August 22, 2016 - National Arts Council of Singapore - Artist Zai Kuning and curator June Yap to represent Singapore at the 57th Venice Biennale
August 22, 2016

National Arts Council of Singapore

Zai Kuning in collaboration with Mohamad Riduan, Dapunta Hyang – Transmission of Knowledge, 2015. Rattan, waxed thread, stones, books, wax. Commissioned and presented by Esplanade, Singapore at the Concourse, 2015. Photo courtesy of Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay.

Artist Zai Kuning and curator June Yap to represent Singapore at the 57th Venice Biennale

The National Arts Council, Singapore (NAC) announces the appointment of Singapore multidisciplinary artist, Zai Kuning, and curator and art historian, June Yap, as the artistic team to represent Singapore at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Their proposal, Dapunta Hyang, is a culmination of over 20 years of Zai’s research on Malay culture and history in Southeast Asia as part of a broader inquiry on identity. This investigation had led to the artist spending more than a decade with and creating work on the Orang Laut (sea gypsies)—the pre-nation and pre-colonial inhabitants of both island and sea in the region.

The exhibition for the Biennale extends a recent series that takes as its vantage point Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, the first Maharaja of the early kingdom of Śrīvijaya. Considered the first large state of "world economic stature" of its time in Southeast Asia, the Śrīvijaya empire stood at the crossroads of the maritime route between China and India. The success and influence of the empire is captured within Zai’s work in a symbol of voyage central to the exhibition.

Dapunta Hyang also points to the history of the Malay language and the establishment of Old Malay as the region’s lingua franca. The transmission and spread of the Malay language is a subject that has also surfaced in Zai’s work on the Orang Laut and his documentation of the Mak Yong opera in Riau as a crucial part of the region’s cultural history. Where artefact may not survive the passage of time, in language we find traces of cultural development and transmission, in this instance, evincing regional and Austronesian connections.

Zai explains, "Dapunta Hyang allows me to delve deep into a history and heritage of Southeast Asia not commonly found in history books. As an aesthetic project, however, it is not a presentation of history in material and object, or as ideology and in politics. Rather it is about a sense of fellowship and solidarity that arises from knowing who we are. I am keen to have audiences spend time reflecting upon the elements the work combines: of craft in the sculpture of the ship, the subject of knowledge as embodied in the waxed books, the portraits of islanders and Mak Yong, and the voice of the Mak Yong master who speaks in a language rarely heard now.

As for the concept of transmission of knowledge, it is not merely about a passing of information. Instead the receiver’s imagination is essential to this process. But even received knowledge and their interpretation should not simply be taken as given. Dapunta Hyang is thus a prompt and a means to attend to this history and knowledge that go back in time. Not just from 50 or 200 years ago, but back to the 7th century, in order to understand what and who we are, and the actions and accidents that brought us here."

Ms. Kathy Lai, CEO of NAC and Co-Chair of the Commissioning Panel, adds, “Dapunta Hyang invites us to reflect on the region we are in, its past and how its heritage has been transmitted through the trajectories of empire, language and culture. Zai’s proposal stood out strongly as it spotlights forgotten stories of a people whose culture influenced what we recognize as ‘Southeast Asian’ today. The uncovering of forgotten histories will, I believe, strike a chord with the international audience at the Venice Biennale.”


Ho Binjin
National Arts Council
T +65 6346 9471 / ho_binjin [​at​]

About the National Arts Council
The National Arts Council champions the arts in Singapore. By nurturing creative excellence and supporting broad audience engagement, we want to develop a distinctive global city for the arts. With a nod to tradition and an eye to the future, we cultivate accomplished artists and vibrant companies. Our support for the arts is comprehensive—from grants and partnerships to industry facilitation and arts housing. The Council welcomes greater private and corporate giving to and through the arts so that together we can make the arts an integral part of everyone’s lives. For more information on the Council’s mission and plans, please visit

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