Two art shows on Lee Kuan Yew

Lebanese artist Laudi Abilama will display her screen paintings of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, while Singapore illustrator Patrick Yee (above) is exhibiting illustrations from his two picture books about Mr Lee’s life. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Lebanese artist Laudi Abilama will display her screen paintings of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, while Singapore illustrator Patrick Yee (above) is exhibiting illustrations from his two picture books about Mr Lee’s life. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Lebanese artist Laudi Abilama (above) will display her screen paintings of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, while Singapore illustrator Patrick Yee is exhibiting illustrations from his two picture books about Mr Lee’s life. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS
Lebanese artist Laudi Abilama (above) will display her screen paintings of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, while Singapore illustrator Patrick Yee is exhibiting illustrations from his two picture books about Mr Lee’s life. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

One is from a children's picture book on the life of Mr Lee, the other is a pop art interpretation by a Lebanese artist

The life of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is reinterpreted in two exhibitions of pop art and picture book-style illustrations.

Singaporean illustrator and arts lecturer Patrick Yee is displaying at the National Library Building illustrations from two recent picture books about Mr Lee's life.

And, from Friday at Sana Gallery, Lebanese artist Laudi Abilama will showcase screen paintings derived from press photographs of Mr Lee over the years.

They are the latest in a series of art shows inspired by the Singapore leader, from the 19-artist show Beyond Lee Kuan Yew in 2010 organised by the now-defunct Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery to last year's The Father by Boo Sze Yang.

Both of the current exhibitions were timed for Singapore's 50th birthday celebrations - and in Yee's case, the launch of his second book for children about Mr Lee's life.

Pitched at children aged three to eight, Yee's series comprises A Boy Named Harry: The Childhood Of Lee Kuan Yew and Harry Grows Up: The Early Years Of Lee Kuan Yew, published last May and this month by Singapore imprint Epigram Books.

Harry Grows Up will be launched at the National Library today at 11am.

Yee, 51, has also included in his exhibition a giant A1-size get-well card for Mr Lee, who is, at the time of writing, in intensive care at the Singapore General Hospital. The 91-year-old was admitted there on Feb 5 with severe pneumonia.

Yee asks viewers of the exhibition to pen their own good wishes as well. He will send the card after his paintings are taken down on Wednesday.

The artist, a bachelor, has more than 100 picture books to his credit, including the best-selling Rosie Rabbit boardbooks from British publisher Little Simon in the 1990s.

He says he has long wanted to turn Mr Lee's life story into a series that his nieces and nephews could read.

"There are lots of books about him for adults, but I wanted to do something that children can read, with bright, cheerful colours," he says, adding that the "pioneer spirit" of Mr Lee and his peers inspired his own life as well.

The second-youngest of seven children born to a shipyard worker and housewife, Yee convinced his parents to let him study art at the Camberwell College of Arts in London, followed by a master's in narrative illustration and editorial design at Brighton University.

He twice won the Macmillan Prize for children's book illustrations, leading to a career in publishing.

He returned to Singapore 20 years ago and teaches art at Nanyang Polytechnic and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, among other places.

"He's the founder and the spirit of our home. How he turned a small island into a First World country, that's fascinating to me," Yee says of Mr Lee.

This holds a similar appeal for artist Abilama, who holds dual British and Lebanese citizenship and works in both London and the mountain of BeitMery overlooking Beirut.

On Monday, she will give a talk at The Arts House about her 11 works at Sana Gallery, which are on public display for the first time.

Screen prints on paper and linen, they were created over the past eight months and adapted from press photographs of Mr Lee over the years.

The 29-year-old graduate of the College of Creative Art in Surrey says she has long admired Singapore's success and Mr Lee as the strongman who united an island of diverse cultures.

Five years ago, she began looking for ways to visit Singapore, eventually arriving on a one-month artist's residency here in 2011 with art gallery Instinc.

On returning to Beit-Mery, she began working on portraits of Mr Lee, following on a 2010 series she had created featuring prominent leaders of the Middle East, such as the late Yasser Arafat of Palestine.

Her series eventually interested Sana Gallery's founder Assaad Razzouk.

Abilama has a copy of Mr Lee's 1998 memoir, The Singapore Story, on her cellphone.

"Lebanon is very similar to Singapore in temperature, in geography. The only difference is we never had a strong leader. We have so many different religions, so many different cultures but we were never able to come together," says the artist, whose parents had to leave Beirut for Surrey in Britain during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975 to 1990.

She moved back to Lebanon seven years ago to connect with that part of her heritage, but finds the proximity to conflict in Syria has made life increasingly harder and more dangerous.

"Often there is no Internet, no power, the people on the streets are not of the quality you might want to meet," she says. "Lee Kuan Yew was able to lift his country out of that. He should be celebrated, he should be criticised, he should be discussed because that is his legacy."

She adds: "I have no interest in the politics of Singapore. Pop art is about sensationalism, but my intent is not to sensationalise. It is to bring to the forefront his vision.

"I know he's had a lot of controversy surrounding him but Singaporeans don't know how lucky they are to have him.

"He created a base for everyone that we don't have in Lebanon, that I wish we had."

akshitan@sph.com.sg