Singaporean performance artist Lee Wen has been awarded the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art, making him the 2nd recipient of the award since it was first presented in 2015. Wen was shortlisted for the award last year, but was beaten out by Indonesian performance artist FX Harsono.
The award comes with a US$15,000 cash prize, which Wen told the Straits Times he will share with this year’s two other finalists, Aye Ko from Myanmar and Nguyen Trinh Thi from Vietnam.
The Joseph Balestier Award – presented jointly by Art Stage Singapore and the US Embassy in Singapore – was named after the US’ first diplomatic representative to Singapore. Today’s US Ambassador to Singapore, Kirk Wagar, said the award ‘honors artists 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.’
Ambassador Wagar added, ‘There is no stronger voice for freedom of expression in art in Singapore than Lee Wen, who has spent his life speaking truth to power. His artistic legacy has been recognized – his works are included in the collection of Singapore’s National Gallery – and we want to ensure his honesty and moral courage are fully recognized as well. I hope that this award will encourage Lee Wen to continue producing great works and show other Singaporean artists that there is more than one road to success.’
In 1994, the Singaporean government imposed a 10-year ban on funding all performance art after a controversial performance by Josef Ng, nonetheless Wen continued to practice performance art. When the ban was lifted in 2004, Wen, alongside art curator Khairuddin Hori and fellow artists Jason Lim and Kai Lam, began Future of Imagination in an effort to develop and promote performance art.