Culture / Art Republik

The Lost Cities Exhibition: A Meeting of Historical Kampong Traditions and Present-day Perspectives

For those in Singapore between 18 August and 1 October, immerse yourself in this cultural reimagining melding the island-city’s past and present.

Aug 15, 2023 | By Sidney Yuen
The Lost Cities Series: Kampong Port Cities of the Pre-colonial Era
Photo: Courtesy of Oval Partnership

“Kampong spirit” has long been a part of Singapore’s history, stemming from the period before Dutch and Portuguese traders landed on the island’s shores. Kampong translates to “village” in Bahasa Melayu, Singapore’s national language as well as one of the oldest known and most commonly spoken language native to the Malay archipelago. Kampong spirit is a resultant cultural collocation coined to describe positive communal attitude and solidarity between a multi-ethnocultural people, though a common consensus has formed amongst Singaporeans in recent times that kampong spirit has been slowly chipped away at, mostly owing to how the island city experienced a rapid restructuring of its social compact when it skyrocketed from small fishing port under colonial rule to its current standing as one of Asia’s most developed economies in just 58 years since its independence.

The story of the island’s humble beginnings as village fishing and trading port may be common knowledge, but less is known about the way of life native islanders shared with each other further along its busy shores.

What did community life look like on the island before the rapid growth and blooming of the city-state known as Singapore, and what does a meaningful interaction between its past and present look like? That is precisely what the Oval Partnership sought to investigate in the Lost Cities exhibition.

Video: Youtube @theovalpartnership2119

A collaboration with several research groups from local universities Singapore Management University and Singapore Institute of Technology, the exhibition is a purposeful stray-away from past nostalgia-inciting replicas of village settlements in pre-colonial Singapore. Instead, the display was designed to uncover forgotten experiences of pre-colonial urbanism in Asia through a past-meets-present perspective. Guided by exploratory social research trips to satellite islands Pulau Ubin and Lorong Buangkok — the two earliest and last known village settlements of pre-colonial Singapore — the Oval Partnership and its collaborative researchers took to local communities to document and collect first-hand accounts of kampong life in the 21st century, a rare gem of a culture most Singaporeans consider extinct.

“This event recreates the experience of a bygone age and enables attendees to explore how life was lived then,” shares Mr Chris Law, Founding Director of The Oval Partnership and visionary behind the exhibition. “Now we have a clearer sight of where we came from and how we were shaped. It deepens our understanding of the giants whose shoulders we stand on so we can build a better world for the generations that come after us.”

The Lost Cities Series: Kampong Port Cities of the Pre-colonial Era
Photo: Courtesy of the Oval Partnership

An experiential exhibition with three key zones each guided by a reinterpretation of kampong life, the Lost Cities exhibition takes one on a time-travelling journey to a 14th century kampong through the contemporary lens of three key themes: heritage, sustainability and community. The meticulously detailed exhibition explores the world of a fictionalised kampong lead by female village chief, Esah, and how she leads her thriving community to co-exist harmoniously with nature through cultural practices rooted in equality, most of which might even be considered as progressive today.

Visitors of the exhibition can expect both a refreshing perspective of Singapore’s history as well as an admirable display of sustainably sourced exhibit materials, such as locally sourced wood from ethical carpenters and non-profit conservation-advocacy organisations. From interactive displays to creative experiences rooted in historical kampong practices, the exhibition promises an engaging and unforgettable journey through the Lion City reimagined.

In addition to the research-driven exhibition, the Oval Partnership has also tapped into the talents of three multidisciplinary artists, Gilles MassotMarc Nair and Zen Teh, who have contributed their take on art inspired and honouring Singapore’s kampong heritage.

An immersive experience through time, the Lost Cities exhibition will take place from 18 August to 1 October in Fort Canning Centre for members of the public to journey through Singapore’s first kampong cities and dive into a third space synchronously connecting past and present. For more details on the exhibition, click here.

The Lost Cities Series: Kampong Port Cities of the Pre-colonial Era

  • WHEN: 18th August – 1st October 2023 (Weekdays: 10am – 6pm; Weekends: 10am – 10pm)
  • WHERE: Fort Canning Centre, Singapore

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A version of this article was first published on GRAZIA Singapore.

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