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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 2:10AM   |  9 comments
Jesvin Yeo, Singapore designer and artist

Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival 

Jesvin and the Doll

When I met Jesvin for lunch at the sushi place on the NTU campus, she handed me her name card.  
Well, it wasn’t exactly the typical flat white card with her name, rank and university logo. Namecards are ubiquitous here in Southeast Asia, a social ritual where, upon meeting someone, you offer your name card with two hands, accept the other person's name card with two hands, and spend time admiring and analyzing the card.

Jesvin handed me something entirely different:   a small plastic doll about 3 inches high in an elegantly designed little brown box with curlicues. 
The doll was an avatar of Jesvin and Singapore’s multicultural heritage, with colors representing the different ethnic groups here:  black hair for Chinese, purple dress for Indian, green jacket for Malay.  She emphasized “it’s not Japanese design, it’s Singaporean.”  
Jesvin is a designer who shape-shifts effortlessly between the international commercial and art worlds. Her doll calling card, which fits one’s hand perfectly like an oversized chess piece, emblematizes the kind of epistemological surprises the emerge from the mixing of cultures, ideas and shapes in her art work.
Jesvin Yeo is a featured artist in the Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia exhibition I’ve been programming for the International Communication Association conference here in Singapore at the end of June.  We’ll be exhibiting 8 pieces of her Singapore Pangram series on the third floor of Suntec City as part of our Open Space installation exhibition. And she’ll be speaking on a Open Space panel called Open Space: The Permeable Spaces of New Media Installation. 
Jesvin was born in Singapore and is currently in the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University. 
Jesvin has worked in the creative industry as an art director and brand consultant for ten years in Singapore and the UK. She has experience working for multinational advertising agencies such as the Publicis Group, Young & Rubicam Inc, Ogilvy, and others.  As a designer, she’s fascinated by conceptual thinking, branding strategy, identity system, and package structuring. She researched and discovered Street Theatre Advertising, an advertising method that she introduced to London in 2003 and was later adopted by Nokia.
As a researcher on semantics of Asian cultural identity and knowledge visualization, Jesvin has published her findings and presented her works at several international conferences.  She also exhibits her creative works internationally. After you read my interview with her  below, you can see more of her work here:
The Interview
Patricia Zimmermann: What drew you to working in design in the first place?
Jesvin Yeo: It’s embarrassing to answer this question. I was always good in drawing and have a good sense of aesthetics. However, I had never though I could have an  career in the arts until I met my first boyfriend. He was a person that didn’t do well academically, but could draw skillfully. When he couldn’t get admitted to any junior college or polytechnic after O level, he convinced me to join him in a design school. So I quit my junior college studies for graphic design—at that time, an area that was utterly unknown to me. Somehow I knew that graphic design  suited me better than the study of economics.
PZ: You are a unique artist in that you have worked commercially and also in the art world. What do you see as the advantages of this shape-shifting between these two worlds?  How does your migration between the two influence your work?
JV: Because I worked as an art director for a decade, I have a tendency to question anything that is illogical or too self expressive. But like any other artist, my work also conveys a message—but I try to insure that my work has a clear single message that is not open to multiple interpretations by viewers. This strategy references the commercial world of design: one means one and two means two. The visual appearance of my work is simple and straightforward as well. My commercial background gives me  several advantages as a fine artist: I have more tools to work with, I have full control over the design of my exhibition catalogues and promotional kits, and I am also the designer of these materials.
PZ:  What do you see as the major conceptual/visual concerns of your art practice?  What are you exploring?
JV: My art practice has two directions. One is to promote or revisit what Singapore has. The other one is to create interesting learning experiences. My motto: inspired by the past, stimulated by the future
PZ: Your series of exquisite and provocative images Singapore Pangram, which make sort of poster art/high art around the linguistic practice of Singlish, exhibit an exciting mix, for me, of graphic design, handicraft, experimental imaging techniques, pop culture, and image density.  They work a fine line between the experimental and the accessible, with bright colors.  Can you explain the genesis of this idea, and some of your formal and sociological concerns in these works?
JV: In Singapore, there are many debates on whether or not to do away with Singlish. I felt that Singlish has evolved from many years of mixing languages---it truly shows Singapore's development as a multicultural nation. Doing away with Singlish is like erasing a huge chunk of Singapore's history. I believe that Singlish is a culture in Singapore, an infusion of east and west. Through Singapore Pangram, I aim to re-present Singlish in an interesting way to reconnect with fellow Singaporeans.
The experience of viewing the art pieces actually signifies the position of Singlish in our society. Singlish is always in the darkness, something Singapore is not proud of. You have to interact with Singlish in order to understand what it means. Singlish is like a shadow, not prominent, but it is always there and it cannot be disposed or dispensed with.
But of course, to be clear, the important part of Singapore Pangram is not to promote Singlish. Instead, the series hopes to influence or change how students and fellow Singaporeans look at our own culture, especially our cultural heritage in the context of this era of globalization.
PZ: Can you share with us the techniques you use to make the Singapore Pangram images?  Is there anything in the images that would identify them as "Singaporean" beyond the Singlish? Why are you attracted to exploring Singlish in a visual way?
JV: The media used to make Singapore Pangram is colour markers on canvas, a very unconventional combination. It is a mix of the commercial and art worlds. Canvas belongs to the art world, while colour markers are commonly used as commercial tools. In order to give the pieces an unrefined feel like Singlish, the production process is hand-made, computerized and hand-made again.
Actually, all the people or objects in the images are what we have here in Singapore. However, everything we have here is basically imported, so there is no distinctively Singaporean style. I think the yellow top black taxi might be the only cultural icon that can identify itself as “Singaporean”. It was the very first official taxi in Singapore.
I am a visual person. I am into visual research, visualization, visual as knowledge---so it is just natural that I will explore everything in a visual way.
PZ: What are you working on now?  What are some of the questions your work is exploring at the moment?
JV: I am working on a few things now: a book on tattoo and superstitious in Singapore Chinatown, interactive movies with RFID on experimental typography for my solo exhibitions in 2011. Beyond these specific projects,  I’m continually thinking about the exploration, methodologies and theories of visual research, how material culture serves as an inspirational tool for designer, the value of the material culture of Singapore, and the time and place of the material culture.


Being someone who has always been bad at drawing since young,I've always held great admiration and respect for people who can Draw and basically good in creating impressive artwork. For Jesvin, I guess it's an even more awesome experience because she's combining both her passion and her work into one!

It's really exciting to hear about The Singapore pangram as well. It is not only creative,innovative but at the same time provocative for one to view and analyse social situations through pieces of artwork. Jesvin mentioned the value of singlish in sg, and I agree that even though it has been such an integral part of our society, it is indeed a phenomenon tt singaporeans are very much ashamed about. It will thus be interesting to see how this phenomenon can be expressed through art and how they might reshaped the public's opinion about the 'dysfunctional english' in Singapore :P

I'm not really sure if I can quite agree with Sam's comment on Singaporeans being "very much ashamed about" Singlish. Personally, I think Singaporeans in general are embarrassed at being unable to switch between Singlish and English at the appropriate moments.

Like Jesvin said, in order to understand Singlish, one has to interact with it. And for some strange reason, I believe Singlish (and great exposure to Mandarin) has helped me pick up Mandarin at a faster rate. I think most of us don't even realise that we're using Singlish.

Prof Z, have you dropped a 'lah' in your sentences yet?

And leaving junior college studies for graphic design is truly admirable!

I totally agreed with Nurbaya that knowing how and when to use Singlish and Standard English appropriately is key, and it should starts from primary education. It is like everything else in life– striking a balance between work and play and eating in moderation. The young should be taught how to appropriately balance these two forms of communication early in age. The ability to speak Singlish will come as a natural process for them and educators should acknowledge that, and instead work harder on teaching proper English, not to counter the former but to work on building a strong English foundation for the young to decide for themselves in future which form of communication will be more appropriate in a particular situation. Singlish may be a broken language but it reflects the personality and characteristics of the Singapore society – to be quick on our feet, to take short-cuts if necessary, to work hard, and to achieve the ultimate goal no short of quality, and to gain access to a portion of society which do not have the ability to receive good education. It is also a culture which has sprouted out of this multi-racial society, if you remember that Singapore was born out of an island of immigrants with no natural resources but the people alone, and we should embrace this product as uniquely ours.
I am glad that I have chose graphic design over economics. I am bliss that I am able to do what I like and capable in as a career.

singaporeans might be embarrassed by singlish, but boy, that's the first language out our mouth when we meet overseas. it's like a local dialect of sorts. i was just at the World Expo in Shanghai, and while the exhibits in the Singapore Pavilion were interesting, nothing cured the nagging bit of homesickness like a conversation in singlish. (and like true blue singaporeans, we were bitching about the dismal Singaporean food available at there.)

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Great article, thanks.

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