French street artist YZ sees diversity behind Singapore's seeming uniformity

Reena Devi
Lifestyle Reporter
“Empress Wu” by YZ is one of the works at the Art from the Streets exhibition at ArtScience Museum. (Photo: Marina Bay Sands)

Two portrait works in ArtScience Museum’s new exhibition Art from the Streets that might stand out as you enter the gallery are “Empress Wu” and “Empress Ngatini” by French artist YZ (pronounced “eyes”).

One of the female street artists showing works in the exhibition, YZ (the pseudonym used by Yseult Digan) is known for urban art that is focused on women and full of raw emotion.

“Empress Wu” from her Empress series depicts a Chinese woman in ethnic headgear with a benign smile and an all-knowing gaze. The work is made of paper and Indian ink on an old wooden door. “Empress Ngatini” is even more powerful – her tribal garb, dark skin and steady gaze reverberate against the white walls.

“Empress Ngatini” is one of the works from YZ’s Empress series on show at the ArtScience Museum. (Photo: Marina Bay Sands)

YZ’s work, including an earlier series titled Amazone about Senegalese women who fought for their country, has always been related to identity.

Speaking with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore, she said her works are inspired by her life-long search for a sense of identity due to her plural ancestry.  

“My grandfather was from Guadeloupe, and I didn’t know him. I always saw him in pictures and I found it very strange – me being blonde and very white and blue eyes and having a grandfather  (who is) black. I needed to understand why and where I was coming from and what was his story and my story,” she said.

 “I was driven by the strong cultural background of Africa… the music I was listening to was the music my father was listening to, music by different African singers. I grew up in that world,” she added.

Amazone, an earlier series by YZ, focuses on women in Senegal. (Photo: YZ)

Her fascination with the tribal communities portrayed in her work is largely because she wants to learn how we can “integrate minorities of primitive ethnicity into our world and how they can have a voice in a world that is filled with consumerism and uniformity”.

Diversity is crucial to the artist, something she tries to impart to her nine-year-old daughter.

 “I think today there’s really a question of how do we position ourselves in the world, what’s the future – is it keeping our identities, the cultural background that we all have or is it being driven by the same things that others are, being dressed like others. I always tell my daughter she has to be different. I think differences are very important,” YZ said.

 She cites Singapore as an example for this uniform consumerism, but says there is hidden diversity.

 “In Singapore I can see there’re a lot of malls. It’s (very) into consumerism. Every time we speak about Singapore what comes up is the big city, a lot of banks and malls, a lot of expats. I’m sure there are other things behind all that because there’s people (and) we all have our inner stories,” she said.

In spite of the commercial aspects, YZ thinks Singapore’s arts scene could be quite interesting.

 “In Singapore there are a lot of rules but sometimes when there are very strong rules, you’re constrained, and constraints enable you to think more and act differently to find a way of doing something. I don’t agree with it but there might be some very interesting things coming out of it,” she said.

Art from the Streets runs till 3 June. The exhibition celebrates 40 years of street art, from its countercultural beginnings to its extraordinary rise as a global contemporary art trend.

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