Jackie Yoong is Curator, Fashion and Textiles at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and the Peranakan Museum. She worked on the museum’s traveling exhibitions on Peranakan art and fashion to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris (2010), the National Museum of Korea (2013) and the Fukuoka Art Museum (2016). More recently, she curated Guo Pei: Chinese Art & Couture (2019) and conceptualised the new Fashion and Textiles Gallery at ACM.
In this special conversation, the student curators of #SGFASHIONNOW ask Circe and Jackie about their curatorial journeys. We find out about what motivates each of their practices, and the processes they adopt to inform and entertain audiences through their exhibitions.
CH Jackie’s rigorous academic approach to everything related to Chinese and South-East Asian dress and fashion is inspiring. Her expertise in Peranakan Culture allows her to have a clear understanding of a hybridised visual culture in Southeast Asia that informs Singapore’s fashion as well. Her Guo Pei: Chinese Art & Couture in 2019 was a wonderful exhibition that for me set the tone of the ACM’s positioning as a museum. The museum’s idea of Asia in Fashion was successfully portrayed through the pairings between Guo Pei’s exuberant dresses and the historical dress pieces coming from the collection. I thought this was a clever approach that allowed viewers to learn more about these ancient fashions and how the inspirations drawn from these historical garments could be contextualised in contemporary fashion today.
Guo Pei at ACM
JY I admire how Circe’s informed and close reading of Frida Kahlo’s personal belongings has greatly expanded understanding of this exceptional female artist and heightened appreciation of her achievements. I saw the V&A version in which the thoughtful exhibition design amplified the touching significance of everyday objects related to her disability while respecting her dignity. The continuous tour of the exhibition highlights how this powerful story resonates globally and is a testament to the strength of Circe’s curatorial craft.
CH From our educational perspective, I firmly believe that the areas of fashion education, curation, writing, conservation, content creation and project management will continue to grow here in Singapore. In our fashion curriculum, fashion curation for example, is a main component because we want our students to be familiar with the materials, crafts and traditions from Singapore and the region. An understanding of curatorial practice allows the students to observe, analyse and evaluate materials and objects from the region through different lenses. Whether these lenses are historical, contextual or structural, the students are able to interpret these objects with coherent narratives that can communicate with different audiences. It is through these compelling visual narratives that we hope the students can articulate their stories. #SGFASHIONNOW is not the exception. The students’ fresh take through a lens of craftsmanship was not only via the designer’s techniques, but also considering the designers’ tangible and intangible heritage as inspiration. It is remarkable that a museum like the ACM is providing such a prominent space to test the students’ ideas. We are grateful and very excited for all of us.
JY As part of the ACM’s efforts to represent Asia in Fashion, we aim to contribute to the national discussion of what contemporary Singapore Fashion is, through the context of Asia. The project was conceived as a development platform to bring together key members of Singapore’s fashion ecosystem, including designers, the industry through TaFF and education through a partnership with LASALLE. It is exciting that this is our first exhibition on contemporary Singapore fashion, and also the first time that students are invited as guest curators in a permanent gallery. Our joint efforts also highlight the need to support the local, especially in these pandemic times.
CH I think Singapore has the potential to become a centre for research in the areas of fashion and design in the region. ACM will play a main role to achieve this in the future. I see the museum as a catalyst to articulate these dialogues among designers, artists, writers, curators, students and the general public to produce relevant and intelligent content. #SGFASHIONNOW for example, brought a collaboration between the ACM and the National Museum of Singapore (NMS), with NMS lending the look Anthropology of Cultural Dementia, 2019 by Baëlf Design for the students to achieve their vision for the exhibition. I think a more collaborative approach between museums and their collections is definitely the way forward, and we are glad both museums came together to help the students to complete their show.
JY Presently, ACM is the only museum in Singapore with a dedicated Fashion and Textiles permanent gallery and a planned pipeline of annual fashion exhibitions. In general, our broad approach includes the permanent gallery rotations presenting historical dress; the Contemporary Gallery features occasional community-curated exhibitions like #SGFASHIONNOW; while the Special Exhibition Gallery presents larger-scale thematic exhibitions like Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture.
CH To be absolutely passionate about your craft, and think how you can impact people’s lives. Curators have a huge responsibility to tell different stories from a different perspective in the exhibition context. For me, a balance between historical accuracy and an evocative approach is vital, but also to bring relevant discourses that allow diverse audiences to be part of the conversation and the fashion debate.
JY Having a postgraduate degree in a related field of studies is advantageous to hone research skills and build foundational knowledge. The field of fashion curation is changing rapidly, and we all have to keep learning to stay updated on fashion developments and evolving scholarship, exhibitions and curatorial strategies. Volunteering at a museum is also helpful for first-hand experience of people and work on the ground.
Frida Kahlo at V&A
I think I see myself as the curator as a guide. I am obsessed with audiences. I feel responsible to inform the public well and I want the audiences to leave my exhibitions thinking their experience through my shows has left them something in their lives. For my PhD, I am creating a curatorial methodology that will allow students and other practitioners to curate interesting exhibitions. I am particularly interested in looking at diversity issues through fashion curation. Topics such as fashion and disability, ethnicity, gender identity, gender politics and where these intersections meet. The Kahlo exhibition was successful because it addressed all these topics in one exhibition.
I would not say there is a particular way in Singapore or the West, I think it comes down to us producing more text and more exhibitions curated by diverse voices coming from this part of the world. The West has done it very well because they created their own language looking at their own histories and own heritage. So we should concentrate on producing wonderful content from this part of the world. It is is amazing to have these young students already curating their first exhibition in a major Museum in Singapore. Bravo!
I pay close attention to five aspects of new projects: the narrative, highlight objects, community stories, exhibition design, and fit with ACM’s mission. These five elements, when well-considered, can contribute to advancing scholarship of Asia in Fashion, and providing visitors a visually memorable, learning experience.
All fashion “traditions” are invented, and at their inception, novel. Euro-centric ideas persist that “fashion” does not exist in Asia where dress is static and unchanging. This is untrue. ACM displays historicised fashion in Asia to highlight change over time, and how fashion has always been present from our perspectives here.