There are not many people you meet who have such unique personalities they leave strong impressions on you. Raina Kim Li is one such person. She reminds me of a cocktail of Holly Golightly meets Daria—girly, intelligent,eloquent, artistic, nonchalantly aloof, nice, and very original. I met her in architecture school and I remember those short, flouncy skirts that were her uniform.
There is a memory I have of some of us in the attic of her house working on a presentation for architecture theory class. It’s big and quite empty and against the walls there are some canvases leaning quietly; a path of light streams in from the window, so bright I can see specks of dust dancing in the beam.
In April this year, this memory came back to me as I stood in Raina’s new art gallery. She held an exhibition there from 9 to 12 April entitled ‘Double Lives: The Works of Hyphenated Artists” with several friends who dabble in art alongside their other roles/careers. The Gentle Beast Art Club is a place to be discovered in Geylang. In the second storey of a shophouse, the light bathes the space in an atmospheric glow. The mood is casual, rather guerrilla. Here, I see for the first time intently, Raina’s art on the walls, each a physical metaphor of a time, place, mood, memory or idea.
Raina is mom to two-year-old Christopher and has just given birth to a second son. She was heavily pregnant when we met at the art gallery that is open via appointment. We ask her some questions about her art, architecture and motherhood. Her answers are truly inspiring.
What’s the most poetic thing about being a mother to you, and what’s the most underrated?
It is very hard to express motherhood in words, what more poetry. Motherhood is the deepest profundity wrapped up in the most mundane. There is so much that it calls forth in you and out of you that you discover that your heart (and your body!) grows many sizes to accommodate a life larger than your own. At the same time, so much of your daily routine as a full-time mother can also be so painfully under-stimulating, physically demanding and burdensome that there is little room for poetry and ideals. Minutes and hours are filled with poop, food, little sleep, cleaning and funny talk. It really brings you in touch with the raw basic materiality of being human. I am fairly sure why you are asking me about why motherhood is underrated is because it is often seen as the lesser path when mothers choose to leave their careers to be mothers. It is seen as less fabulous, less exciting, less feminist, less strong. But I say screw the labels, there is nothing stronger than being a mother and one must fight the human nature to compare. You must forge your own way of parenting, and it is wise to trust in yourself and God more than whatever the current views of being a women are in modern society.
You grew up with three brothers. That must make you experienced in understanding boys! Were there any surprises when it came to your own son?
Growing up with boys is hilarious and also vexing when coming of age. The great thing about that is you never feel uncomfortable with being around guys. The most surprising thing about Christopher is that he isn’t your typical idea of a rambunctious little boy. He inherited his father’s careful nature and is extremely cautious about everything, from socialising to his food or things like walking down the stairs. I am extremely grateful for that, although I wonder how I can encourage him to be more adventurous. He is also an obsessively neat freak. From the moment he could, he has been lining things up—chairs, lego toys, pens and pencils, spoons. Anything that can be arranged and ordered into a line of pattern, he will do.
You’re Singaporean and your husband is Chilean. What is the kind of lifestyle/culture do you intend for your children to grow up in?
My husband and I decided to relocate because of a job offer at Google. We both also have a severe case of wanderlust, which is still hard to suppress! We never intended to stay long, the timeframe we had in mind was one to three years max before Christopher goes to proper school. We’ve actually just relocated back to Singapore because of some unexpected pregnancy complications during the first half of my pregnancy. We do intend to spend most of our children’s schooling years in Singapore as we do believe that the basic education here is pretty solid. Also, having a very engaged family life with the big family that I come from is important to us. Christopher has two cousins of the same age and another two who are two years younger so he will have plenty of playmates here. Culture-wise, we will have to plan trips to Chile often on top of speaking Spanish at home so that he understands the two cultures he comes from. My husband often sings and plays the nursery songs he grew up with and we get books and educational material sent over by my husband’s mum.
Do you integrate design/art into your children’s lives, intentional or otherwise?
Unintentionally, I think the question of taste will definitely be transmitted to Christopher. But I believe a lot of well-designed or well-made goods that are targeted at kids come at such a steep premium (what’s new?) that I don’t believe in buying them. For my husband and I, we dislike how consumeristic kid-culture has become. It’s almost as if leaving your child in a park or green patch to poke around at sticks and bark has become seen as disengaged parenting. In terms of design and art, we would like to stick to activities that we grew up with. For example, I would not pay for my two year old to join an art class but I will play with water-colours and markers with him. If he says he is drawing a horse, I encourage him to draw more, even if it looks nothing like a horse. At this age, I am reluctant to judge the products of play because all too soon, it will happen inevitably. That said, I do have a certain weakness for beautifully drawn books and that is where my unnecessary spending largely happens.
Are you still practicing architecture? How did you come to be interested in doing architecture and who are your architecture heroes?
I stopped practicing when we relocated to the States. After returning, I occasionally chip in my opinion on my dad’s projects but that is about all the architecture that is left in my life. There are times when I do miss it a lot and I would not say that I will not return to it in some other way. I would say my first love has always been art, but growing up in Singapore, I was told it wasn’t the practical thing to do for a living . I had good grades in both the humanities and sciences but with art school out of the conversation, I was at a loss as to what to pursue. My dad started off being an architect before he got into development, so he sold it to me pretty convincingly when I had to choose a field of study. I would say that I’ve always massively looked up to him and I still do. I love the works of Herzog & deMeuron, Michelangelo and also Thomas Heatherwick.
How did you come to be interested in making art? What is Rei and what is the Gentle Beast Art Club? Can you tell me about the kind of art you are interested in doing and how you manage to squeeze in time for making your art while looking after Christopher?
When I was 14, I managed to persuade my dad to buy me a very tiny box of oil paints after visiting a Tresor’s gallery exhibition ( I don’t see that name around anymore). I immediately fell for the way the medium felt even when using it with completely no information on how to. On and off from then, I would hide in this neglected corner of the Geylang shophouse we grew up in and paint in the afternoon after school. I have had long stretches without doing art at all. But now I intend to make it a part of my life as a mother-artist.
I started signing off as Rei as a kind of artist pen-name when I started to do small commissions. There is a deeper story to that regarding the lack of confidence and self-value regarding that transition into becoming an artist. But I would rather speak about that initmately in person.
Studio work in GSAPP Columbia University introduced me to some theories of trace, affect and a field effects, with the emphasis on non-representation and non-figuration. A great deal of the coursework was also focused on materiality, so all of that has always been in the background of my mind and forms a strong subconscious driver when it comes to making art. I instinctively gravitate towards abstract expressionism and am seeking lightness and endurance in my work despite that being a kind of paradox given my medium.
Gentle Beast Art Club came about when I returned from the states and because of my hyperemesis, was for a long time bed-ridden. I was greatly incapacitated and insanely bored and needed a short-term project to work on. My youngest brother, Guoquan, together with my husband, Diego listened to many entrpreneurial schemes that I came up with and in the end advised me to stick to what I love doing most and materialise it as a short-term project given my looming due date. When I reconnected with Sy Lyng, an architect friend from my New York days, she helped me envision a space that facilitated a growing community of creatives because we were lammenting on the lack of non-institutionalized channels available to emerging artists.
Finding the time to make art when being a new mother is the hardest. After Christopher was born, I started with small naptime sketches and really only started carving out proper chunks of time when he started going to playschool. I used to feel so torn between my internal need for creative space and time and not missing out on Christopher’s precious growing years. It was only after I accepted that there are just seasons for each that it no longer became a source of internal struggle. Soon enough when my second son is born, it will be the season to be full-time mummy again.
What is the latest piece you have been working on? Can you tell me more about it?
My latest pieces have been in acrylic, given that it is the pregnancy-friendly alternative to oils. I usually work on more than one piece at a time. It is a completely new medium and I am still trying to come to terms with it. Funnily, my style in this medium has greatly shifted because of where I’m at in life right now and because of the quick-drying time of acrylics. I’ve also become more pre-occupied with colours, mostly because of all the interior decorative work I’ve been doing recently, my bad Instagram habit and my addiction to Wes Anderson films. I also feel like colours are something that I have not fully played with in range and scope yet.
Has becoming a mother influenced your art?
Yes. I cannot help but feel a huge shift in outlook when it comes to motherhood and art. Previously, my art was very driven by a internal struggle, and there used to be a form of—for lack of a better word—darkness to it. When I make art or encounter the works of other artists, I would say that I have developed a keen sense of whether the depth of a work is born of darkness. I have since been seeking another source of depth. Becoming a mother has made me so much more decisive, and forgiving in my work. Now I am very much interested in finding that ‘wholeness’ that is described in Chinese calligraphic works. Even though I am far from the embodiment of that quality in my works, I am a lot more patient with the process of getting there.
You have a very unique sense of style I remember from our younger college days—girly and womanly at the same time is how I would describe it. What are your pregnancy staples in dressing the bump?
Comfort is king. I speak from being what my gynaecologist calls the unfortunate two per cent who have exceptionally difficult pregnancies. When I’m pregnant, I get heat rashes almost at the slightest agitation or as the days get hotter and this carries well into my breast-feeding phase. Polyester, which is everywhere, has become the sole bane of my life and I would tell any pregnant woman to invest in natural fabrics. Go for cotton jersey, or light cotton voiles and always check that the linings are in cotton as well. Try to stick to clothes that you can also wear after pregnancy, and you don’t have to buy from maternity lines for that. I love button down tops or safari dresses that you can use when breast feeding too. Maxi-dresses and light kaftans are awesomely bohemian and I usually stay away from maternity pants as they cost a bomb and you can’t use them once your baby is out.
What dreams did you want to accomplish when you were a child, and what dreams are still left unaccomplished?
When I was a child, I wanted to be an artist and I also wanted to be a pilot. I’ve done my basic solo in junior college when I was a member of the Youth Flying Club but I never became a pilot. That much will continue to remain unaccomplished. Now that I’m in my thirties, I feel like my second life has begun and hopefully being an artist will work out for me.
Please complete this sentence: Play to me is:
That space and moment you get when you are free to do and explore whatever you are curious about without worrying about the consequences.
+ art and studio images courtesy of Raina Kim Li
+ portraits by Playground