Pioneers of South-east Asian art

National Language Class (1959), an oil on canvas by Chua Mia Tee, depicts students learning Malay ahead of the expected merger of Malaya and Singapore.
National Language Class (1959), an oil on canvas by Chua Mia Tee, depicts students learning Malay ahead of the expected merger of Malaya and Singapore. PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE
Forest Fire (1849) by Raden Saleh Sjarif Boestaman, a pioneer of modern art in Indonesia. In Liu Kang's Artist And Model, which depicts a Balinese woman posing for his friend Chen Wen Hsi, the painter used brighter colours than he normally would have
Forest Fire (1849) by Raden Saleh Sjarif Boestaman, a pioneer of modern art in Indonesia.PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE
In Liu Kang’s Artist And Model, which depicts a Balinese woman posing for his friend Chen Wen Hsi, the painter used brighter colours than he normally would have.
In Liu Kang’s Artist And Model, which depicts a Balinese woman posing for his friend Chen Wen Hsi, the painter used brighter colours than he normally would have. PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

FORERUNNER OF MODERN ART

Hailing from Semarang, Central Java, Raden Saleh Sjarif Boestaman was one of the pioneers of modern art in Indonesia.

By the time he was in his 40s, the painter, who lived from 1811 to 1880, had made a name for himself in Europe and was even awarded the title of King's Painter by King William III of the Netherlands.

One of Raden Saleh's pieces, titled Forest Fire and now at the National Gallery Singapore, was painted for the king. The painting is set in his homeland. The artist was influenced by Romanticism, which emphasises imagination and emotions, and sometimes used wild animals to portray human behaviour.

His success paved the way for other artists in the region, says National Gallery Singapore director Eugene Tan.

Tham Yuen-C


COMBINING EAST AND WEST

In 1952, Singapore painters Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee, all immigrants from China, went on a trip to Bali to paint.

A year later, the group held an exhibition at the British Council Hall in Singapore, dubbed the "Bali Exhibition", now widely seen as the start of the Nanyang School art movement. Although they did not intentionally set out to start an art movement, they had evolved a distinct style combining Western painting techniques with South-east Asian topics and principles of art.

Liu, for instance, used brighter colours than he normally would have, in his painting Artist And Model, which depicted a Balinese woman posing for his friend Chen Wen Hsi.

The Nanyang School became one of the most influential art movements in Singapore and Malaya, and influenced many other artists.


MIRROR OF THE TIMES

A group of Chinese students learning Malay ahead of the expected merger of Malaya and Singapore, and workers having lunch at the canteen in Jurong Shipyard.

These are the very ordinary scenes of Singaporean life depicted in the works of realist painter and Cultural Medallion winner Chua Mia Tee, 84.

But though they may look like everyday scenes, the paintings typically hint at the social concerns of the day.

Ask Mr Chua why he paints these things, and he will tell you it is to give people a glimpse into his thoughts.

The painter belonged to the Equator Art Society, which existed from 1956 to 1972, made up of a group of artists who believed that art should be used to reflect society and record social problems and evils.

Their paintings now provide a snapshot of what life was like then, documenting, and sometimes commenting on, the evolution of Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'Pioneers of South-east Asian art'. Print Edition | Subscribe