often highly-revered but less-understood position.
One would, for instance, assume that there is a great precariousness in making the decision to become an independent curator, especially if one was previously attached to an institution, the way John, previously with the Singapore Museum, and Hafiz, previously with the National Gallery, were. They point out that whilst an institution might offer resources such as personnel and networks, former contacts do not simply abandon the individual, proving the local and regional art scene just as welcoming to and respectful to independents "breaking free" to find their own way. For all its poetry, however, this term that does not quite encapsulate pursuing one's path away from the framework of a larger organisation and thus, at best, has to be put in inverted commas.
John observes that even within an institution, it is the curator who ends up with most of the adulation, as well as the windows to spearhead exhibitions. Take the pop-up two-storey exhibition entitled Forest Institute at the Gillman Barracks as one such example. As the thrill of such opportunities owing to his time with larger institutions have only spurred him to go independent, the narrative cannot be reduced to "escaping" the rigid, looming presence of an organisation.
Hafiz, ever the intellectual, concurs, citing the “desire to go to every corner of the art world” by working with commercial galleries, collectors, and private museums. These institutions gave him a taste of exhibition making and a push to go independent. Perhaps yet another misconception here would be how one cannot turn back after making this decision, something Hafiz disproves. His latest research interests and newfound experience have most recently led him to the Malay Heritage Centre, where he has put together the Cerita exhibition: the centre's last big show before it took a well-deserved break.
Besides going purely independent, there is also the option of working with a private company – a sort of middle ground that offers the best of both worlds. Clara, curator for local part “R&D kitchen, record library, and exhibition site,” Appetite, is one such example. Aiming to bridge diners and/or a potential buying crowd with the art world by putting them in the same relaxed space, their vision has paid off. Though only a year and a half old, they are already currently working with the Belgian Xavier Hopkins Gallery and have an ongoing Robert Mapplethorpe solo within their premise. Whilst impressively ambitious, such is of no surprise for Appetite's avant-garde, serving up bold, sometimes controversial plates such as foie gras, nor is it surprising for Clara, whose repertoire includes writing for Art & Market and managing NFT Asia – a field which divides for its new possibilities for the art world and beyond. While intensive energy output and a largely unregulated market remains a hindrance, she and other experts are optimistic that there will be greater sustainability in the future, and Clara will be there to usher in that future.
Thus, perhaps the common ground these curators have would be their willingness to take the plunge – as summed up by Hafiz, who roguishly notes, “the moment I feel uncomfortable, I think (the chance) is worth taking - if not… what is life, right?” Yet their differences reveal, rather inspiringly, that there is no one way to become a curator so long as one has the passion and, well, appetite for the job. After all, to “curate” does mean “to care for” in its origin, and the curator does everything from giving the opening speech to sweeping the floor after the event – all for the love of the craft. Ultimately, none of which, of course, is necessarily more important a task than the other in the art ecosystem as John astutely claims and the rest concurs, proving themselves to be true art lovers and rightfully deserving their current positions.