Issue 118 | Jul-Sep 2019

The Journey to a Life of Art

Mr Shabbir Hussain Mustafa (Arts and Social Sciences + USP ’07) talks about his journey to becoming one of the most notable museum curators in the region.


Mr Shabbir Hussain Mustafa is a Senior Curator at National Gallery Singapore. He curated artist Charles Lim’s work Sea State, representing Singapore at the 2015 Venice Biennale. He also received the prestigious 2017 Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) International Scholarship For Artists in Berlin, Germany.

To hear Mr Shabbir Hussain Mustafa tell the tale of how he went from a teenage undergraduate to senior curator at the National Gallery of Singapore, one is very likely to think that the native Sri Lankan has extraordinary luck. Even the soft-spoken 35-year-old seems somewhat surprised at his own meteoric rise in the curatorial world. But while serendipity might have played a part, his success is largely the result of his hard work, innate curiosity and openness to explore possibilities.

Mr Mustafa arrived in Singapore on 15 July 2003 and was enrolled in the Political Science department at NUS’ Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “I grew up in Sri Lanka,” says the son of a polyglot Gujarati businessman father and a homemaker mother who used to be a linguist. “It’s a beautiful place, it has history and aesthetics, and there was also the civil war. The war affected us in ways that I didn’t fully realise at the time — I was doing Business Studies for the ‘A’ Levels when our teacher migrated overseas. It was eight months to exams! Since I had access to the textbook and past-year papers, I began to read the book on my own, and self-study. I was English-educated, motivated — I could do this.” Sure enough, he scored As. He chose to continue his studies in Singapore because the country’s work ethic and pragmatism appealed to him.

In his first semester, Mr Mustafa took two classes in South Asian Studies under Professor Gyanesh Kudaisya, who suggested Mr Mustafa interview with his wife Dr Medha Kudaisya, for the University Scholars Programme. Mr Mustafa credits his father for teaching him to think. “We’d drive around Colombo with my sister, listening to the radio. He’d talk about culture, moving freely from the Beatles to Buddhism to the price of rice. My upbringing made me ready for USP,” he reflects, as the programme was suited to his penchant for asking the right questions, analysis and research. 

In 2007, with an Honours in Political Science under his belt, he embarked on his MA in History and South Asian Studies. During his undergraduate years, he had served as Prof Kudaisya’s research assistant: “I wanted to continue working under his supervision.” In his third year, Mr Mustafa “accidentally” joined the NUS Museum, which focuses on Asian regional art and culture. “My friend Wang Zineng (Arts and Social Sciences ’07) — who was also in USP — and I were sitting in the USP ‘Chatterbox’, a place for reading, meeting and talking. Zineng said ‘Do you want to make some cash?’ He brought me to the NUS Museum and there I met Ahmad Mashadi (Arts and Social Sciences ’91), the head of NUS Museum. He showed me a series of photographs. One set of family portraits done by the Dutch-Indonesian artist Tino Djumini titled “Relatives” or Kerabat. The second set was of people’s homes. Their “interiors” or Dalam, by the Malaysian photographer Simryn Gill. Ahmad said, ‘if you were tasked to write about these images, how would you approach it?” Surprisingly I did not freeze! I talked about how remembering the past is always linked to an image — every image is a delicacy and danger. I got commissioned to write the essay and was paid $300!”.

That was the first of many assignments and the start of Mr Mustafa’s sojourn into the curatorial world. He spent much time reading and talking to Mr Mashadi, eventually curating his first exhibition. “Ahmad showed me the power of juxtaposition — what happens when objects are placed next to each other,” he says. 

Through my work, I began to meet these incredible artists and thinkers. Imagine you’re getting paid to think about the world and its manifold realities!

Working the Ground

When Mr Mustafa graduated, Mr Mashadi offered him a job at NUS Museum. “I came to work every day for five years, and it was like attending a masterclass! This generosity I experienced from both Prof Kudaisya and Ahmad continues to this day,” he says. “Through my work, I began to meet these incredible artists and thinkers. Imagine you’re getting paid to think about the world and its manifold realities!” Mr Mustafa was on the team that developed Prep-Room, an experimental space where the audience observes the exhibition-making process. In 2016, Prep-Room won the NUS Museum the University Museums and Collections Award from the International Council of Museums. 

Little did Mr Mustafa know that Prep-Room would lead him to the next level of his career. “When the naturalist Dr Lim Chuan Fong approached Ahmad to say he was in possession of a seashell collection of great significance to Singapore, we went to meet him,” he explains. “His house was filled with seashells! What also caught my eye was a photograph from the 1950s — of the Raffles Lighthouse in Pulau Satumu, Singapore’s southernmost territorial marker.” That photograph became the trigger for the inaugural Prep-Room project. Mr Mustafa roped in Ms Fiona Tan (Arts and Social Sciences ’12), then a History undergraduate — and who now works at the National Archives of Singapore — who began to research the Raffles Lighthouse, which by that point had all but disappeared from public knowledge. Later, Mr Mashadi suggested the artist and former Olympic sailor Mr Charles Lim Yi Yong as possible collaborator. The two hit it off — even getting on a boat to check out the lighthouse — and their three-year collaboration resulted in In Search Of Raffles’ Light — An Art Project with Charles Lim, an experimental exhibition at the NUS Museum in 2013. 

That same year, Mr Mustafa moved on to the National Gallery, where he oversaw the team that inaugurated the DBS Singapore Gallery in 2015, a long-term exhibition dedicated to the survey of Singapore art from the 19th century to the present. That exhibition too bears a curious title – Siapa Nama Kamu? (What is Your Name?) as he observes “artworks are always willing to tell us stories. My role was to develop a space that could allow for this to happen”. Currently he oversees the UOB Southeast Asia Galleries – a multi-year-long project where he builds the story of art from ASEAN part by part. 


mustafa-2SIAPA NAMA KAMU? 

A multi-year project that features over 400 works of art that surveys art in Singapore from the 19th century to the present.  

A multi-year project that traces the story of contemporary art in Southeast Asia and its engagement with global artistic concerns.  

Borderless Ambitions

In 2015, as a Senior Curator, Mr Mustafa again worked with Mr Lim, representing Singapore at the Venice Biennale. “In Venice, we presented selections from Charles’ Sea State, a 10-part multimedia work that began in 2005, that captured Singapore’s complex relationship with the sea through land reclamation. The exhibition received rave reviews from the international art world. “I was told by the National Arts Council that the SIngapore pavilion did very well in terms of marketing dollars too,” he adds. 

Recently, Mr Mustafa, whose partner is Iranian designer and artist Ms Leila Shirazi, has been curating projects outside Singapore, notably leading Malaysian artist Latiff Mohidin’s Pago Pago (1960-1969), a joint exhibition last year by Centre Pompidou in France and National Gallery Singapore. Mr Mohidin was the first Southeast Asian artist to be featured at the Pompidou. It was also the National Gallery’s first travelling exhibition. Next up is an exhibition by the artist Ahmad Fuad Osman at the National Art Gallery of Malaysia, which will open in October.

Although his career has moved from one milestone to the next, Mr Mustafa is hesitant about the concept of excellence. “I don’t think ‘achieving’ is a very productive way of looking at excellence. Perhaps excellence is the difference between what you know and what you think you know — I come to work thinking I can bridge that,” he says, adding, “but I’ll never bridge that.” But that doesn’t stop him from aspiring, and sharing with audiences. “We must engage the public from the perspective of narration, be storytellers,” he explains, adding that he enjoys giving talks at the Gallery. “I just grab a stool, sometimes with an artist, and we sit and talk to people. It’s important to bridge what we know and what we think we know.” 

Text by Theresa Tan. Photo by Aik Chen
Load more comments
Thank you for the comment! Your comment must be approved first