Growing up in Singapore, I’ve always walked past by museums, shopping malls and local landmarks of statues that highlight the history of the country. Frankly, I didn’t really think that the +65 would have anything to offer apart from touristy souvenirs and postcard-friendly landscapes until I stumbled upon large colorful murals at Keong Saik Road two summers ago during a photoshoot with Audrey Kwok.
Filled with every shade of the rainbow, these murals lit a spark inside my body. While I was trying to search for the artist’s name, “RIPPLE ROOT” was written in big, yet thin bold capital letters. From there, it woke up a newfound hobby to find local artists around the island.
Flash forward to August 8th, 2019, I finally met the team behind Ripple Root – Estella Ng and Liquan Liew – at the opening of their new exhibit “Raffles, Pineapples and the Swamp” at Hilton Hotel’s Yang Gallery. In collaboration with Club 21, Liew and Ng displayed their artwork alongside designer togs to paint a visual story of the evolution of Singapore from a Third World kampong to a First World nation.
We catch up over e-mail to talk about what motivates them to make these iconic murals, the concept behind their newest exhibit, being inspired by Singapore’s history and having creative freedom in the +65.
You’ve established yourselves with bold, colorful and loud murals around town. What motivated you to create large-scale murals?
Liquan: The first ones came about by sheer chance- take the Keong Saik Street alley for example. Ben Gattie, the owner of Working Capitol, was at our art show “Wild Fruit” and liked the work he saw. He casually mentioned the alley and asked if we were keen to take this on. Next thing we knew we were on a boom lift! The large-scale murals indeed capture attention and hearts in ways we can’t plan or imagine.
Estella: The work is speaking for you. And the challenge is in making sure it retains its painterly quality, where the wall doesn’t feel static. The viewer gets surprised or sees something new with every visual take. Our latest one commissioned by Capitaland along Market Street is located in the heart of the Raffles Place. We definitely wanted to brighten the spirits of the working crowd in the Central Business District. Titled “A Spring in Your Step”, we wove in elements of nature to break the concrete jungle and you can’t miss our distinctive, vibrant colours.
What are the 5 words you’d use to describe your painting style?
E: A collector once called it New-Age Fauvism, and I can’t get over how on-point that is.
LQ: It’s energetic, spirited, the paintings always look like they’re moving, ‘rippling’, yet grounded, with a certain calmness to it.
Who are your role models?
E: David Hockney…we are both obsessed with Henri Matisse. My grandma.
LQ: Hockney, Matisse, and Karel Appel for how their art moves through so many mediums from paintings to walls to set designs.
How did you two meet and what made you want to work together as a team?
LQ: We met at a design agency and were colleagues first. On weekends[,] we would make paintings for fun. Estella lives near the mangrove swamp at Labrador Park and we thought that’s a perfect way to spotlight Singapore without being overly cheesy or tacky- that was the SG50 year. We had a show where almost all the paintings were sold, and haven’t looked back since.
E: The work chemistry has been evident since day one, there’s an unmistakably force that happens when we come together, that elevates and makes the work so dynamic. We started as colleagues but now we’re each other’s closest bud, definitely more like family! The trust is important, and we both have this ‘restless’ bone where we can’t sit still, so we almost can’t help but keep moving Ripple Root forward. I appreciate this urgency a lot.
Your recent exhibit was released in conjunction with National Day. What aspects of Singapore’s history were you specifically inspired by?
LQ: Singapore’s growth from [s]wamp to [c]civilization. We’ve always been about the swamp, and with the new paintings and art objects we are extending the narrative to how Singapore was built from ground up. Pineapple plantation, market scenes, Pernakan vessels, old Singapore icons….
E: And it being our bicentennial year, 200 years since Raffles stepped foot on Singapore soil, we had to feature Sir Stanford Raffles. Titled “Raffles, Pineapple and the Swamp”, the show still feels light-hearted, poetic and true to us. Paying homage to local history without losing the aspect of whimsy.
Inside the exhibit, I noticed that you’ve featured clothes from Dries van Noten and Issey Miyake. Why did you feature them and how do they relate to National Day?
LQ: Club 21, whom we have a good working relationship with, sponsored the launch event. The fall/winter Dries and Issey collections which you see in the space echo the colours used in our paintings. This Issey collection features Batik which is very Southeast Asian, and Dries was inspired by his very own flower garden, like how we were making paintings about our own home Singapore.
E: There’s tons of overlap. We love it when fashion and art collide, especially because so much of our paintings already play with patterning and look like they’re being woven together. It also helps that Club 21 is already familiar with our work and fittingly paired these brands with our latest art exhibition.
I noticed that you’ve got a great mix of everyday objects (e.g. stools, kettles and tiny sculptures) placed against large canvases. What inspired you to mix everyday objects with large-scale paintings?
E: We haven’t delved into 3D objects before- we wanted an added dimension to the hung paintings. We found objects from ’50s and ’60s Singapore era, with classically nostalgic silhouettes and re-imagined them, putting fresh spin and contemporary color. We thought they would spark an interesting dialogue next to the paintings.
LQ: The wares were what we discovered in old photographs of Singapore. We thought it’ll be cool to paint on these antiques – breathing new life into them and have them next to the paintings almost like how these objects fell out of the canvases.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced while making this exhibition?
LQ: The size of Yang Gallery is substantial- it’s got a pretty intimidating vibe. We had to scale up our usual paintings for them to feel prominent in the space. At the same time, we love the size of the space because it gives it a museum-like quality. We are also the first local artist to ever work with her (Susanna Yang of Yang Gallery) and showcase in her space, so definitely we wanted an impactful buzz especially with the whole Singapore narrative for bicentenntial and it launching a day before National Day!
E: We had to make sure the paintings were historically accurate and did sufficient research by going to the Asian Civilisation Museum, revisiting the archives, looking extensively at William Farquar drawings and old photographs of Singapore. But we got really into it, so as much as it’s a show celebrating Singapore it’s also very undeniably ‘Ripple Root’.
Western media doesn’t see Singapore as a creative hub and as someone who’s lived here, I feel that it’s attracted so many artists to create art in public spaces. Do you really think that there is a lot of freedom to be an artist in Singapore?
LQ: There is freedom but within reason: there’s a need to explain art here but it’s understandable as the [c]reative scene here is still growing. It is important to us that our art is not alienating or made in a bubble.
E: I think we try as best to work within these boundaries, but would like to believe that what we are doing is shifting these, changing perceptions, slowly but surely carving a mark. What’s exciting for us is getting to be first-movers and going against the grain.
Lastly, what’s the one thing you love most about living in Singapore?
E: Things move quickly here. It’s good for people like us who relish immediacy and appreciate the pace. I like how there’s cool bits about Singapore that you have to seek out, go out of your way to discover.
LA: The efficiency and directness of the people. We love how Singaporeans are go-getters, not afraid to knock on doors and can get excited over the darnest things from a massive fountain to a [G]rab promo code!
All photos are courtesy of Ripple Root