A Freedom of Art Award seems to be a strange prize to win for Singapore (given our various censorship) and yet performance artist Lee Wen just bagged the 2016 Joseph Balestier award for the Freedom of Art. He beat out two other finalists – performance artist Aye Ko from Myanmar and film-maker Nguyen Trinh Thi from Vietnam – to win US$15,000.

U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar described the  Joseph Balestier Award honoring those who “stand up for the fundamental right of freedom of speech in a difficult environment, and who blaze a path, not just for the next generation of artists, but for the broader society in Southeast Asia”. Here are three times Lee Wen championed freedom of expression and challenged the status quo himself.

1. He practiced performance art in Singapore.

Actually any artist in Singapore is challenging the status quo but especially performance artists. When you think of freedom of speech, Singapore doesn’t immediately come to mind. This isn’t really surprising in a country where public demonstrations have to be registered with the National Parks Board and most people have made their peace with the fact. Performance art, however, brings touchy issues such as this to the forefront.  Inspired by the post World War modern art movements, performance art aims to provoke the audience into thinking and engages them in social commentary on issues that are not often raised.

2. He continued even when there was a 10 year funding ban.

Not only is it difficult to practice performance art in a society with an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, in 1994 funding for performance art was banned because of a controversial public performance by Josef Ng (who is STILL banned from performing any art in Singapore after the tofu caning and pubic hair snipping performance). Lee Wen did not let a government ban stop him. Even though he had no sponsorship or grants he still continued to practice performance art.

3. He fearlessly pursued his artistic dream

Although this is by no means an easy feat, the thing about Lee Wen that strikes me most is that he could have been a just another cog in the corporate machine who would have faded into obscurity. After his A levels he worked at a bank. He only enrolled at Lasalle College of the Arts after he quit that job at 30. Due to that leap of faith, he has had his art and performances featured internationally at Kwang Ju Biennale and the 3rd Asia Pacific Triennial, just to name a few. He has even been presented with the highest cultural award, the Cultural Medallion in 2005.

Moving forward from SG50, there is discussion about Singapore’s identity and where we as a nation want to move toward. Lee Wen’s passion, determination and fearlessness in pursuing what he wants would be perhaps something we would want to look into.

Featured image credits: Marina Bay Sands

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