Exhibition: The Nanyang Show
Artist(s): Chen Wen Hsi, Chia Hui Chian, Chia Yu Chian, Chong Hip Seng, Fung Yow Chork, Heng Eow Lin, Ho Kay Beng, Khaw Sia, Khoo Sui Hoe, Kuo Ju Ping, Le Chek Wen, Lee Cheng Yong, Lee Joo For, Ong Kim Seng, Seah Kim Joo, Tan Choon Ghee, Tew Nai Tong, Tsai Horng Chung, Yong Mun Seng
Gallery: Visual Arts Centre, Singapore
Interpreting Nanyang Art: The 10 Essentials
The theme Nanyang is distinctive of Southeast Asian history particularly in the study of cultural identity and Chinese diaspora that is significant in the development of art in alternative modernism.
This essay is an accompaniment to The Nanyang Show from 9 to 12 June 2016 at the Visual Arts Centre in Singapore, showcasing 47 artworks by selected artists who have created paintings centered on the Nanyang theme, either the artists had lived during the time when the call for “local color” was at its peak or as a continuity of an artistic approach still apparent today.
Featuring works by Chen Wen Hsi, Chia Hui Chian, Chia Yu Chian, Chong Hip Seng, Fung Yow Chork, Heng Eow Lin, Ho Khay Beng, Khaw Sia, Khoo Sui Hoe, Kuo Ju Ping, Le Chek Wen, Lee Cheng Yong, Lee Joo For, Ong Kim Seng, Seah Kim Joo, Tan Choon Ghee, Tew Nai Tong, Tsai Horng Chung and Yong Mun Sen dated since the 1930s, the artworks not only offer visual aesthetics, but also historical narratives in Malaya, Malaysia and Singapore.
Much has been written about the Nanyang Style and its artists. In this text, ten essential points about Nanyang Art covering its origins, advocates, purposes, period, context, viewpoints, stylistic method, geographic importance, influences, and its present relevance are gathered. With reference to the artworks on offer, viewers are able to observe various interpretations of a newfound land at its essence.
Though this exhibition may only feature a fraction of a more extensive premise – focusing mainly on artists from Malaysia – it must be noted that some of the more important Nanyang artists comprising of names like Liu Kang, Lim Hak Tai, Lim Yew Kuan, Georgette Chen, Chua Mia Tee, Cheong Soo Pieng, Tan Tee Chie, See Cheen Tee, Yeh Chi Wei, Lim Mu Hue, Lai Foong Moi, Chuah Thean Teng, Chong Pai Mu, Chen Chong Swee, Lim Tze Peng, to name a few, produce remarkable works that also express the spirit of the Southern Seas.
1. Defining Nanyang
Nanyang or ‘Southern Seas’ is a term originally coined in the late 1920s by literary intelligentsia to indicate contemporary Chinese narratives written based on local subjects.
Prominent historian and scholar Wang Gungwu explains its geographic meaning: “the word ‘Nanyang’, the ‘Southern Ocean’, is used as an equivalent of the more recent coinage, ‘South-east Asia’. But there is an important difference. There is implied in the word ‘Nanyang’ territories which have been reached by sea, by the South China Sea, and consequently, the areas which specially concern the Nanyang Chinese have been the key coastal strips of mainland Southeast Asia.”
In this exhibition, viewers are able to examine the amalgamation of Eastern and Western painting techniques in illustrations that depict a particular time and space.
For instance, Tan Choon Ghee’s use of Chinese ink with calligraphy brush and watercolour on rice paper to depict Singapore River landscape dated 1977 and Chia Hui Chian’s rendition of the Morning Market, which illustrates a group of multi-ethnic figures adorning vibrant attires in a market setting executed in Post-Impressionism manner. Both pictures are geographically domestic in context achieved in a combination of methods.
Another observable example is Yong Mun Sen’s depiction of local farmers planting paddy in the field executed in oil on canvas laid on board. Created in 1946, Paddy Planting illustrates four agriculturalists – three figures are bending over in chorus to plant the rice seedlings into a muddy bed of soil, while the other figure is watching over them holding a bunch of rice plants in her hand – painted in a Western manner.
2. The Making of Nanyang Style
There are various social and political occurrences that have instigated the need for a cultural revolution in China – the opening up of treaty ports in China in the nineteenth century, the acceptance of Western artistic ideas and materials, the inculcation of Western and Chinese ideals in Chinese education by Cai Yuanpei (1868 – 1940), which leads to the New Culture and May Fourth movements, the increasing number of Overseas Chinese in Malaya and Singapore, imperialism and communism, SinoJapanese wars – any of which may have influenced the change either directly or indirectly as recounted by historians.
Publications also played a critical role in promoting the Cultural Revolution in Malaya (including Singapore). A number of essays discussing the issue of Nanyang literature were produced by Singapore’s writers between 1927 and 1933 with titles like “Singapore Artists, Awake,” “Literary Culture and the Overseas Chinese,” and “Literature and Local Color” were published in Huang Dao, Ye Lin, Wenyi Zhoukan, and Fan Xing.
Zeng Shengti (1901 – 1982), editor of Wenyi Zhoukan wrote in an essay for the 1929 inaugural edition: “Singapore artists, awake! The old world has melted under the fierce heat of the sun. Let us hang our flag upon the towering coconut tree. The immense and cloudless sky affirms our openness. The elephant symbolizes our resoluteness. The long green leaves declare our freshness. The sea rings out our triumph cry. Our fresh environment provides us with unlimited material. Come, let us blow by blow and layer by layer construct our artistic, iron tower.”
Around the same time in Penang, versatile artist Lee Cheng Yong displayed a strong expression of regionalism through his work. Created circa 1930s, Fertile Soil features a pastoral landscape by the coast, consisting of a few huts that could perhaps suggest an agricultural area amidst a seascape background. His warm and earthy colour palette of Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna with hints of blue and green illustrates “the fierce heat of the sun”.
The New Culture Movement in Singapore was aimed to promote nation building and enlightenment in cultural change. With vernacularisation as the intellectual’s first quest by using Mandarin as the “national language” and to approach their writings in “local color” by making Southeast Asia as their canvas and calling this new culture “Nanyang” or “huaqiao” or Overseas Chinese culture.
Chen Wen Hsi’s Gibbons not only retains elements of Chinese culture, firstly in its medium and format, secondly in its subject matter – Chen was first inspired by a painting by the 13th century Southern Song Dynasty Chinese artist Mu Xi titled White Robed Guanyin, Crane and Gibbon while he was still in China – but it also demonstrates his commitment in artistic endeavours when he purchased a white-faced gibbon for $300 at a pet shop shortly after arriving in Singapore in the late 1940s and nurturing it in his garden to study the postures and characteristics of the primate.
3. Subject Matter and Technique
In the quest for finding new pictorial language that reflects the tropical milieu, “the Nanyang artists adopted an experimental approach, using styles and techniques derived from two sources: Chinese pictorial traditions, and the School of Paris” as described by T. K. Sabapathy in the 1979 Pameran Retrospektif Pelukis-Pelukis
Nanyang (Nanyang Artists Retrospective Exhibition) catalogue.
Evident in the work of Tsai Horng Chung titled Young Tribal Lady Playing Gong, the artist has incorporated his surroundings into his paintings. Born in 1916 in China, Tsai graduated from Shanghai Art Academy and was one of the pioneer Nanyang artists who migrated to Sarawak to teach art in 1943. Trained in traditional Chinese painting, he skillfully illustrates a native playing a traditional music instrument in a stylised manner using ink and colour on rice paper mounted on scroll.
Kevin Chua, in his essay titled Painting the Nanyang’s Public: Notes Toward A Reassessment elucidates another accurate description of the Nanyang Style from the 1950s:
“What marks so many Nanyang paintings of the early 1950s is the sense that subjects were available, and close at hand: a prahu or fishing boat, cows grazing, even something as prosaic as a rubbish dump. Thrown back into the world, painting was confronted with the everyday, the ordinary. The story of Malayan painting of the 1950s was the struggle to represent and thus speak to the public, to find that imaginary exterior point that could capture both inside and outside.”
The descriptive subject matter is evident in the works of Kuo Ju Ping (Boat Construction, Reaching Home, Rice Mill, The Hut by the Back Alley, Unloading Cargo), Fung Yow Chork (By the Jetty at Pulau Ketam), Ho Khay Beng (Stilt Houses) and Yong Mun Sen (A Hut Near Water, Singapore Riverside Scene, Still Life with Pots). Based on these images, the artists have captured the realities of a specific place at a particular time.
4. Western Influence Eastern Context
From a formalistic perspective, paintings created by the Nanyang artists that is being referred to as Nanyang Style encompasses “a combination of techniques and approaches from the School of Paris, Chinese traditional ink painting from the literati tradition, as well as the Shanghai School.”
The three distinctive categories of artistic solutions are the fusion of Eastern and Western techniques, the adaptation of new subject matter into traditional Chinese painting, and the depiction of local context through a distinctive Western art movement.
Khaw Sia’s watercolour treatment of the exterior of a Buddhist temple, Lee Cheng Yong’s Cubist-style Four Ladies, Lee Joo For’s vibrant expressions on canvas, and Fung Yow Chork’s impression of the Pongal celebration either fit one or all of the criteria. This innovative approach reflects Lim Hak Tai’s vision for the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), as stated in his manifesto.
Good Time by Tew Nai Tong dated 1974 illustrates organic forms in blue and pale yellow and Khoo Sui Hoe’s painting titled Cloud with Reflection dated 1978 – which features a circular form dominating a square canvas in sky blue with a single white cloud perched above a flowing grey pole and the cloud’s organic-shaped reflection illustrated beneath – indicate that experimentation in various techniques contribute to the “development of the spirit of science and trends of modern thinking”. Such Western-influenced representations demonstrate the magnitude of the Nanyang Style.
5. Painting the Southern Seas
A historic painting excursion to Bali by four Singapore pioneer artists Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee, Cheong Soo Pieng and Liu Kang in 1952 aimed to seek “new pictorial structures and expressions to reflect the tropical environment, the multicultural aspects of Nanyang and cultural themes rooted within the region.”
The following year, an exhibition titled Four Artists to Bali showcasing fresh visual vocabulary created during the sojourn was held at the British Council. Art historian T. K. Sabapathy noted the significance of this group show “particularly in relation to the depiction of the human figure resulted in the creation of figure types which are indelibly linked with the Nanyang artists, and which proved to be influential for other artists” in his essay titled Modern Art in Singapore: Pioneers and Premises.
Khoo Sui Hoe’s interpretation of Bali dated 1968 manifests the effects of both the exotic island as a source of artistic inspiration, and the use of “figure types” in most of his paintings. In this piece, the artist illustrates the demon character Rangda from the mythical traditional Barong dance alongside his signature figure. Again, in 2009, Khoo Sui Hoe revisits the subject matter with a painting titled Dancer from Bali.
6. Educators as Artists
The establishment of NAFA in Singapore in 1938 by Lim Hak Tai was driven by the quiescent presence of the British in the art scene. Consisted of only fourteen students in its first year of opening, the school had three full time teachers, Kao Fei Tse who taught drawing and Chang Meng Tse who taught design including Lim who taught watercolour and oil painting.
While the categorisation of “Nanyang artists” deriving exclusively from NAFA is debatable, I am in agreement with Emelia Ong in referring to Nanyang artists as “to those who taught at NAFA, those who graduated from the academy and those who shared close relationships with them and played important roles in the shaping of an eclectic approach to art-making.”
There are a number of art educators who simultaneously pursue their artistic practice namely Chen Wen Hsi (South China College, Shantou, China 1946 – 1947, The Chinese High School, Singapore 1949 – 1968, NAFA 1951 – 1959, Singapore), Lee Cheng Yong (Chung Ling High School, Penang), Kuo Ju Ping (Chung Ling High School, Union High School, Li Tek School, Han Chiang High School, Penang), Khaw Sia (Chung Ling High School, Penang 1949 – 1958, Penang Chinese Girls High School, 1958), Lee Joo For (Penang Free School, Head of the Art Department, Malaysian Teacher’s College, Johor Bahru, lecturer in Creative Arts, Catholic University, Victoria, Australia) and Ho Khay Beng (Han Chiang High School, Penang 1958).
The next generation of Nanyang artists who was trained by pioneer artists is Tan Choon Ghee (attended NAFA from 1949 – 1951 with the influence of his mentor Kuo Ju Ping), Chia Yu Chian (who took personal art trainings with Chen Wen Hsi) and Khoo Sui Hoe (attended NAFA and was trained by Georgette Chen and Cheong Soo Pieng).
Self-taught artists comprise of Yong Mun Sen (who played a seminal role in forming the Penang Chinese Art Club and Singapore Society of Chinese Artists as well as the establishment of NAFA) and Fung Yow Chork (founder member of Thursday Art Group, member of Wednesday Art Group, Selangor Art Society, Singapore Art Society and Malaysian Artists Association).
The involvement of these artists in spreading art knowledge is just as important as the need to create new modes of visual expressions thus making them key contributors in the Nanyang Style.
7. Writings and Exhibitions
In 1979, prolific artist, educator and cultural thinker Redza Piyadasa presented an important exhibition titled Pameran Retrospektif Pelukis-Pelukis Nanyang at Muzium Seni Negara, Kuala Lumpur, which featured 40 artists over the period 1938 to 1965. In the exhibition catalogue, Piyadasa recounts the atmosphere at NAFA as conveyed by students who studied there:
“Ho Khay Beng recalls that the influence of Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi was especially strong on the students, such that nearly all the senior students would end up imitating one or the other of the two ‘masters’. In Western painting, Cheong Soo Pieng’s influence was nothing less than mesmerising. Lim Mu Hue (class 1953 -55) has described the conditions at the academy during the 50s as being symbolised by the overwhelming presence of three studio teachers – Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee and Chen Wen Hsi. According to him, Cheong Soo Pieng’s influence was most powerful on his students, and that his influence was determined in no small way by his approach to easel painting considerations. Cheong Soo Pieng was perhaps singularly responsible for establishing several of the styles that were imitated by the students of the academy, and which subsequently came to be associated with that institution.”
In conjunction with the fourth Singapore Biennale in 2013, the National Museum of Singapore presented an exhibition titled A Changed World: Singapore Art 1950s – 1970s, which showcased key pieces to highlight social, political and economic responses to post-war development of art in Singapore. The exhibition catalogue consists of a dialogue between curators Szan Tan and Daniel Tham in which they noted that – with reference to Cheong Soo Pieng’s untitled work depicting the Singapore River scene – as “symbolic”. Daniel Tham elaborates in his discussion:
“Perhaps it’s symbolic for them. Even though they probably didn’t arrive at the Singapore River when they first came to Singapore, yet the River symbolised this entry point to Singapore. In addition, it was the commercial heart of activity in Singapore as a port and in terms of its entreport trade. So for the artists, perhaps as new immigrants settling in Singapore, the Singapore River represented that new beginning and their entry into this new world. We are, after all, concerned with the artists’ attempts at capturing the new worlds they were settling in, and the Singapore River is emblematic of that, as you point out.”
In this show, there are depictions of the Singapore River by Yong Mun Sen, Kuo Ju Ping and Tan Choon Ghee created between 1946 and 1977, demonstrating the significance of the river particularly to the Nanyang artists.
Another pivotal exhibition titled Siapa Nama Kamu? Art in Singapore Since the 19th Century, which uses six broad themes – Tropical Tapestry; Nanyang Reverie; Real Concerns; New Languages; Tradition Unfettered; and Shifting Grounds – document significant moments of art development and is currently on display at the newly opened National Gallery Singapore.
Cultural observer Kwok Kian Chow explained that the term Nanyang was initially used to describe literary theme:
“The term was a generic one which was used to characterise the subject matter of such writings, Nanyang Style did not denote a specific aesthetic paradigm as did notions of linguistic vernacularism (as in the May Fourth Movement), Social Realism or aestheticism. In the late1920s and 1930s, some proponents of the Nanyang Style associated writing with the articulation of a Nanyang/Overseas Chinese identity and took the literary discourse even further to deal with the larger social issue of a Nanyang regionalist culture.”
In Kevin Chua’s writing, he highlights the progress of Nanyang Art in the generation after 1950s whereby members of the Equator Art Society criticised the works of their predecessors:
“In raising the banner of social realism, the painters of the Equator Art Society rejected the so called “Western” post-Impressionist abstraction of the generation that preceded them.”
9. Beyond Malaysia and Singapore
The regional dynamism of cultural transformation extends beyond the borders of Malaysia and Singapore. Though these artists may not have attended NAFA or are not directly associated with Nanyang artists, they are either settlers or children of Chinese migrants who have made the Southern Seas their home and have adapted to the social conditions.
Among some of these artists include Lee Man Fong (Singapore) – curator and advisor to President Soekarno’s art collection from 1961 to 1965 – and Lim Wasim who are both Palace Artists and are responsible for the compilation of a five-volume edition of the presidential art collection, resided in Indonesia. In the Philippines, Ang Kiukok painted the realities of an oppressed time – people living in squalor, domesticated animals such as dogs and roosters while confronting these desolations through his faith in Christianity in Cubist and Surrealist manner – a distinctive style of painting termed figurative expressionism by many. In Myanmar, U Aung Twin is a prolific artist, educator and a traditional dance choreographer whose paintings and sculptures of Buddha images and Ramayana figures gained him prominence. In Vietnam, Doi Ngoan Quan is known for his calligraphy besides watercolour, seal and microcarvings.
10. Nanyang Art Today
The spirit of Nanyang aestheticism still prevails today in the works of Khoo Sui Hoe, Seah Kim Joo and Ong Kim Seng as presented in this exhibition. Other artists who are actively creating in this style include Lim Ah Cheng, Lee Long Looi, Keng Seng Choo, Tay Mo Leong, Eng Tay, Tay Chee Toh, to name a few. Artists who were born after the Malayan independence and continue to paint local landscapes in Western manner are the likes of Chang Fee Ming, Peter Liew and Lui Cheng Thak, although they may not exclusively label their artistic approach as “Nanyang Style”, which leads us to ponder the future and relevance of the Nanyang Style today especially after the 1980s when younger artists’ concerns have shifted to challenge the idea of identity in their works.
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