Artist Jimmy Ong reimagines Sir Stamford Raffles' time in Java in new show

Artist Jimmy Ong reimagines history with his charcoal on paper works, such as Mapping Boro Bodor (above), which shows Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles reclining. -- PHOTO: FOST GALLERY
Artist Jimmy Ong reimagines history with his charcoal on paper works, such as Mapping Boro Bodor (above), which shows Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles reclining. -- PHOTO: FOST GALLERY
Artist Jimmy Ong (above) reimagines history with his charcoal on paper works, such as Mapping Boro Bodor, which shows Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles reclining. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Artist Jimmy Ong (above) reimagines history with his charcoal on paper works, such as Mapping Boro Bodor, which shows Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles reclining. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

With his signature bold, black strokes, artist Jimmy Ong is back with an impressive re-reading of what he calls The History Of Java in his latest show.

The exhibition title references Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles' (1781 - 1826) two-volume tome of the same name, which was published in 1817.

He says he was curious about Raffles' time in Java. This iconic figure who established a British settlement in Singapore "is so revered in Singapore, but not so in Indonesia", he notes.

The British invasion of Yogyakarta in 1812 particularly fascinated him. The various accounts of the events surrounding the invasion formed the basis of his own imagined versions.

What stands out in his current works is the underlying humour. The monochromatic works are full of hidden messages and coded images and call for a closer examination.

For instance, in Mapping Boro Bodor, a large 1.28 by 3.2m charcoal on paper work that shows Raffles reclining, there is a lot happening. Male bodies clad in sarongs are rendered in fine detail. It is hard to miss the muscled legs and torsos of grown men as well as children portrayed in such fluid detail. Several every day scenes spring to life in this densely covered rendition.

"I was intrigued by the varied representations of Raffles," says the mild-mannered artist. "At a deeper level, I was also exploring the sense of failure, perhaps my own failure in some ways, and the varied ways of reading failure. Raffles, who is such a revered figure here, was a failure in Java."

It is such open-ended questions about success and failure and how these get scripted into the very history people read, that make Ong's most recent works fascinating.

When asked why he decided to take on Raffles, he says: "I am 50 this year. Singapore is 50 this year. I am an opportunist."

Equally impressive is the scale of the four drawings. Each is about 3m long and 1.3m high.

They are accompanied by a mixed media installation that includes a life-size fabric rendition of Raffles. Ong worked on this with fellow artists in Yogyakarta, where he is now based.

The drawings are all in charcoal, his chosen medium of expression since his early still life drawings in the 1980s.

He says he is drawn to charcoal "because of its sensitivity. It has been around since da Vinci's time".

In 1987, he began doing portraits of his friends, and his current exhibition shows how adept he is at bringing together elements of both still life and portraiture.

He says: "The human figure for me is a means of investigating relationships, people around me, and as a way of looking at myself."

In 2012, his own look at the contemporary resonance of ancient myths took him to Yogyakarta.

On his move back to South-east Asia after several years in the United States, he says: "I was starting to feel a certain sense of isolation. I realised I was missing it - the colour, the chaos, the messiness.

"It was art dealer Valentine Willie who had told me to go and see Yogyakarta." There, he says, "I found a great sense of community. Every artist goes to every artist's opening. There is nothing formal. People can drop by your studio any time. I like that".

On his creative process and the time it sometimes takes to finish a work, he says: "Some days, I can complete one part of a piece in five minutes, but getting to this point has taken me my entire life."