“Invariably, the human subjects that stare vapidly back at me from the printed surfaces of sepia or black and white postcards of the 1900’s are situated in front of trompe l’oeil-treated walls, locking  me into their private world with their unsmiling, almost defiant glare back at the camera aperture, in contrast to the pliant nature of their carefully curated appearance – crowned with hair softly caressed into waves or rigidly sculpted into place to carefully directed toe-pointing poses; at times supplemented with hand-held paraphernalia, or even placed with an acted-out nonchalance on the floor.

As I study the human subjects captured and drawn by light in the photo/graphs or postcards, I realized I was staring at moments of colonial encounter. Of one human being being summed up by another in the case of the postcards, through demeaning anthropological eyes, surveying, judging, categorizing, labelling, dominating – the gaze of subjugation. Even tropical fruits – durians, rambutans, mangosteens, chikus – were caught in this anthropologizing gaze.”

(b. 1959, SINGAPORE)


Suzann Victor

2020, Acrylic on Canvas, Acrylic Strip, and Lenses, 127.5 x 127.5 x 15 cm

For her work in the show, Unequal Innocence, Victor subverts the act of forcefully exposing the subjects in these historical images by masking them instead. After painting found portraits of women from across Asia and forming them into an intricate assemblage adorned with foliage, she covers the painting with layers of overlapping circular magnifying lenses to form a disorienting interface between the audience and the actual painting. 

Whether blurring, magnifying or distorting one’s perspective, the lens interface provokes viewers to move around and observe the work through different viewpoints—serving as a powerful allegory of the fluid, multilayered ways of seeing these subjects, rather than presenting the idea of one fixed and uncontested picture. 

Creating burnt apertures and gaps in some lenses, Victor allows viewers to see only glimpses and slivers of the actual faces beneath—and through this obscurity, she communicates a haunting reality: that much of women’s stories, particularly in Asia, remain buried in our collective memories, retrieved only through sharp cracks or hazy fragments. 

Yet, this concealment also alludes to a sense of agency—as if Victor is asserting these women’s ultimate unknowability, allowing their personhood to escape the constricting, colonial gaze; and returning to them an almost sacred sense of respect and privacy. At the same time, Victor reveals that the lenses hold a double meaning that illumines her more personal, present-day experience of growing up in Singapore, rife with a super-surveillance that dominates public life. 

This constant awareness of being watched—and the paranoia that developed in her psyche as a result—is perhaps an invisible thread that connects her to the experiences of the women in these historical photographs. Thus, the lenses aimed to obstruct uninvited gazes and restore a sense of dignity also extend beyond the subjects in the artwork, and onto the lived realities of women in Singapore today.