Monday, 6 January 2014

Nutmeg and mace: the art of history in Singapore

Not only is the history of Singapore adorned with images of nutmeg but so is modern Singapore.

Historically, nutmeg trees were the source of two important elements of the region's spice trade. More recently, Singaporean artists, perhaps in search of a national identity, have found a willing subject in nutmeg. Nutmeg sculptures can be found along Singapore's famous shopping belt, Orchard Road, most notably outside Ion Orchard shopping mall.

An inside view of a nutmeg fruit with mace visible
After all, the unassuming nutmeg fruit altered Singapore's history! It was one of the spices which led European colonialists to sail East, ultimately leading to Raffles landing in Singapore in 1819. Nutmeg fell into the second category of a colonizer's 'Three G' schedule of motivations, i.e. gold. (Nope, 'Three G' is not the latest wireless network for smart phones but actually represents the reason most colonial adventurers risked their lives sailing towards far off lands, in search of God, Gold and Glory!)

Nutmeg was a particularly important plant because of the multiple uses derived from the fruit, nut and seeds. In medieval Europe, the spice was used as a preserving and flavoring agent for food. In the sixteenth century, some even believed the spice could ward off the Black Death (bubonic plague). Medicinally, nutmeg oil is used for treating joint pain as it has a sedative effect. Additionally, the oil is used to treat stomach disorders.

Today nutmeg oil is frequently used as an ingredient in toothpastes (as an antiseptic which also helps remove bad breath), perfumes and the food industry (including possibly as an ingredient in the top-secret Coca Cola formula!).

However, for contemporary Singaporeans, the nutmeg is more of an artistic curiosity than a historical subject. The nutmeg features prominently in the work of local sculptor Kumari Nahappan. Her two ton installation 'Nutmeg and Mace' on Orchard Road serves as a reminder of the area's history replete with nutmeg plantations. Further along, at Orchard Central one finds the 'Nutmeg Grove' sculpture by Italian born Michele Righetti.

The golden age of spices may have ended centuries ago but Singaporeans cannot escape the humble nutmeg, especially around Orchard Road. Nutmeg art provides a window into an important part of the city's history.
Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. Please contact Imran if you wish to arrange personalized tours of Singapore, including walking tours such as the Orchard Arts Trail or Singapore's Civic District Heritage Trail, at or +65 9786 7210. 

No comments:

Post a Comment