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Meet the Three Creatives Shaping Singapore’s Visual Aesthetic

By Kames Narayanan

Titled “Things Fall Apart”, Faiyaz’s series of portraiture is an inquisiton into finding beauty in chaos.
Titled “Things Fall Apart”, Faiyaz’s series of portraiture is an inquisiton into finding beauty in chaos.

Faiyaz, photographer

When you’re leafing through the pages of a magazine or scrolling mindlessly through an Instagram feed, there are certain images that stop you in your tracks. In parlance of then editorial director of Condé Nast, Alexander Leiberman (who coined the term to encapsulate revered fashion photographer Irving Penn’s body of work), visually arresting photographs have come to be known as “stoppers”. 

25-year-old self-taught photographer Faiyaz’s (who prefers to go by his first name) body of portraiture evokes a similar reaction — it reels the eye in and holds the attention, prompting an attempt at unpacking the multitude of layers. Every photograph has a narrative to tell through its carefully considered elements: the mise-en-scène, the choice of subject, down to the manner of dressing and embellishment. 

When Faiyaz steps behind the lens, his clicks of the shutter are inquisitions into the conundrum of identity. Coming from a background of part Sinhalese and part Gujarati descent, Faiyaz’s experiences have shaped his purpose: decolonising minds and reshaping the primitive schools of thought on the topic of diversity. Albeit having a deeply personal connection to the leitmotif, Faiyaz is careful not to entirely project his vision onto his models.

“All my shoots, it’s never my projection onto someone. It always starts with a conversation about how they are feeling and what inspires them. From there, I create my concepts. I come up with ideas collectively,” says Faiyaz. 

FaiyazA self-portrait that evokes the signature timeworn yet thought-provoking quality of Faiyaz’s body of work.
A self-portrait that evokes the signature timeworn yet thought-provoking quality of Faiyaz’s body of work.

Photoshoots are intimate affairs. In his earlier foray into photography, Faiyaz was a one-man team collaborating primarily with friends whom he put in front of the camera. His introduction to photography traces back to his days in secondary school when he was captivated by the works of a senior. In those days, as Faiyaz described he “was taking photographs with no intent or substance behind it.” But with time, he developed a subtext of how he had intended for the photographs he made to relate to an audience. 

“It all started with a local modelling agency here, which was the only one at that time who pushed girls who were not white models and encouraged me to shoot with local models. That got me thinking: we live in Singapore, why do we not see our people in our ads?” says Faiyaz. As his purview was starting to take form, Faiyaz moved to London for his university education. During the five years he spent there, these initial sparks ignited into an effervescent flame. 

“When I was in London, people were so much more open to talking about things like race. There was a sense of community and support there, and everyone is interested in finding out about their history,” says Faiyaz. This sense of ownership to identity underscores his repertoire of work. 

Taking his photographs under the microscope, the opulent jewellery, ethnic costumes and bold colours are visual tropes, which allude to Kolia’s inclination towards Southeast Asian beauty. “If there is one thing I have learnt, it’s that your experience is unique to you. Everyone has an individualistic journey. What I try to show in my photographs are the different aspects of the varied personal experiences people may have. It is about celebrating the individual experiences with identity,” says Faiyaz. 

When Faiyaz returned to Singapore last October, he was an image-maker assuredly certain of not only his place in society but also resolute in paving a way for others to find theirs, through his art. Faiyaz’s commitment to his cause is no frivolous pursuit — it is deeply researched and well-learnt. Without batting an eyelid, he rattled off the lesser-known chapters of Singaporean history that most keep buried in the untapped recesses of the brain. He continues to drive home his beliefs with the projects he undertakes here at home. “When I do collaborate with people, I try my best to work with people of diversity even behind the scenes,” says Faiyaz. 

FaiyazIn his series of portraits for a London-based magazine, Faiyaz decontextualised a woman who wears a hijab from her diverse background.
In his series of portraits for a London-based magazine, Faiyaz decontextualised a woman who wears a hijab from her diverse background.

Faiyaz’s visual vocabulary is distinct and its nuances are strikingly identifiable across his portfolio. For instance, in his recent project as art director for local singer Tabitha Nauser’s music video titled “Don’t Let Me Drown”, he takes to tradition from a decidedly contemporary point of view. The collaborative vision he had conceived with Nauser extends his agenda to a wider audience. Stylistically, Faiyaz imbues his imagery with “a dreamy quality that takes after old photographs from [the] ’70s and ’80s”. 

Within the realm of photography, not many can call to claim for having not only deciphered their visual language but also what they seek to communicate through it. Faiyaz is, if you will, well onto his way to becoming a true visionary. 

Olivia Lee, industrial designer

There is an ethereal quality to 34-year-old industrial designer Olivia Lee. Seated across me, her striking looks are hard to dismiss: Lee’s cropped bangs fall above her gently arched eyebrows, her distinctive square jawline tapers off to a “V” at the front and as she speaks, her heart-shaped lips draw the eye. Her alluring features call to mind the quaint, yet well-defined physical traits of fantastical pixies that are the stuff of fictional narratives. 

Olivia LeeA self-portrait by Olivia Lee.
A self-portrait by Olivia Lee.

An inexplicable coincidence or perhaps, a predestined trajectory, as I delved deeper into conversation with Lee, the themes of storytelling and reverie bubbled up to the surface in more instances than one. In particular, Lee recalls a career-defining encounter in the days of her eponymous label’s infancy. 

“When I left my full-time job to start my own design studio, I gave myself one year to be the most ideal designer I could be. That meant I would not compromise my artistic integrity by doing bread and butter work and I would only work on projects that excited me. If those clients didn’t exist, I would just be my own client and invent a fantasy project for myself,” recalls Lee. 

The universe had greater plans in the pipelines for Lee. “The first week I got my desk at the original Supermama (a design and crafts store) where they were renting a residency at the time, there was a knock on the door. It was a Japanese man who had come looking for me. He later explained that he was a curator and he was curating a lineup of designers from Singapore who would represent the core of the core (as he explained) and he wanted me to take part in the show,” says Lee. 

As though the stars had aligned to conspire to launch Lee into greatness, the unexpected meeting took her body of work to the prestigious Milan Design Week in 2015 — the design world’s equivalent of fashion week showings. The title of the exhibit: The Alchemists. “There is a quote from The Alchemist, which reads along the lines of ‘when you follow your heart’s desire, the universe will conspire to help you’,” she recalls. 

Magic is ubiquitous in Lee’s life. At Olivia Lee studio, it extends into her professional endeavours. “My design philosophy isn’t one that is just about functionality or only about problem-solving but it is about the ability to inject magic and poetry into a whole experience,” says Lee. 

Olivia LeeLee’s acclaimed “Athena” collection conceived as an ode to contemporary women.
Lee’s acclaimed “Athena” collection conceived as an ode to contemporary women.

Deconstructing Lee’s works, the multiple layers that add up to conceivable depth in every project is concealed in plain sight. A case in point is the revered “Athena” collection exhibited at SaloneSatellite (a launching pad for emerging designers at Salone del Mobile Milano) in 2017. The collection was conceived as “an ode to the contemporary woman”, where the crux of the collection rests on the pursuit of tailoring the environment to human (particularly, female) behaviour under the influence of technology. The result: a whimsical 10-piece collection drenched in soft pastel hues and the high-shine of metal. In the realm of design, form and function are the commonly expound- ed earmarks but just as a chair cannot balance on two legs, Lee’s works find resolution in the inclusion of a third: storytelling. 

“Before even getting to the story and poetry, it is essential to make sure you deliver on the basic needs. It is about eating my vegetables first so that I can indulge in dessert to prolong the experience,” says Lee. “It is about setting perimeters and teasing out the potential in a brief. I usually find that the tightest spots actually generate some of the most exciting and rich experiences. I start with what most people think is the tough part — that is where you come up with the revolution. Once you crack the angle, you take it and run with it.” 

Olivia LeePieces from The Secret to Longevity collection Lee presented at the Wallpaper Handmade exhibition last year.
Pieces from The Secret to Longevity collection Lee presented at the Wallpaper Handmade exhibition last year.

Albeit an industrial designer by trade, Lee’s modus operandi draws from schools of thought beyond its premise. Growing up, Lee’s ambitions were periodic, running the gamut from an astronaut to an economist and a scientist. With industrial design, Lee found an arena within which her diverse interests converged. “My struggle has always been in the sense that I have been pulled in many different directions. But I have managed to pivot the quirk about me into my way of working. That is, if I can’t be a journalist per se, I would add a journalistic quality to my work. Industrial design felt like the right conduit where I could wear different hats at various stages of the design process,” explains Lee. 

Her well-rounded overture and insatiable curiosity have lately also segued into partnerships with local second-generation business owners, much like a fairy sprinkling her pixie dust wherever she goes. “I have been assisting them with product development and innovation level and even from an art direction standpoint. It has been a great tension between large-scaled international brands and these forward-looking progressive young entrepreneurs, of which some are women,” says Lee. 

Lee’s design universe is an inviting, inclusive space for all. While there, one might even stumble upon the Easter eggs she purposefully buries in her repertoire of work. “Whether you are passing by and it grabs your attention or when you stop and look harder to read the material accompanying the product, you would realise that there are many, many levels of stories and dreaming. It is a reward for anyone who is curious to learn more,” she reveals. 

John Lim, botanical designer

The proverb that reads “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is presumably the quintessence of Humid House, the botanical design studio conceived by 34-year-old John Lim. Inaugurated last year, the design house’s fundamental approach to floral arrangements is a defiant antithesis to the stereotypical expectations of traditional floristry. 

John LimA portrait of John Lim.
A portrait of John Lim.

At Humid House, the intention is to “develop a language for our tropical imaginarium composed of flora and foliage, from here and there; rampant, unconforming and fecund”. To the unacquainted, the aforementioned language Lim has invented is all but foreign. Functioning independently on a calibre of its own, Lim has built a subversive visual vocabulary unique to the Humid House. Here, in place of run-of-the-mill bouquets stand rambunctious creations that test the preconceived notions of beauty, which is after all, subjective. 

The botanical elements in much of Lim’s creations attest to his inclination towards the unusual. “‘Exotic’ is a word that is very loaded. What does it mean to you? Is that foreign or is that weird? I think we use the term very loosely and at the loosest, it is just something that is unusual,” says Lim. With choices that run the gamut from dried, browning stems, icky mud, untrimmed vines to withering flowers, a general rule of thumb he seemingly adheres to is in fact that there are none. 

John LimA flurry of Heliconia encircling a mound of lotus roots, fresh from the mud with a garnish of Sterculia pods created by John Lim as a visual representation of Humid House.
A flurry of Heliconia encircling a mound of lotus roots, fresh from the mud with a garnish of Sterculia pods created by John Lim as a visual representation of Humid House.

Boundaries are arbitrary at Humid House.“The creative process in itself is very dynamic. It could be inspired by a single ingredient or a mood. It largely varies and a lot of the time, there is a lot of going back and forth even with the direction of the arrangement. It is not a linear process,” says Lim. 

Lim hails from an architectural background and counts no formal training in floristry. “It wasn’t entirely alien to me. All my life, I have always been around gardening and growing plants, so in a way, it came to me quite naturally,” says Lim. In hindsight, the very lack of professional tutelage could be reason for his unbridled point of view. 

There is a certain sense of ambiguity to Lim’s creative process. Much like the ways of a sculptor, his hands are led by what he describes as a “feeling”. It is a cathartic experience. “It’s very emotional. A lot of my colleagues have cried after they have made something. And you know what, if you do not get emotional payback from this, don’t even do it because it’s not even worth the sweat and tears,” says Lim. 

Rooted in intent, which deviates from one project to another, each arrangement is a novel display of artistry. “You give different florists the same things to work with but the feeling that you get is so different. It’s very much like giving chefs a mystery box of ingredients and every chef interprets it differently. It’s exactly the same for flowers,” explains Lim. “Every time we think we have a formula, we break it.” 

The only rules the floristry renegade holds himself to are the ones concerned with spatial design. “The perimeters are actually very simple. For instance, you cluster the flowers for maximum effect and if you were working on a table arrangement, you can’t have it too high so that I would still be able to see the person seated across me,” explains Lim. 

John LimAt the botanical design studio, beauty is found even in drying leaves.
At the botanical design studio, beauty is found even in drying leaves.

Where there are no limiting precepts in place, Lim has tested the frontiers of floristry on multiple ends. “We are always trying to introduce dynamism into the work, whether it is actual dynamism or implicit dynamism,” says Lim. At Humid House, the psyche stretches as far as the mind can go. From introducing insects to its installations to hoisting fixtures the size of small cars in a ballroom, it’s all just another day at the office. 

As with most things so deeply imbued in expression and artistry, at Humid House, managing clients expectations and preserving individualistic, creative carte blanche is a tug of war match. “Sometimes it kills us but sometimes it helps us. It’s always been a struggle. When we get a brief that we don’t like, we try to encourage them to see an alternative but sometimes that doesn’t work and they hate it. It’s a matter of taste,” says Lim. 

Ultimately, Lim consciously seeks to inspire an emotion deeper than the oohs and aahs filled with awe. “For one, we always try to make an impact in the space we are in. We always try to delight people in a way that goes a step beyond commenting on some- thing’s beauty,” he says. 

For the man himself, what draws his attention is “something that is almost hinting at something else, there needs to be a point of view.” Essentially, that is the common thread that binds Humid House — a perspective.