Artist stages exhibition after 17 years

Nai Swee Leng will be giving a talk-cum- demonstration at the exhibition next Saturday.
Nai Swee Leng will be giving a talk-cum- demonstration at the exhibition next Saturday. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Nai Swee Leng had no plans of becoming a full-time Chinese ink painter till he sold one of his works

Second-generation Singapore Chinese ink painter Nai Swee Leng, 70, who paints in both the Shanghai and Lingnan schools, is staging his solo exhibition here after 17 years. The exhibition at Ion Art Gallery starts today.

Nai, a disciple of Singapore pioneer artist and Shanghai school practitioner Fang Chang Tien and Lingnan school master Zhao Shao'ang, is showing 50 of his recent works in the show.

His last one-man exhibition was held at the Paragon in Orchard Road in 1999.

On the long break, the artist, who graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) and founded Molan Art Association in 1968, says he has been teaching and taking part in group shows all these years, including many overseas.

"It is not easy finding a suitable venue here and getting the right gallery to organise the show for you is another problem," he says.

  • VIEW IT / EXPRESSING EMOTIONS: NANYANG INK WORKS BY NAI SWEE LENG

    WHERE: Ion Art Gallery, Ion Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn, Level 4

    WHEN: Till next Sunday, 11am to 9pm daily

    ADMISSION: Free

This time, he was persuaded by Cape of Good Hope Art Gallery owner Terence Teo to stage the show.

Nai, who was a freelance graphic designer after graduating from Nafa, had no plans to become a full-time Chinese ink painter.

In the mid-1970s, when he was doing some design work for the former Della Butcher Gallery at Liat Towers, the gallery's boss, Mrs Butcher, asked him if he had any Chinese ink paintings to offer to her clients.

"I told her I could paint them, took one of my works to show her and it was sold on the same day," he recalls.

That gave him the confidence to be a full-time Chinese ink painter and he started teaching Caucasian students Chinese ink painting at the gallery in 1976.

He later taught briefly at Nafa, community centres and the Japanese Association, where he still has students after more than 30 years.

On his chance meeting with the Lingnan master Zhao, Nai says it was unexpected.

In 1982, Singapore art writer and critic K.C. Low showed Nai's paintings to Zhao in Hong Kong and the master wanted to be his teacher immediately.

Nai flew to Hong Kong to meet him and they maintained their master-student relationship until Zhao died in 1998, aged 93.

A painter who believes in free expressions or the xieyi style, Nai says he simply enjoys painting and hopes to share his art pursuit in search of zhen (truth), shan (goodness) and mei (beauty).

As part of the exhibition, he is giving a talk-cum-demonstration in Mandarin, titled Inspired By Traditions, Discovering New Vistas, to explain his thoughts behind his paintings, at the gallery next Saturday at 3pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'Artist stages exhibition after 17 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe