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Khairullah Rahim
Photograph: Time Out Singapore / Ahmad Iskandar Photography

Singapore Biennale artist Khairullah Rahim stands up for marginalised communities with his art

His works touch upon the plight of gay men, drag queens, Indian migrant workers and domestic helpers in Singapore

Dewi Nurjuwita
Written by
Dewi Nurjuwita

Khairullah’s career happened almost serendipitously after he graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts. Now a part-time lecturer and a renowned artist, Khai creates primarily through assemblage – with commonplace items he finds around the city such as shower heads, signages, concrete blocks and broken-off bits of road curbs. In fact, that forms the basis of his Singapore Biennale 2019 commission, Intimate Apparitions.

I’ve always dealt with presenting stories of communities – particularly the marginalised. More often than not, these are the minority groups. For my Singapore Biennale piece, Intimate Apparitions, I worked with these communities: particularly gay men, drag queens, Indian migrant workers and domestic helpers. I was interested in how they utilise space. For instance, Indian migrant workers who come together every weekend to meet at empty fields, transforming them into cricket pitches.

Khairullah Rahim

Photograph: Ahmad Iskandar Photography

I don’t particularly think about or try to define my niche. Maybe my working style or process could be a bit different. But then again, I’m sure all artists think that way. If anything, what stands out is my willingness to embrace this sense of ‘making do’.

I got into art by accident. Maybe it’s a very naive beginning but I’ve always been interested in drawing. I joined LASALLE thinking that I wanted to pursue interior design. In Singapore, a lot of us have been programmed to think about practicality, and I figured I could make a living from that. But when I was going through my foundation programme, one of my lecturers encouraged me to consider the fine arts and I thought, ‘yeah, why not?’.

I’ve learnt to embrace change and let go of what I had in mind initially. I usually have an idea. There’s a sketchbook, there’s always a visual. But more often than not, it’s always a blur. Most of the time, things will change midway.

I didn’t decide to be an artist, it’s an innate thing. Things worked out for me and I really enjoy and feel for the craft. I definitely feel an affinity for art-making so I decided to just do it. Ten years later, here I am. It comes with a fair bit of challenges and obstacles – but it’s something I love.

The audience should embrace their own judgment instead of relying on given things. There is definitely more interest in art now but like any partnership, this is a two-way street. The responsibility lies with the viewers as well. 

Khairullah Rahim

Ahmad Iskandar Photography

Who knows if I’ll end up doing something else? I am quite sceptical as a person. But I’m pleasantly surprised I’ve lasted this long. Especially here in Singapore. It’s always at the back of my head – how much longer can I do this?

This interview is part of our February to April issue. You can download the digital version here

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