The interplay of tiles, fabric, ink and diverse cultures form the basis of paintings and murals of Singapore-based artist and art educator Milica Bravacic. We visit her at her studio off Portsdown Road to find out more.
“Tiles can be moved up and down to create different things, like a puzzle, or to tell a story. It’s playful, like a modular painting that moves and change,” explains Milica Bravacic, whose signature style is inspired by wall tiles and the imprints they make on different media. For a better part of the last decade, much of Milica’s work has been inspired by the artwork found on Peranakan tiles glimpsed from heritage hotspots such as Emerald Hill and Blair Road. Her passion for working with these basic building blocks of architectural design goes much further back.
Hailing from the quaint Mediterranean city of Dubrovnik with its old, stone buildings of a uniform grey, the cacophony of colours of the tiled buildings she came across while on a visit to Lisbon ignited curiousity in the artistic potential of the humble tile. Portugal may have provided the spark but it would be Singapore that fanned the flame. “The tiles here are a mix of Chinese, Victorian and Edwardian influences and the colours affected me in a completely different way,” she says. “I experimented by printing in monochrome, on textiles, on silk, on rice paper. It was fascinating to see how the different surfaces reacted to same paint.”
Since 2008, Milica Bravacic has been operating out of her ground floor home-studio in the artistic enclave that is Wessex Estate. Originally from what is modern-day Croatia although she much prefers the phrase “former Yugoslavia”, Milica was born in Sarajevo in 1958, and spent her formative years studying costume design at the Academy of Applied Arts in Belgrade and then went on to complete her Masters in painting from the Belgrade University of Fine Arts in 1985. Since then, she has exhibited throughout Europe where many of her paintings are in private collections. Her work can also be found in the modern gallery of the Gulbenkrian foundation in Lisbon, and the Modern Art Gallery in Dubrovnik. Closer to home, Milica’s mural, Blair Road, has been on display at the Esplanade since 2006.
While Milica’s stint in Singapore as an artist has been relatively productive, the fact is, for a long time, much of her efforts in the field were focused on playing the role of educator instead of artist. In the mid 1990s, she left Europe and followed her then husband, who had accepted a job offer in Singapore. Milica soon found work teaching art and art history at NAFA, and then LaSalle. She would also offer extensive courses in portfolio preparation, to help art students seeking admission into top art colleges.
Back to school
Even as a teacher, Milica’s approach to her students was unconventional. “Young artists usually do not have any perspective, they don’t know what they want to say,” she adds. “Or if they do, they don’t trust their judgment completely.” Milica sees her role as that of transforming this unsure art student into someone who knows what they want, articulates this clearly and then goes on to develop their own technique. “As an artist, it is important you know how to define yourself. Otherwise, a curator might try to define you in a way you don’t want to be defined,” she says.
On a separate note, the idea that there are significant numbers of parents here who, actively support and encourage (rather than threaten to disinherit) their offspring to pursue an art education, admittedly comes as a surprise. “An interest in art comes with money – it’s as simple as that. When parents feel safe, they are willing to risk,” says Milica matter-of-fact. “So out of three kids, one can study art. But at the best schools…St Martin’s….Parsons. These are extremely expensive schools located in extremely expensive places to live.”
Back to work
Not all of her students are pimpled teenagers Milica reveals that she has taught more than a few “artistic adventurers” – more mature students who had built up careers elsewhere and who now wanted the skills to make the move from corporate cubicle to artist’s studio. The funny thing is that Milica had, for a very long time, fought off the urge to be a full-time artist. Having witnessed her country’s struggle through turbulent times, its eventual breakup, and who admits to taking part in protests, Milica remained a steadfastly apolitical artist. “Sure, I took part in the demonstrations but I didn’t want to make any political statements artistically. I also knew that I didn’t want to attach my livelihood to selling art,” she explains.
So she embarked on a less turbulent vocation – stage costume design. One thing led to another and even as she continued to paint, the work from companies such as IKEA and Mothercare, for whom she designed fabrics and children’s accessories, allowed her to draw a very fine line between work and art. In a way, it permitted a certain integrity that would have been a luxury for a full-time artist. “I’ve always been picky about the sale of my work. I knew that if it was going to sell, then it would happen eventually, and when it did, it would usually be for good money. This helped me stay mentally clear and to not compromise my work.”
Back to art
Despite her lecturing commitments, Milica would find time to stage a series of exhibitions. Her first in Singapore and her sixth in total was held in March 2006 at the Esplanade. The exhibition entitled The Shape That Is featured her mural entitled Blair Road, in front of Jendela Visual Arts Space. This was followed by another solo exhibition called Retrosquares held at The Arts House in December 2006. Soon after came Retrorides, an exhibition held at the Mercedes-Benz Centre Event Hall in March 2007, where Milica created a series of drawings inspired by classic Mercedes-Benz cars. Her most recent work is a collection of paintings created on silk entitled Postscriptum, which was exhibited in Belgrade’s Ethnographic Museum in 2012.
At this juncture, Milica acknowledges that the time is ripe to try something different and that her Perenekan-inspired themes may have run its course. “My mission was to preserve architectural elements from the past. There is always a story behind a tile, a story that was developed over time. Now that I have said what I wanted, I want to move on,” she adds. “Experimentation is very important. And I still like the tangible part of art. I need to touch the art, to play with colours.”
For her next project, Milica intends to experiment with materials that are more fragile and delicate than the materials she has worked with before. “I might even make my own paper. That way, the whole project would be something I created from beginning to end,” she says.
This project promises to be a new beginning in more ways than one. After playing art teacher for the better part of 15 years, Milica says she is consciously making the move to being a full-time artist. “There has been a lot of satisfaction from working with students. I have done my part socially but art has always been therapy for me, it’s like opening a third eye, you become more whole, more authentic.”
For more information about the artist, visit www.milica.info. The article first appeared in Vol 2 of Gallery & Studio.