SINGAPORE: With the opening of the National Gallery Singapore on Tuesday (Nov 24), pioneer artists who lay the foundations of the Singapore arts scene now have a home dedicated to their work.
The Nanyang art movement in particular, left its imprint on Singapore art history and about 80 of such artworks are on display at the National Gallery Singapore. They are part of the Nanyang Reverie period, that is parked under the permanent DBS Singapore Gallery.
Nanyang - a Mandarin term that means "southern seas" - is often used to categorise things from Southeast Asia. In the context of art, it usually refers to Chinese artists in Malaya from the 1930s and '40s.
Many of these artists were educated in China and Europe, and just like their fellow Chinese immigrants in Southeast Asia, they were in search of a personal identity in a new land. Their works illustrate the struggles of those early days, with the faces and places of Southeast Asia providing a source of inspiration.
What makes their style distinctive is the blending of East and West - where a stroke of Chinese ink integrates with Western oil traditions.
“One thing that I hope visitors will take away after they see the works in our collection is to really appreciate the people around us and our immediate surroundings,” said Mr Low Sze Wee, Curatorial and Collections director at the National Gallery. “As our pioneer artists did, they found inspirations from humble attap villages, the fishing folk along the coast of Malaya. Even the simple dress, the batik dress, worn by the people of Java, was something that interested them, and they saw with renewed interest, and enthusiasm.”
One piece that visitors may find familiar is Drying Salted Fish by Cheong Soo Pieng from 1978. It depicts scenes of salted fish drying in the sun, a common sight along the coast of Singapore and Malaya between the 1940s and 60s. The iconic painting is printed on the back of Singapore’s S$50 note. Just beside it is Chen Wen Hsi's ink repertoire of gibbons.
“When you look at the work let’s say Liu Kang, and compare it to the work of Cheong Soo Pieng, both are them were considered to be Nanyang artists, but then when you look at their paintings, they are very different,” said Mr Low. “We can take heart from that, in a sense that we could all be searching for a local identity for a sense of personal identity but we don’t have to be the same.”
EAGER TO SHOW THE ASIAN IDENTITY
Urban planner and architect Liu Thai Ker described his father, Liu Kang, as being eager to show the Asian identity to the rest of the world.
“He paid attention and embraced Chinese, Malay, Indian art into his thinking,” he said. “To the extent he even sent my sister to an Indian dance school when she was young. That was how broad-minded he was, but also how concerned he was in expressing all aspects of the Nanyang environment, in terms of geography, in terms of culture. He was very eager to establish a foothold in the world’s arts scene of the art from Southeast Asia.”
Known to be a master of composition, Liu Kang set foot in Singapore in 1942, following his arts education in Shanghai and Paris. However, it was a historic field trip to Bali that led to the birth of the Nanyang style.
Together with three of his artistic peers, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng, they searched for a visual expression that was uniquely South East Asian. Liu Kang found inspiration in the sights, sounds and colours of the Indonesian island.
His interpretations of Balinese women and life against the tropical landscape remain favourites among art buffs, but his son has many favourites. “He gets himself into the environment that he’s painting. In fact, one of the favourites, everybody’s favourite, was his room in Paris when he was a student there,” said Mr Liu. “And you could feel that it’s very Parisian.
“The painting of a pair of Indian husband and wife dancers in Singapore, in the dance costume, and with their pose in a very Indian dance posture. That’s my favourite.”
LEADERS AT NAFA
Many of Liu Kang's contemporaries in the Nanyang movement were teachers at some stage of their art career. Many forerunners of Nanyang art were once educators at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), established in 1938. They include names like Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Georgette Chen.
“In the first year of enrolment, there was only a meagre of 14 students and there was not enough money to sustain it, donors were not interested to give money to the school,” said Dr Bridget Tracy Tan, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Art and Galleries at NAFA. “So these teachers had to be innovative, teach to earn money, teach privately or teach at the mainstream school to get a salary so that they could support their profession and part time teaching at NAFA. So they were involved in that community, in building that community that eventually nurtured this academy.
Mr Ang Ah Tee was one those students. The Cultural Medallion winner is among Singapore's foremost second generation artists - a term used to refer to those who were taught by the pioneers and went on to develop a voice and vision all their own.
The 1962 NAFA graduate is known for his landscape paintings. His inspiration are destinations around the world. Ang also values the importance of foundation and creativity in his craft.
There are two things he learnt from his teachers.
“Cheong Soo Pieng, he was more open. He did not confine students based on whatever they drew. You do whatever you like. And to him, the most important thing - in Hokkien there’s a word – ‘swee’. ‘Swee’ means beautiful. So as long as at the end of the day, if you paint a picture, the most important is beautiful,” he said. “Whereas for Georgette Chen, everything had to be perfect. The foundation had to be very good in order to create a good piece of artwork.”
Like Ang, many second generation artists are successful heirs of the pioneer icons. Even though the Nanyang sensibility may no longer be a guiding force in their work, it has left an indelible mark on the arts scene.