At home with art: National Gallery chairman shares his journey

It wasn't a thing of monetary value or school subject, but had to do with warmth of home

My journey with art began when I was a boy. My family lived in a three-room Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flat in the Queenstown area. Our living conditions were spartan. My bed was a plank, the couch comprised wooden boxes with cushions and a cloth laid over them.

But there were artworks on the walls, and they hung from a wooden hanging track, like what you would find in an art gallery. My father cared about those paintings, even though he was not an artist. They were presented to him by artists from the Nanyang School, his friends, people he had met through his job at the British Council and also when he served as treasurer of the Singapore Art Society.

My father was friends with people from all walks of life. Artists were not the only interesting people who came to our home. I remember that Professor D. J. Enright, the famous scholar from the English Literature faculty at the University of Malaya, came to our home. Boys from the Perak Home also visited on weekends and my siblings and I played with them. I grew up in that unique environment of openness and compassion. When I think about my relationship with art, it begins in that context.

As a boy and teenager, I have vivid memories of the artists who visited our home. Cheong Soo Pieng, Lai Foong Moi, Seah Kim Joo, Chia Yu Chian, Ng Eng Teng and Vincent Hoisington. Choy Weng Yang, an artist and respected curator at the National Museum Art Gallery (NMAG) also knew my father well. The NMAG was the precursor to the National Gallery as it was the very first national visual arts space in Singapore.

When I see the paintings of the Nanyang School in the National Gallery, I am reminded of my visits to the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) with my father on weekends. The academy was then in a rambling bungalow in St Thomas Walk. My father was friends with Nafa's first principal, Lim Hak Tai, and, later on, his son, Lim Yew Kuan, who made a bust of my father.


The foyer of the newly restored National Gallery, which will open on Nov 24. The National Gallery must find ways to bring people back to the artworks, over and over again; find ways for them to be immersed in the works. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Nafa was established in 1938 and many key artists of the Nanyang School - Soo Pieng, Georgette Chen, Chen Chong Swee - taught there. They were migrants from China, trained in Shanghai and Paris, but their paintings expressed their sense of belonging to Singapore.

Art to me is inseparable from one's being. So it appeals to me more when there is a personal connection. I grew up seeing art not as a subject in school, or as a thing of monetary value, but as related to the warmth in my family home. Art wasn't something you collect as a store of value. It was part of your home, of your whole being. And the value of art was tied to that, to your sense of belonging at home and within your self. So the sense of place in art to me is extremely important. By "place", I am talking about place in one's memory, place in one's relationships, place in the context of a larger social milieu.

I relate to art emotionally, not intellectually. I do not have to understand a piece, because I never understood them when I was young anyway. I am aware that most people want a work of art to be explained. But I don't feel it is important for a work of art to be explained. It could become too literal an exercise.

Art must speak to me, to my sensibility, to my emotions. To visitors who walk through the National Gallery and ask, "What am I supposed to see?", I say, let your senses flow. Take music, for example. How do you explain its affect? Art, like music, has to be approached with a certain amount of abandon. It's like learning a new language. There must be openness to the strange beauty of the new language, as well as sustained exposure over time.

So the National Gallery must find ways to bring people back to the artworks, over and over again; find ways for them to be immersed in the works. There is a contemplative aspect to the appreciation of art, which is different from intellectually grasping what it is about. To put it plainly, to know art, one has to make time for it, make time to be immersed in a work, to contemplate it.

I also feel strongly that as a nation, we should know who our artists are. If we do not know the artists in our country and our region, how can we expect them to be known elsewhere?

Art was a formative influence not only in my childhood but also at university. I studied business administration, but spent a lot of time in the library, poring over art books. I enrolled in an extramural course in art history. Through the course, I encountered the familiar names of artists who were my father's friends, but I also learnt about other artists from my good teacher, a local. He taught us not only about art from Europe, but also South-east Asia. I learnt about Picasso and the Impressionists, and I learnt about Malaysian painter Khoo Sui Hoe.

I saw university as a time of discovery, a time to learn everything I could learn about being an educated and cultivated person. University was about much more than graduating with a qualification. Apart from the night classes in art history, I also signed up for a course in classical music. Like the other extracurricular things I was involved in at university, exposure to classical music was part of my journey of growing up, developing my sense of self. For the same reason, I joined the student council and got involved in community service.

What I admire about artists is the way they live their lives as free spirits, free from conventions; and I respect their belief in the freedom of expression through art. That free spirit is something I treasure and I know too that it has to be nurtured. I see the National Gallery as playing the role of promoting and cultivating openness in the public towards art; only then can you bring about acceptance of that broad range of creative expression that artists yearn for and seek.

The gallery will bring art closer to the public, allowing them to see that art is a journey of enjoyment, a cultivation of the senses. This is what I have encountered through artworks.

Beyond that, art has also taught me a vital lesson about being: that fullness and abundance in life can be attained only when we live our lives with openness, with a certain sense of abandon and little fear of the unknown.

•The writer is chairman of the National Gallery. He wrote this piece with Ms Yeo Wei Wei, an author.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline 'At home with art'. Print Edition | Subscribe