Maria and the portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio


Maria stares resolutely at the portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio; she has been wondering about the lives of the aristocracy since discovering that her great-grandfather was a nobleman in the service of the British empire.  He was a colonel in the East India Company’s army and was sent to India to oversee the administration of the Company’s trading regulations.  He became a Resident in one of the Indian states and married an Indian woman of high caste.  Maria’s great-grandmother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her sixth daughter; the townsfolk gossiped about the curse of the White Man’s blood.  Maria’s relationship with her aristocratic family is laced with tension; any questions of her family history met with either a defensive silence or a click of her grandmother’s fiery tongue.  Maria learnt long ago not to rock the family boat.

Ginevra’s skin has a peachy glow; her cheeks are accentuated with a muted rose tone blusher.  Maria is mesmerised by Ginevra’s immaculate creamy complexion, she has skin so fair that its almost translucent; Maria’s is three shades darker by comparison, a result of the tropical sun and her Indian father whom she never met.  Yet, her grandmother insists that they are of British stock.  The mystery of grandmother’s obsession with skin tones never ceases to amuse Maria; her grandmother who has an olive complexion was always trying to lighten it by washing herself in lemon juice.  How many shades of brown can there really be?  Claudine, Maria’s mother, is obsessed with Vitamin D much to her mother’s vexing.  Claudine who has dark green eyes with a hint of blue is constantly trying to make her skin a shade tanner.  Maria stays out of the UV rays because she knows that the sun can cause premature aging.

Maria notes that Ginevra’s chin shows some signs of aging; Ginevra would be about 38 years old; maybe even 40.  Maria is a facial therapist, she knows faces.  It’s her job to advice women on the conditions of their skins and how to combat signs of aging through regular facial treatments and products made by skin labs in Europe.  Her clients are mostly wealthy women – old money – as this strata of society is called in Delhi who are preoccupied with staying young and fair-skinned.

There is a slight sagging of the chin just below the jaw line but the artist has painted Ginevra in a good light.  There are no visible wrinkles around her left eye; an opening, a window perhaps, shows the city below; Ginevra is looking out, her gaze fixed at a point not visible to Maria.  Ginevra’s eyes are set deep and framed by a faint brow which has been pruned according to the beauty requirements of Ginevra’s time.  There is a stoic resignation in her thin lips which belie any emotion.  Maria can’t tell if this aristocrat is happy or sad; her face gives away nothing.  Maria, by contrast, wears her heart on her sleeves.

“This child has the mannerisms of a peasant,” grandmother’s voice penetrates the silence of the room where Ginevra’s portrait hangs.  Grandmother is always present in the grey mass of Maria’s subconscious.

It intrigues Maria that aristocrats extol certain ways of behaving.  Grandmama – with an inflection on the last syllable ‘ma’ – as her grandmother preferred to be called, used to say that princesses would never behave this way if Maria were to slip out of line during their routine Sunday lunches at her grandparents’.  Claudine simply chewed her meal in silence and glugged down her wine.  It’s bad form to drink so heavily and noisily, Claudine knows, but she is past caring about how her mother feels.  The wine is the only liquid that would calm her nerves when chai wasn’t available.  Claudine doesn’t stop her mother from chastising Maria; there is no ammunition powerful enough to combat an angry dragon.  The hurt of being a kutcha butcha has led to years of unresolved rage and Claudine can only shield her daughter so much as she grapples about how she can save herself.  Her defiance in keeping the bastard child of a summer fling with an Indian intern at the bank resulted in a wave of unmitigated rage in her mother.  Claudine’s English father remained determined that her rebellion was to spite him for insisting on remaining in India when many of Claudine’s cousins had left for Canada or England.  Robert FitzWilliams was born in India to English expatriates and India was where he wanted to remain.  Little did he know, it was really Claudine’s insistence on bringing an Indian child into this world that was the reason for keeping Maria.  She would bring Maria up Indian and Feminist.

The sudden discovery of blue blood in her family connected the missing dot for Maria.  It explains why grandmama insisted so incessantly on her keeping out of the sun and why she should refrain from being too dark-skinned.  This discovery led Maria to researching her family roots, of probing into a racial category of people known previously as the Eurasians before finally being called Anglo-Indians.

Since then she is enveloped by a sense of calm; Maria also knows now why her mother insists on a bohemian existence in the city where she teaches yoga and meditation.  Yoga helps in focusing the mind and meditation helps in keeping the mind still; both are ancient practices that predate Hinduism and Buddhism; importantly, both are practices that Claudine chose to mark her identity as Indian.

As for Maria, she has never doubted her Indian identity.  She is resolute about who she is and remains so even after discovering that she has blue blood.


Eva’s Notes:

Ercole de’ Roberti (c. 1451 – 1496) was an important painter in the Early Renaissance.  He was one of the painters of the School of Ferrara.  Ferrara was ruled by the Este family who was well known for being patrons of the arts.  Ercole de’ Roberti rose to being a court painter for the Este family.

The art historian Giorgio Vasari documented de’ Roberti’s life and work in his famous book which is still used today by scholars of the Renaissance to understand artists from that period.  Vasari writes that de’ Roberti was a bon vivant.  De’ Roberti died young from his excesses; his paintings are few and many of his works have been destroyed.  Those that survive show his skills and talent.

This portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio has a partner: The portrait of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Ginevra’s husband, who was known for being a tyrant.  The two portraits can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Portraits were symbols of status during the Renaissance.  Only the wealthy and powerful had the means to commission artists to paint them in their true likeness.  Portraits were also documents of fashion and style; Renaissance scholars are able to understand how the wealthy families in Italy dressed and looked by studying their portraits.  De’ Roberti painted Ginevra Bentivoglio so meticulously that her pearls and gems seem real.  I like this painting for its realistic reflection of Ginevra’s dress and head dress.  I see lines and shapes in her profile and bust which indicate de’ Roberti’s skills as a draughtsman.

Apart from portraits, de’ Roberti also painted diptychs and icons.  The National Gallery in London exhibits ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ and ‘The Dead Christ’.  The two portraits form ‘The Este Diptych’ and were bound together in purple silk velvet.  They belonged to Eleonora of Aragon, Duchess of Ferrara who was also the consort of Ercole I d’Este.  She would have used the portraits as an aid to meditation and prayer.

Image credit: The National Gallery of Art, Washington. Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio, c. 1474/1477, tempera on poplar panel, overall: 53.7 x 38.7 cm (21 1/8 x 15 1/4 in.)
framed: 80 x 66 x 7.6 cm (31 1/2 x 26 x 3 in.)


Guo Pei – Couturier Extraordinaire

Welcome to the world of Guo Pei, couturier extraordinaire.  The eponymous brand is based out of Beijing and Paris.  Guo Pei is renowned for dressing Rihanna for the Met Gala, held to inaugurate the 2015 exhibition: ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’.  The exhibition is a retrospective on how Chinese aesthetics influenced Western fashion; Guo’s designs were displayed there.  Dressing Rihanna propelled Guo onto the international stage.  Her first solo exhibition was held the same year at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.  She collaborated successfully with cosmetic giant MAC in a make-up collection that took the world by storm, also in 2015.

Guo Pei has been sewing since the age of two.  She is China’s darling couturier and has been in the Chinese fashion scene for more than 20 years.  Her gowns have dressed celebrities, socialites, royalty, and the political elite; her creations transform already beautiful women into magnificent ethereal creatures.

Combining traditional artisanal savoir-faire with an eye for detail and design, Guo’s pieces are crafted with technical precision.  She was invited into the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture whose members comprise primarily of Haute Couture houses.  This means that the House of Guo Pei is recognisably a protected label and is permitted by the French Ministry of Industry to call itself a Haute Couture brand alongside Dior and Chanel.  This is France’s highest accolade for designers, enabling Guo to take part in the Paris Haute Couture Week in 2016.  She showcased her ‘Courtyard’ Collection in Paris which anchored her firmly in the Parisian fashion world.

Today, Guo’s atelier can be found on rue Saint-Honoré, a prestigious shopping street in Paris.  Her success harks back to a childhood dream of aspiring towards perfection in the contemplation of beauty.  And Guo Pei’s designs are indeed beautiful.

Guo’s Spring/Summer 2017 Collection – ‘Legend’ – features jewel encrusted gowns in hues of muted emerald green and shimmery antique gold.  Skirts are set in frames but with sufficient fabric left over to billow as the model glides on the catwalk; a model strides confidently in a pair of structured trousers that hug her androgynous hips.  This collection reflects Guo’s dedication to detail, three-dimensional embroidery, her trade mark, and meticulous craftsmanship.  The collection is romantic and dreamlike.  The fabrics are canvases for Guo’s artistic expressions much like paintings and embroidery were for Old Masters.

‘Legend’ was inspired by the murals in the dome of Switzerland’s St Gallen Cathedral.  For the collection, Guo collaborated for a year with Jakob Schlaepfer, a haute couture fabric designer, to produce the bespoke fabric which pay homage to the cathedral’s Rococo paintings.

The twenty-one pieces in the collection reflect Guo’s appreciation of the “spirit of handicrafts” and the “spirit of devotion”.  Guo shows her spiritual side in these creations full of motifs of holy saints, heavenly goddesses and medieval warriors.  The spectacle lends a romantic and mysterious ambiance to the catwalk.

Guo is a storyteller.  Inspired and fascinated by the origins of Mankind, creation myths and the mysteries of everlasting life, she sutures these fantastical legends on fabric.

The 2017 Haute Couture Show was held at La Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned before her execution.  Opening the show was ‘the Revenant’ a luminous dress invoking the queen’s ghost as she wanders the corridors of her castle prison.  The music accompanying the spectre’s entrance onto the catwalk is as hauntingly mesmerising as the dress.  The model wears a crown, tall and ornate, signifier of Marie Antoinette’s position as the Queen of France who will forever be remembered as the legendary queen that the Revolutionists sent to the guillotine.

“Legends have alway been one of my greatest sources of inspiration, unlocking my infinite imagination.”  Guo says.

A legend of the catwalk Carmen Dell’ Orefice, 85 years young, closed Guo’s couture passerelle.  She was the “bride” – the model who traditionally closes Couture Shows – clad in a flaming poppy red gown flanked by two elfin male attendants.  A structured cape opens up behind the model’s head like a flower in full bloom; a sea of red trails behind Dell’ Orefice as she traverses the catwalk path.  Choosing to dress the “bride” in red reflects Guo’s deconstruction of Chinese wedding rituals in which the bride gown is traditionally red.  The auspiciously coloured gown is made from pure silk that has been specially treated.  Interwoven into the thin and airy fabric are wires so fine, they resemble human hair.  This is a manifestation of Guo’s fantasies which are inspired by legends.

Guo Pei is herself a legend; her name will go down the annals of Haute Couture.  Her designs, which often combine Chinese craftsmanship with technical innovation and Western style evoking emotional responses like art does, will ensure that Guo Pei stays a legend amongst legends.

Image credit: Guo Pei

Eva’s Notes

Can fashion be considered art?  Haute Couture is high fashion and not for the faint-hearted when it comes to dress.  Names like Chanel, Dior, Yves St Laurent are familiar brand names most of us would have heard of. They are established fashion houses that have the right to call themselves creators and purveyors of Haute Couture.

Guo Pei is a new comer to this scene. Her designs combine her love for sewing and dress making with Chinese traditional craftsmanship. I was bowled over by the artistic flair of her creations. Her latest designs were inspired by Rococo paintings found in a church. This combination of art and craft marks her as a fashion designer whose work I would call art.

Chinese Eyes

‘What are you doing, my puppet?’ the woman asks the little girl with blonde hair.

‘Making my eyes Chinese,’ the blonde girl replies as she pulls up the corners of her eyes towards the back of her ears.

The woman who has dark brown hair looks on as the little blonde girl continues to make herself look Chinese.

‘Why is that so important, my darling?’ the woman wants to know.  ‘Mummy doesn’t have eyes like that, does she?’

The little blonde girl looks away from the mirror, she is four years old but very wise, and takes a long look at the woman with dark brown hair.  She frowns a little and then looks back at herself in the mirror.

‘No, she doesn’t,’ the little blonde girl answers slowly. ‘But I want to look a little Chinese, because I’m half Chinese.’

The little blonde girl, her name is Heather, is serious and light hearted all at the same time.  She asks existential questions like ‘Where will I go when I die, Mummy?’ and ‘Where do butterflies go to die?’

Her mother, the lady with dark brown hair, her name is Evelyn, is young and ancient all at the same time.  She is Chinese from around the world.  Her ancestors are known as Peranakans who lived a hybrid life that incorporated Chinese, Malay and European cultures.  Evelyn’s eyes were double lidded, big and coloured brown.

Heather was born bald as an eagle.  Her eyes were blue at birth but they soon turned light brown.  Evelyn was all alone when she gave birth; her English boyfriend had abandoned her long ago.  She was exotic until the day the baby was born.

Evelyn was young. just a month past 24.  Sex had been an exploratory journey of hunger, urgency and loss.  She was still a virgin when she met Steve; he was charmed by her innocence but couldn’t contain her yearning for love and her appetite for touch.

She couldn’t fathom that she was pregnant even though all the signs pointed out the pregnancy so blatantly.  Her breasts were tender, her nipples hurt and she felt like throwing up for months.  She kept telling herself that it was the flu.  The weather was turning and winter was approaching.  She just needed a padded bra so that the cold wind won’t hurt her nipples; maybe a thicker coat.  The bulge in her tummy was due to too much beer.  They say that beer is fattening.

Beer was Steve’s favourite drink; a pint didn’t cost much in those days.  There were discounts at the Union House, perks of being a Phd student.

Dusk was nearing that Sunday when Evelyn felt a dull ache at the base of her cervix.  She still had a week to go, so she wasn’t worried about the Braxton Hicks contractions she was feeling.  The train was approaching the platform and they were still at the top of the stairs.

‘Let’s make a run for it,’ Steve shouted out as he ran down the stairway. A day at the local pub had lifted his melancholy.  He wants to fly like the wind; with arms stretched out like an aeroplane, he flew down the concrete stairs.

Evelyn hobbled down holding the base of her rotund tummy, this comes naturally to pregnant women.  Steve held the train door open, forcing the train to be stationed for longer than its intended duration.  The station master shouted in irritation and blew his whistle.  Evelyn finally made it down the stairs, panting, breathless and in need of a seat.  Her tummy hurt and she could feel the last swirl of dinner percolating at the base of her throat.

A kind gentleman gave up his seat for her.  She plonked herself down gratefully.  She could feel the acid ride up her throat and she gagged to keep the contents in.  She would have to wait for the next stop to throw up, she thought. Confucius had taught that it is wise to be mindful of others; the carriage just wasn’t the right place to puke.  Steven shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looking around him nervously.

The embarrassment of wetting yourself in public is a conditioned fear.  Toddlers happily pee in the sand pit or in the swimming pool.  Part of socialising children is to stop them from this natural inclination to mark their spot or to relax and let go.  Evelyn’s waters broke just as she heaved herself up to leave the train.  She left behind a trail of water as she exited and a pile of vomit on the platform as the train pulled away.  Walking home was memorable; Steve had decided not to disembark with her.

Evelyn was in the throes of another contraction when the taxi arrived at the hospital.  She had to wait for the contractions to stop before she could leave the cab.  Another round of contractions started as she shuffled her way to the maternity ward.  Her bald baby was born an hour later.

Who would have thought that genetics could skip a generation or two?  How did an Asian girl become the mother of a blonde angel?

Jari Tangah Benar, Dani “King” Heriyanto, oil on canvas, undated, 160 x 140 cm. Photo taken at The Art Stage, Singapore 2017.

Eva’s Notes:

Dani “King” Heriyanto is a visual artist known for his stylised female faces. He says that female beauty inspires him.. Heriyanto’s work consists of female portraits that combine qualities of pop art with a personal touch of stylised realism incorporating unique elements of Asian ethereality. The portrait pictured is entitled ‘right middle finger’ in Malay. Choosing to name this undated portrait in his mother tongue removes the banality of its  English equivalent. A phrase spoken in a foreign language makes the most insipid expressions exotic.

Our faces are visual expressions of identity; in the perception of ourselves lies how others see us. The Asian beauty is always imbued with a sense of the mystic and a sense of the exotic. To Western beholders, the shape of our Asian eyes and Asian noses distinguish us (as Others) from the (Western) norm.

Tidbit to Take Away:

Heriyanto has been accused of plagiarism by a Korean contemporary artist. The lines between plagiarism and inspiration are quite unclear in the Arts. In a globalised world where social media plays a huge part in the dissemination of information, intertextuality has become interwoven into the fabric of our contemporary lives; social media does complicate notions of privacy and ownership.

Syamatara – The Goddess of Compassion

This must be the most beloved of all bodhisattvas in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. She goes by many names, depending on where you come from. In the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, she is known simply as Tara.

Who is Tara? She is the Goddess of Compassion often linked to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. She is said to be born from one of the tear drops that Avalokiteshvara shed on witnessing a scene of human suffering. Avalokiteshvara is Tara’s male counterpart. Tara refers to “the one who saves”. Like Avalokiteshvara, she is said to deliver her devotees from suffering and pain.

Here, we have Tara in her green form, otherwise, known as Syamatara. This form of Tara is an energetic form; she is ready to spring to action to aid anyone invoking her name.

She is placed on an important pedestal in both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Syamatara stands on a double lotus pedestal denoting her importance. She wears lots of jewellery indicating her position as a bodhisattva or a buddha who has forgone nirvana in order to stay behind in the earthly realm to assist others to their nirvana. Nirvana can be said to be the ultimate goal in Buddhism when once achieved, there can be no rebirth and the soul is at its purest. (McArthur, pp 206).

Witness her left hand holding onto a flower, the lotus, which is a symbol of purity in generic Buddhist iconology. In Hinduism, the lotus represents the concept of primordial birth which is linked to fertility. However, in the case of our Syamatara from central Java, she would be holding a blue lotus signifying its association to the sacred moon. This further symbolizes her connection to the cult of the Mother-goddess as the moon is often associated with the divine feminine.

The choice of the blue lotus, according to some sources, is linked to its symbolism of rejuvenation. The promise of a prolonged life is considered a boon that Syamatara bestows.

Her right hand holds a fly whisk, representing her compassion for all life forms including that of insects and flies. The whisk is to gently whisk away insects, ensuring that such life forms are not accidentally killed in accordance with Buddhist laws. The whisk is also a symbol of overcoming ill fortune, like mental afflictions, and obstacles, such as ignorance.

In the arts of Indonesia, fly whisks are often associated with Shiva. (Moore, pp 117). There could be a reference here to the Shaivite cult that was fast consuming Java which commenced before this Syamatara’s production.

Her voluptuousness is representative of her status as a Mother-Goddess or Devi. Tara is known to be the “mother of all the buddhas”. (Seow, pp 322). It is in this aspect that she is worshipped and venerated in Java.

A sacred thread traces the crevices of her cleavage to the joint on her right hip. She wears a sarong held up by a belt with a buckle whose shape can still be seen in later belt buckles fashioned in gold. Anklets adorn both ankles whilst her arms are clasped by arm bands with detailed intricate motifs on closer inspection. These intricacies can still be detected in jewellery pieces made in the later centuries. A pendant ear ring decorates one ear lobe. Her hair is piled into a cone like shape wherein a triangular shaped crown is placed. Her eyes are downcast, perhaps representing her compassionate gaze downwards towards her devotees.

She exudes sensuousness, mystic and a form of elegance which is exclusive to Indonesian statuary found in central Java.

This form of Tara is neither strictly Buddhist nor Hindu. Indic in style, she was carved by Indonesian craftsmen who have adopted Indian aesthetics but sculpting in their own terms. (Carpenter). In Java, a form of syncretic faith took shape that combined both Hinduism and Buddhism. This synthesis of spiritual beliefs came to be known as Hindu-Buddhism. It begun in Mataram between 6th  – 7th  centuries and lasted until the advent of Islam in the 11th  century,  where it arrived first in North Sumatra. (Hannigan, pp 60-79).

Links to other forms of Tara:

  • Bosatsu Kanon; Tarani, Tara (Japan)
  • Guan Yin (China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore)
  • Guan Am (Vietnam)
  • Sgrol-ma (Tibetan)

Tara (Syamatara) – The Green Tara (9th century, Central Java, height:130 cm). Private Collection. Photo Credit: Pinacotheque de Paris, Singapore.

Eva’s Notes:

This is my favourite bodhisattva; there are quite a few of these saint-like sentient beings in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. I love Syamatara for her compassion.

Tara is a Jungian archetype of female sensuality, of feminine mystic and womanly fecundity.  She is pregnant with love. Invoking her name would cause the speaker to feel a sense of overwhelming compassion for humanity and gazing at her image would fill the beholder with a sense of peace knowing that such love exists in the earthly realm.

I first set eyes on Syamatara in a Chinese temple. She was in her Buddhist incarnation as Kuan Yin. In this form, Tara doesn’t do much for me. My passion for Hindu-Buddhist statuary lies in their artistic forms. It’s the art that I’m after.

Tara would take many forms as Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, her features would change to resemble the Khmer queen of Jayavarman VII, and the ornate lines and voluptuous forms found in our Javanese statue would give way to cleaner lines and a more modest body shape. But my most favourite rendition of Syamatara is still the Javanese one.


Printed Sources:

Cotterell, Arthur (2014), A History of Southeast Asia. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions. Chapter 4: Early Indonesia.

Hannigan, Tim (2015), A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation. Hong Kong: Tuttle Publishing. Chapter 2: Empires of Imagination: Hindu-Buddhist Java. 

McArthur, Meher (2002), Reading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. pp 47.

Moore, Albert C (1977), Iconography of Religions: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. pp 117.

Seow, Marilyn (2006), The Asian Civilisations Museum A-Z Guide. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet. pp 322.

Curatorial Source:

Bruce Carpenter.

The Oba and the Kingdom of Benin

My first encounter with Benin was during university days spent in Northern England. Those were halcyon days. My Nigerian room- mate and I would exchange stories about Africa and Southeast Asia. Over cups of tea, sweetened with condensed milk, tucked under a fluffy duvet that kept us warm in wintry months, we would share stories of our countries’ various dishes; food is a great way to connect and bond. I would discover that rice, ginger, garlic, yams and okra (ladies’ fingers) also form part of the Nigerian diet. We also shared stories of our love for the art forms of our diverse regions – Africa and Southeast Asia. She was the one who told me about Benin and the kingdom’s art. Visits to the British Museum would confirm that the people of Benin were not only skilled craftsmen, they were artists too.

My subsequent encounter with Benin would be at the National Museum of Singapore. The British Museum Treasures of the World exhibition would bring back memories of my Nigerian room-mate and our shared histories of colonialism and then, amongst other things, of personal post-colonial experiences in our respective countries that have diverse art forms and sub-cultures. I told her about Prince Sang Nila Utama who saw a lion when he came ashore on a little island in 1299 and how that island came to be known as Singapura. I told her how in 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with a Malay sultan that led to the founding of Singapore. In exchange, she told me stories of Ogiso kings and of the Obas, the name for Benin’s second dynasty, which begun around the 11th century and was vanquished by 1897.

The ancient Kingdom of Benin was situated in today’s modern Nigeria. The kingdom was ruled by a line of divine kings whom the people called Oba. The people were the Edo who spoke a language by the same name.  The Oba lived in a palace in Benin City that was filled mainly with brass, ivory and wooden art works made on commission by the Oba. Edo artisans skilled in carving, lost wax casting, and beading produced these works of finery. These artefacts are indicative of the wealth of the Benin Kingdom and formed a figurative narrative of the lives of the Benin royalties.

It was through trade that the Obas accumulated wealth. As they were powerful warriors who waged war on neighbouring tribes, war booty also formed part of this wealth. Trade with the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to sail to Africa, begun in the 15th century. Trade links were quickly set up from 1498 for Benin to purchase coral beads, brass and other European goods while the Portuguese wanted slaves as well as pepper, ivory and leopard skins. Trading exchanges were relatively peaceful although the Obas were known for their warrior like activities.

One brass plaque on display at the National Museum of Singapore shows the Oba wearing a leopard skin denoting his status; only royalty are draped with such finery. Bracelets adorn his right wrist and anklets wrap both ankles. Jewellery is always a good indicator of wealth and this Oba is one rich king. He holds a spear and a shield showcasing his might. He wears a mitre-like helmet with an opening allowing us a view of his features. His eyes are bulging with power, his nose is regally set and he has a set of fleshy lips. The tall helmet could be once more indicative of his status, signifying his position as a warrior king.  Oba takes up substantial amount of space on the plaque indicating his importance; our beholder’s eye is immediately drawn to this central figure.

We see four other figures flanking him. At the top are two Portuguese traders bearing gifts; they are identified by what they are wearing and their long hair. Clothing and hairstyles are often good time keepers; historians date such plaques to around the 16th and 17th centuries.

The two figures below are attendants who are wearing helmets made from pangolin hides. Pangolins are known for their durable shell like hides, hence make very good protective head gear. These helmets also help situate the attendants as those chosen to serve the inner court of the Oba; they were leopard hunters. Looking closer, we detect floral patterns in the background that are linked to the water god Olokun; this indicates the power that the Oba has over water.

The Benin Empire was eventually destroyed by the British in a punitive act of revenge known as ‘The Benin Expedition of 1897’. The Oba’s decision to assassinate one British General led to his palace being captured, burnt and looted. The last Oba of Benin was imprisoned and died in exile. A 19th century British newspaper reported this event as the “Benin Disaster”.  As a result, ancient treasures collectively known as the Benin Bronzes came into Western consciousness and hence begun the collection of these pieces by museums and private collectors as art. It is from such booty that the Western world began to learn about the Edo people and the ancient Kingdom of Benin. Debates have risen about whether these pieces of artwork should be returned to their rightful owners.

Restitution is always a controversial topic because ancient artefacts require optimum museum conditions for their conservation and survival. Subsumed into the restitution debate is the sense of superiority amongst many Western art institutions centred on their argument that their museums are the optimum repositories for ancient artefacts like these Benin Bronzes.  The British Museum has always claimed that it is the best place to house and showcase the Benin Bronzes because it has the funding and the expertise. On the one hand that is accurate, on the other, it seems such a shame that many Nigerians are deprived of experiencing the beauty of their heritage because conditions in their museums are not deemed optimal for exhibiting ancient artefacts. The power relations between colonial and post-colonial nations continue to fuel this debate. Emotions run high among individual Nigerian historians and scholars but to date, the British have yet to repatriate these Bronzes.

Benin Brass Plaque, Benin City, Nigeria, Edo People, 16th century AD, brass, (h) 48.3 cm x (w) 39.9 cm x (d) 7 cm, in The National Museum of Singapore, Treasures of the World, 05 December, 2015 – 29 May, 2016, cat. no. Af1898,0115.21

Image: © The British Museum

Eva’s Notes:

Would you believe that when the Europeans first set eyes on the Benin Plaques, they were bowled over by their artisanal craftsmanship and beauty, and thought that the Africans must have learnt their craft from the Europeans?

The Benin Brass plaques displayed in several museums in the Western world tell only part of the the kingdom’s history. Plaques, like the one in the essay, tell the story of trading relations between Portugal and Benin which started from 1498 and were to continue for 400 years before other European powers arrived.

It is good to remember that the way these plaques are displayed in museum settings are not indicative of how they were used within the context of the Oba’s palace; these plaques which are documents of the Oba’s business relations, war and ceremonies were found on the walls of the royal palace. Another little tidbit to take away is that brass belonged solely to the Oba; it is a royal material.


Conn, S (2010) Whose Objects? Whose Culture? The Contexts of Repatriation in Do Museums still need Objects? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp 58-86.

MacGregor, N, (2012), ‘Benin Plaque: The Oba with Europeans’ in A History of the World in 100 Objects. London: Penguin Books Ltd, pp 424 – 428.

Moore, B (2015), Treasures of the World from the British Museum. (exhibition catalogue). Singapore: National Museum of Singapore.

Woods, P (2012) ‘Display, Restitution and World Art History: The Case of the ‘Benin Bronzes’ in Visual Culture in Britain, volume 13, Issue 1.

Singapore – The Lion City by Raffaella Nava

During the fourteenth century, a prince named Sang Nila Utama was out on a hunting trip when he caught sight of an animal he had never seen before. He then founded this little island where he had spotted this magnificent animal, and had named it “The Lion City” or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words “simha” (lion) and “pura” (city).

Soon after that The Lion City’s busy markets had fine craftsmen and merchants who sold goods like hornbill, cloth, spices and porcelain, but fierce battles broke among The Lion City and their neighbouring kingdoms. In one of these battles, The Lion City got defeated and was burnt to the ground. The only things left in the city were some coins and ceramic bowls. Over time these goods became buried in sand and dust.

And so the old and beautiful kingdom was forgotten.

A British colony

The Lion City stayed hidden for over 200 years until one day in 1819 when an Englishman called Stamford Raffles was sailing up the river and came across the old lion city. Raffles liked it so much that he went to ask the two rulers, Sultan Hussein and Abdul Rahman if he could set up a trading post.

Soon enough The Lion City became a British colony, this meant that The Lion City belonged to England.

With his friend, Colonel William Farquhar, Raffles started building roads, shophouses, streets, markets and even a free port for ships and boats to come and trade.


Everything was going great, until one night when all the people of Singapura where fast asleep, war paid a visit. The Japanese dropped bombs from up high and marched into the city with frightening swords and guns.

The people of Singapura were not prepared to fight but tried as hard as they possibly could, but still it was not enough. Quickly Singapura was defeated! And so Japan took over Singapura, changing Singapura’s name to Syonan-To.

Japan ruled very cruelly for three and a half more years, they started killing and torturing the people of Singapura, making them not feel safe anymore.

After three and a half cruel years, Japan lost to Britain. Singapura was free at last! Everyone was happy! Can you believe that even the children were excited to go back to school and be with their friends?

Lee Kuan Yew

After the war, people became unhappy. They didn’t want to be a British colony anymore. They wanted to be free. A young man named Lee Kuan Yew and his friends wanted to turn this dream into reality. They asked the Queen for independence and she granted Mr Lee and his friends their wish.  In 1965, Singapura became Singapore when it parted with Malaysia.

Singapore is now a sovereign country, we have now celebrated fifty-one years of independence.

Photo credit: Zheng Lai Ming.  To read more about the artist go to:

Lee Kuan Yew, 2015, oil on canvas, 230 x 192 cm. Private Collection.

Eva’s note:

Raffaella is only 10 years old; she has a big imagination.  This was an essay she had to write in class. She picked Singapore as a topic to research about because “The Lion City” is her home. Knowing the story of the city in which one calls home is important for self-image and identity.  As a Third-Culture Child, home is wherever her parents choose to live; for now, Singapura is home.

Every city has a story; nations are built over time and learning about the history of Singapore made Raffaella realise that hard-work, people and love are the important ingredients that nations are built on.

Zheng Lai Ming is Eva’s art teacher. She has been taking lessons sporadically from him. Hyper-realist oil portraits take talent, hard-work and lots of dedicated love. The colossal canvases that Zheng paints on require skill and a good eye for the minutest of details.

Working with Zheng has made Eva realise that artists are both born and made; they are born with an innate talent and are made to be keepers of this talent by a divine design.

The Belachan Loving Cat – by Jasmine Adams

As a child, I was nicknamed little Miss Butterfingers.  Even though I was the sole owner of a family of imported dolls, I never had the pleasure of playing hostess at their tea parties.

Entrusting me with the responsibility of pouring the tea would inevitably result in miniature teapot cover flipping off or a misdirected spout resulting in a spreading stain on Barbie’s pinafore.

Given my propensity towards accidental slips, I was not deemed to be kitchen assistant material and banned from the exciting arena of smoke and smells presided over by the women folk in my family.

My earliest memory of food in its semi-original form brought memories of a high pitched yell. “Yau Siew” was a Hokkien vulgarity, and emanating from my sedate and ladylike grandmother, most surprising indeed!  She accompanied that heart rendering curse with a frenetic waving of a feather duster in her attempts to thrash the cause of her unhappiness.

Preceding this outburst, there was a crashing sound of bamboo and metal and the swish of a furry tail belonging to an accursed feline who will, undoubtedly henceforth, be destined towards a difficult and foreshortened life.

Excited by the cacophony, I finished on the home square of the hop scotch game and rushed to the scene of the crime.

My untrained nose detected a pungent odour totally disproportionate to the dismal mess which confronted me. Mud cakes lay flattened into unmentionable shapes on the pock marked and dusty cement five foot way. The bamboo tray which was their most recent residence bore few marks of their existence having toppled down along with the supporting poles meant usually to hang laundry.

This unsteady contraption which rested on odd chairs worked well for drying less tempting products but my neighbour’s cat was undeterred by the challenge of this precarious perch when it came to belachan.

My absence from the hallowed walls of the kitchen was a primary cause in my lapse in understanding the direct connection between these disintegrating slabs to the most important condiment on every Peranakan’s dinner table.

My grandmother’s precious patties of belachan had become shapeless forms which would not have the opportunity to harden and mature into solid grey rocks. Our family recipe for belachan was “purist” and made from the freshest miniature shrimp known as grago.

These tiny shrimps were deeply ingrained in our historical and cultural beginnings. Not just an insulting word for Eurasians who incorporated them into their daily diet, they were also associated with Portuguese colonial masters. Another but not often used name for belachan was Melaka cheese.

In her book ‘The Golden Chersonese’, Isabella Bird explained how this association between tangentially disparate but acquired tastes could be made:-

…The boatmen prepared an elaborate curry for themselves, with salt fish for its basis, and for its tastiest condiment blachany – a Malay preparation much relished by European lovers of durian and decomposed cheese. It is made by trampling a mass of putrefying prawns and shrimps into a paste with bare feet “

Given that true blue Peranakans have paternal Chinese origins, the use of this ubiquitous condiment was a strong influence from their maternal Malay roots. A likely by-product of the remnants of a day’s catch left out too long in the baking sun which evolved into food, many South East Asian cuisines have their equivalents. The Thais have their kapi/ kapee, the Filipinos, their alamang and the Indonesians their terasi, humble essentials which elevate simple repasts of rice and vegetables into memorable meals.

These days, making belachan from scratch in Singapore may be an insurmountable task. These miniature shrimps have become an unprofitable product to sell to the retail customer and are not available even in the most esoteric seafood market.  Understandably, making belachan at home according to secret family recipes is now an extinct practice in our city state.

From start to finished product, there are many steps in the production of belachan. Fortunately for all of us, compressed bricks of ready prepared shrimp paste are easily available in any Asian supermarket. Those who prefer a more authentic and rustic taste can still venture into fishing villages in Malaysia as they are still made by fishermen’s wives. Seawater and fresh sunshine may make for less stringent hygienic production standards than the cottage industries which export far and wide but according to connoisseurs yield a taste sensation comparable to none.

Image credit: Brian Adams; to read about Brian Adams, go to:

Eva’s notes:

This is a mouthwatering story of loss; loss of a traditional method of making a condiment that is so dear to every Peranakan’s heart.  It is also a tale of regret; regret for the passing of an epoch when life was simpler in Singapore as indicated by the drying of belachan patties on a makeshift perch.