Isabelle Desjeux
Did Ali See What Wallace Saw?

Isabelle Desjeux’s work Did Ali See What Wallace Saw? interrogates the role of botanical gardens in containing and controlling nature in order to exploit plants deemed important.

In the 19th century, British naturalist and anthropologist Alfred Russell Wallace conducted an eight-year exploration of the Malay archipelago, using Singapore as a base for his regional operations and conducting extensive studies of the local biodiversity. Motivated by an inherent curiosity, as well as a drive to categorise natural specimens and send samples back to England, Wallace represented a certain lens through which nature was understood at that time. Throughout his travels, Wallace was accompanied by his assistant and companion, Ali, of whom much is unknown, but who assisted Wallace on his travels through the Malay Archipelago.

Statues of Wallace and Ali outside the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore, sculpted by students from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).
Photo courtesy of Dr Gavin Short.

During this period, Fort Canning also became a significant site through which the colonial administration chose to collect, grow and assess the suitability of local plants as crops. Sir Stamford Raffles, the colonial founder of modern Singapore and a keen naturalist, established the first botanical and experimental garden on Government Hill (Fort Canning Hill) in 1822.

Taking the form of a tour at Fort Canning through the eyes of Wallace and Ali, Isabelle seeks to question our relationship to nature and inspire us to view nature open-mindedly. The guided tour explores how the historical categorisation and exploitation of nature has become part of our culture. Through Ali’s speculative and imagined perspective, the artist also invites participants to consider the notion of relativity in relation to ‘discoveries’ across various cultures and how it affects our judgement of the natural world. Isabelle will lead participants on a tour of Fort Canning’s plant collection, complete with projections.

[Note: In the event of rain, the tour will be cancelled and, instead, the artist will take participants through Fort Canning via a slideshow presentation and talk.]


Check out the video below to learn more about Isabelle’s perspective toward nature, how her works draw on her previous career as a molecular biologist, and what she hopes participants will take away from her tour.

Artist Bio

Isabelle Desjeux is a Singapore-based artist and researcher. She has a background in molecular biology (PhD, Edinburgh University UK, 1995) and a MA Fine Arts from LaSalle College of the Arts (2010). Isabelle’s artistic research is based on the concept of ‘refuse’, ‘leftovers’, and ‘failures’, and their function in the process of scientific research, with a strong belief in the power of transformation over creation.

Drawing from the similarities of practice of both worlds, Isabelle’s art feels like science. In her installations, she aims to make the public ask questions and impersonate the curious child and the scientist in us all. Trained in molecular biology, she left the lab life on 1 January 2000 and started teaching children how to draw, while teaching herself to become an artist. She identifies as being an “l’artiste-chercheur”, a French term which translates broadly as artist-researcher or artist-scientist. For Isabelle, artistic and scientific research is intertwined, with their roots in curiosity. Since 2017, Isabelle has been based in a residency space attached to Blue House Nursery & International Preschool, which she named L’Observatoire. L’Observatoire also receives Singapore-based artists to take up short residencies and engage with the students of the school.