The public servant and his paintings

Walk past Mervin Singham’s art studio, and you’ll probably hear Nina Simone, possibly some Tchaikovsky, or even classical Indian music. 

Poke your head inside and you’ll find the public servant absorbed in painting. 

Art has long been part of Singham’s life, even through his time as a human rights lawyer and now as chief executive at the Ministry of Ethnic Communities. 

Reunion by Mervin Singham. Singham's art was shaped in part by a rebellion from 'perfect' art.

“I've been painting for about 20 years and exhibiting for about 16 years of that,” the Malaysian-born artist says. 

However, how he paints now is very different from when he first started on his artistic journey. 

“I think my art is a bit of rebellion from my childhood. I grew up in a very orthodox, Asian family.”  

Singham grew up in Malaysia, where his parents had a heavy focus on education, rather than creative pursuits. Some of his first memories of trying out art was an attempt to draw a perfect mermaid, with his colours all inside the lines. He also learnt about the ‘right’ way to use colours – bright ones for happy things, dark ones for bad things.  

But since those early days, his art has evolved. 

“When I came to New Zealand as a young man, I began to realize 'hey I've got all this freedom here. I can do things differently.' That started coming through in my art,” Singham says. 

He started experimenting with different techniques and using colours in different ways.  

The Bird Catcher by Mervin Singham.

“That's why the colours that I use can be quite contradictory to what the pictures are trying to say. It's almost like a form of rebellion,” Singham says.  

These days when he paints, Singham will usually lock himself away in his studio, put his music on and get lost in his art. His work is dictated a lot by emotions and colour – what is he feeling, or what is the world feeling? What colour does that look like? 

The process may take some time – Singham says he may dab a colour onto the canvas, only to realise that’s not what he wanted, or he doesn’t like the look of it. If mistakes like that happen, he builds them into his painting.  

“[A mistake] is like a scar that we get. But it's beautiful. All the wrong things or mistakes in our lives add depth of character and layers of richness to our lives. That's how I see my canvas as well. If I put something on and it's not quite what I wanted, I try not to completely hide the mistake because I think it adds a texture." 

"The wonderous thing about it is the sense of feeling that comes from it, that process of just being completely authentically yourself without worrying about what others think.” 

Laundry Day by Mervin Singham.

Over the last two years of the pandemic, Singham has been channelling his creative energy into 14 pieces of work which will be exhibited at Exhibitions Gallery in Wellington from August 11. 

Titled Reverence, the exhibition is a reflection on the last few years and the “general gloomery” that has been happening.  

“I went, 'oh my goodness, what's going on in the world? How will we all come out of this?'."

He lists things like the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and rising inequality as a part of this "gloomery" in the world, but at the same time, he has a reverence for how the world and the people in it have come through.

"We can get better. We can heal. People are good.” 

He painted his current collection throughout the pandemic, sometimes working in bursts or on several at once, and says creating art brings another dimension to his role as a public servant.

"I'm more effective when I'm doing something creative," Singham says. Being creative helps him with problem-solving in the professional word, while he also draws inspiration from aspects of his job - "From the people around me, the people in the community that just keep beavering away and doing the right thing."

As his paintings move out of his studio and into the Exhibition Gallery, Singham says his art always starts to look a bit different once it’s up on the wall in a public space. 

There is a vulnerability in sharing art in public, but Singham hopes people will see his message of hope in his latest exhibition.

Reverence will run from Thursday 11 August to 3 September at Exhibitions Gallery of Fine Art, 20 Brandon Street, Wellington.  

- Asia Media Centre