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Global Landscapes Singapore: An Interview with artist Ella Spira MBE on art and life

Artist Ella Spira is a woman of many talents – she’s a Grammy nominated composer, painter and theatre producer. Active in the arts since the age of 16, Ella has worked with companies as diverse as The Royal Ballet, BAFTA, BBC, Arakan Creative, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Ministry of Sound, and Universal Music. And that’s not even the half of it – Ella’s work also includes award-winning, world-touring live musical theatre productions that have been featured at London’s Royal Variety Performance, Hampton Court Palace and Royal Albert Hall, including the Grammy nominated ‘INALA’ and critically-acclaimed ‘Voices of the Amazon’. If anything, Ella is all about finding cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary, global collaborations that spotlight and celebrate different cultures through the arts, and spread that spirit of collaboration to the millions who’ve seen her work.

Most recently, Ella dropped by Singapore to launch and promote her latest art project, ‘Global Landscapes Singapore’ at Art Now gallery, in the Raffles Hotel Arcade, diving into her work as a visual artist. Containing six individual paintings and a series of charcoals, Global Landscape Singapore celebrates the richness of life in and around the island, and presents Singapore as a city that values natural resources and has kept nature as part of its urban landscape.

Speaking to Ella, we found out more about how she came to enter the visual arts world, and how has it been for the art world in the wake of re-opening. With how difficult things have been in the post COVID times, Ella explains the current situation in the UK with regards to the arts scene. “At the moment, I think the industry is largely relying on the big players to take the financial risk. For the independent companies, like myself with Sisters Grimm, we’re being pragmatic about it, and waiting for more confidence before coming back in full,” she says.

However, that doesn’t stop Ella and her team from forming big plans for the year ahead and beyond, with the hope to relaunch Inala in the West End, amidst other potential projects. “It’s been a lot about staying positive amidst the odds, and I believe that the arts are paramount to pushing us towards that,” she says. “Art has a broad and diverse role to play, and beyond escapism or pushing forward certain mindsets, we settle into the role of supporting social change through using art to evoke positive emotions for audiences that helps progression in a different way.”

Social change has always been at the core of everything Ella and her team does, often helping employing people who don’t have as many opportunities due to socioeconomic status, and making this especially known to families, and to make it known that the arts is an industry with real career opportunities and potential. These extend to longstanding relationships with entities and charities such as the Prince’s Trust, and continually garnering conversations about how to broaden their reach and message.

Why then has Ella decided to come to Singapore? Spira’s Singapore work has already proved popular with collectors. Singapore-based and Chinese investor Jack Tao fell under the spell of Ella Spira’s Banyan Tree painting and recently acquired it for GBP250,000 (SGD$404,762). He went on to commission Spira to create the Global Landscape Singapore. “I’m very proud to be one of the few women who sells work at that kind of level. I decided then that I wanted to produce a body of work here, and use that opportunity as a platform to continue to grow my already positive relationship with Singapore, and also help grow the arts industry here,” says Ella. “Even though we’re not based in Singapore, we look in from the outside and think about what we can offer, and how we can connect to people. I genuinely love Singapore, and I think it’s all about how diverse the climate and people are, this easy connection between East and West, and it’s been therapeutic to be here and develop new work.”

In her exhibition ‘Global Landscapes Singapore’, part of the ongoing Global Landscapes Series, Ella continues the series where she creates a series of paintings inspired by nature, as well as matching it to a new score to turn her work into a multi-sensory experience. These are also opportunities for Ella to collaborate with local artists to create more connections through her work. Spira’s paintings celebrate cultural explorations and musical collaborations. Through her paintings, Spira seeks to capture and share global landscapes and the human interventions within it. Singapore marks the third in the Global Landscapes series, following editions celebrating Dubai and Albania.

“I’ve always been a painter, but never really thought of it as something I wanted to market until now. Often, my paintings would be gifts only to my nearest and dearest, and I don’t accept commissions, as I didn’t want people dictating what I was painting,” explains Ella, about her work. “But over the pandemic, I leaned into painting more and more, and it ended up becoming a routine and ritual. When we went to the UAE, I was thinking a lot more about what natural landscapes existed there, and how I wanted to bring it out through painting.”

“For me, art is something that is created with intent, and creates a story behind it. Everyone can go to class and learn art but not everyone is an artist. If you look at a Rothko painting and didn’t know the origin and what he was facing, then you wouldn’t fully appreciate what it is about, and so it is important that people also understand these unseen, unknown layers behind the work itself,” adds Ella. “And in my work, I hope that it continues to push this celebration of diversity in other cultures, and welcome and introduce audiences to these cultures, adapting it to match each space it finds itself in for maximum effect and to turn it into an experience, not just a painting alone.”

Behind all the effort, the aim of Ella’s work is ultimately to promote diversity, which she believes is absolutely fundamental to societal progression. “If we all have a bit more interaction with others, we can learn to empathise more and perhaps wouldn’t have as many barriers. I want to continue to produce work that keeps breaking those barriers down, whether because of age or socioeconomic status or race,” says Ella. “And even when it comes to the administrative side, we have policies where we invite and bring in young people who’ve never been in the theatre before to watch our shows. This is part of our social impact initiative, which offers a portion of tickets free and accessible for people in need. Watching these different groups of people sitting side by side, it helps challenge prejudices in a more soft approach. There needs to be more incentives for corporations or high net worth individuals to support the arts, and the more money comes in, the less pressure there is for presenters and producers.”

And of course in their shows themselves, from Inala to Voice of the Amazon, Ella believe that cultures they collaborate with and the way they present shows is tantamount to giving a voice to other people. That is why even in this exhibition, Ella has opted to collaborate with local artists, with her paintings accompanied by photographs taken by Singaporean photographer Rebecca Toh and the score she composed played by Singaporean cellist Olivia Chuang and incorporates the sound of Rebecca’s camera click as well as the sound of Singapore thunder storms.

“These are artists I want to invite into the space to be showcased alongside me, and create this audiovisual experience together, creating this emotional effect that stays with someone,” says Ella. “I do believe that fundamentally we are all wired to care for each other, and I believe most people care, most people want to do good things, and people who do bad things only really do so out of fear. Sometimes we have to remind people of the things they need to care about, over status or what clothes we wear, and it is my job as an artist to guide people back to things that matter.”

Collaboration is a central tenet of Ella Spira’s artistic work; her encounter with Toh led to an artistic meeting of minds: Toh was given an all access to Ella, to create an intimate portrait of her and bring home what it is to be an artist. The outcome of this collaboration is a series of intimate, closely shot photographs, in which Toh has captured the soul of her fellow artist. They are not posed, but rather taken free flow, in the moment, which is Toh’s hallmark photography. Rebecca Toh’s portraits of Spira lift the veil of her innermost self to reveal the unadorned woman and her emotions, creating moments of true connection.

“I remember my own experience where I grew up in a rough area, and we had teachers who put protective bubbles around certain students, and I was a beneficiary of that. I was set up with two singers, one of whom was a Black British person and the other mixed race, and we wrote a song about diversity that received airplay, and partly led me to where I am today,” says Ella. “Diversity was always important to me; I grew up with African and Caribbean musicians and my parents are artists too, and we had all these different musical influences. That’s why collaboration remains key, and a fundamental part of what I do.”

“Not everyone has to collaborate, but I have always held the belief that those who can and do collaborate produce very strong work and help each other say what they want to, as long as there is space for people with something authentic and true to say,” she adds. “I’m extremely proud that people I collaborate with are always in my corner, and I’m in theirs. If I’m ever in trouble, I know they’d be there for me and vice versa, being pillars of strength for each other.”

Ultimately, looking at the bigger picture, Ella hopes her work will go above and beyond just being art, to providing opportunities for her collaborators, and act as a platform to showcase what such collaboration can do, and to shine the spotlight on issues and artists that matter to her. “What we do is always about increasing the social impact of our shows, whether it’s accessibility in the form of offering free exhibition views to members of the public and students, or even how I have plans to run a programme for schools offering piano lessons for young people,” says Ella. “We look at both the macro and micro approach to achieving all this, but fundamentally, we hope that with our work, I want people to laugh a bit more, and to feel uplifted.”

More information about Ella Spira and Sisters Grimm on their respective websites.