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Singapore in Black and White: We chat to artist Deborah McKellar about her first solo exhibition

By: Verne Maree

 

Last year, South African artist Deborah McKellar went on one of local tour guide Geraldene Lowe’s popular tours of colonial black-and-white houses and was inspired to begin work on what became her first solo exhibition: Singapore in Black and White. Verne Maree caught up with Deborah at the CdeM Atelier in Wessex Estate.

What brought you here and how did you become an artist?

I came out here about nine years ago with my parents and my elder sister, who has since married and moved to Boston. When we arrived, I was 20 and had just finished my first year of art at Pretoria Tech, so I continued my studies at Lasalle College of the Arts and graduated with a BA Hons in Fine Art (Painting). After that, I did my Masters in Textile Design through the University of NSW.

 

There are some artistic genes in the family. One of my aunts, Donna McKellar, is a landscape artist in Cape Town and she taught me a lot. In fact, she fairly recently started selling her work here from REDSEA Gallery in Dempsey.

Where do you work from?

I have an apartment on the East Coast, in Marine Parade, that I have converted into a studio. (I love the East Coast, especially being close to the beach.) That’s where my company Talking Textiles is based, and I still teach textile design at Lasalle on a part-time basis.

How did this black-and-white project start?

Last year, I found myself becoming increasingly interested in black-and-white houses and in their history, so I went on one of Geraldene Lowe’s famous tours of houses in this architectural genre. From her I learnt all sorts of fascinating information about them and the people who have lived in them, stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily find in the history books.

As you can see, I’ve incorporated images of ants and other insects into several of the works – quite unusual subject matter! This came from Geraldene’s telling us that the black paint used in the houses contained creosote, to deter white ants and borer beetles.

 

Where do the main images come from?

They’re from actual photographs. After finding out where the main enclaves of black-and-whites were, I spent some time going around Singapore with a friend who is a very good photographer. After loading the colour images onto my computer, I converted them into black-and-white, because to make a silkscreen you need a completely monochromatic image.

Can you describe the process of screen-printing?

Basically, it’s a technique of printing that uses a woven mesh supported by an ink-blocking stencil. From the image you want to use, you create a positive, which is just a transparent film that the image has been transferred onto. The positive image is then imposed on a mesh screen.

Here’s a small silkscreen block depicting the date on the façade of one of the houses in the Alexandra Park area, 1937. I lay the screen over the fabric, in this case canvas, place water-based ink on the top of the screen, then use a squeegee, something like a rubber ruler, to push the ink through the screen onto the canvas.

For this series of works I’ve used two different screen-printing processes. The first is a tonal image that can be achieved in one print, so it looks a lot like the original photo; the screen is made to allow the ink to penetrate at different levels from pitch black to very pale grey, thus giving gradation.

The process of colour separation, used for example in my artwork titled Diplomatic Residence, is achieved with a number of different screens; you use a separate screen for each different colour. It’s much more time-consuming and gives a very different effect.

You haven’t just done screen-printing in this collection, though, have you?

No. For a number of the works, I’ve used mixed media, bringing together my background in fine arts with my specialisation in textile design.

For example, two of my favourite pieces incorporate discs of colourful old Chinese silk brocade that I’ve hand-stitched to the canvas. I love all the little bits of silk that I have in my studio, and I felt that by using some of them to highlight certain areas I would allow them to tell their own stories.

From a distance, the occasional touches of green on the foliage surrounding the houses can sometimes look like paintwork. In fact, they have been painstakingly stitched on, as has the freestyle embroidery work: that was created on a machine, then hand-stitched to the canvas.

How long did it take?

Including the research, about eight months; we started in earnest last November. It involved a lot of research into the history of the houses, too. Though it was a lot of work, it’s been a fun process.

What next?

I may do a few more in this series, but I’m working on a completely different show that I plan to put on in a few months’ time. The new show is inspired by the textile trade in Singapore, particularly the guys in Little India who work on their old sewing machines at the side of the road, fixing jeans and zips.

 

Deborah’s Recommendations:

Werner’s Oven – for great German meals; the attached bakery for pastries and healthy bread

6 Upper East Coast Road

6442 3897

www.wernersoven.com.sg

 

The Raffles Hotel Shop – for the Talking Textiles Raffles Collection

1 Beach Road

#01-01/02/03 Raffles Hotel

 

Commune – new design store, for a more contemporary range of Talking Textiles cushions

1 Raffles Boulevard

#02-51/53 Millenia Walk

6338 3823

 

REDSEA Gallery

Block 9 Dempsey Road

#01-10 Dempsey Hill

6732 6711

www.redseagallery.com

 

Straits Commercial – for specialist art supplies

420 North Bridge Road

#01-27 North Bridge Centre

6338 1710 ‎

 

Tour Guide Geraldene Lowe – for toursof black-and-white homes and more

6737 5250 or geraldenestours@hotmail.com

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