National Gallery Singapore spotlights overlooked artists Chen Cheng Mei, You Khin

The Tailors and the Mannequins: Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin is an exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore. PHOTO: JOSEPH NAIR
The exhibition features 25 artworks and 40 archival materials from Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin. PHOTO: JOSEPH NAIR

SINGAPORE - Two African tailors cut and sew fabric in a workshop in front of their mannequins. Engrossed in their work, their eyes avert the viewer's gaze.

These silent subjects of a 1981 oil painting by Cambodian artist You Khin have inspired the name of National Gallery Singapore's latest exhibition.

Titled The Tailors And The Mannequins: Chen Cheng Mei And You Khin, it runs at the gallery's Dalam Southeast Asia project space from Friday (Oct 29) to April, featuring 25 artworks and 40 archival materials from these two relatively overlooked artists.

Although You Khin and Singapore artist Chen were born 20 years apart and did not know each other, there are parallels between their practices. They often depicted everyday scenes away from South-east Asia - ranging from Chen's print of women in Pakistan doing laundry to You Khin's oil painting of bakers in Doha.

Chen, who died last year (2020) at the age of 93, was one of the pioneers of the Ten Men Art Group. You Khin died of lung cancer in 2009 at age 62.

Curator Roger Nelson says the painting of the tailors - done while You Khin was living in the Ivory Coast - represents some interests shared by both artists.

The first was a fascination with unfamiliar people and places. The second was a focus on fabric and clothing, which "emphasise the exterior qualities of the people they are depicting".

"While they had a fascination with unfamiliar people and places, they are not pretending to offer us some special insight into these people. They are allowing the inner lives of people and cultures that are unfamiliar to them to remain opaque, or a little hidden from view."

Chen, who majored in Western painting at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, worked as a French translator for a bank in Singapore. She travelled widely and took more than 200 trips to regions such as Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific.

You Khin spent about three decades away from Cambodia. After graduating with a degree in interior architecture in 1973 - two years before the Khmer Rouge seized power - he furthered his studies in France before living in Sudan, the Ivory Coast and Qatar. Despite being a refugee and, for some time, a stateless person, he remained a prolific artist and continued to hold solo exhibitions.

"Both Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin have confounded our expectations of an artist who is a woman, or an artist who is a refugee," Dr Nelson adds.

Despite the role Chen played in helping to establish the Ten Men Art Group, she received less recognition than many of its male members, one of whom was Cultural Medallion recipient Lim Tze Peng.

Trading Room by Chen Cheng Mei. PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

Dr Nelson says: "She didn't hold her first solo exhibition in Singapore until she was in her 70s. She was an unusual artist who was not so interested in fame and fortune through her art, but rather was incredibly prolific and quite private.

"Another factor we can't discard is that many artists who are women have historically been overlooked in place of their male counterparts, and that's something we at the gallery are working hard to correct today."

The Tailors And The Mannequins exhibition focuses on the 1970s to 2000s, when both You Khin and Chen were inspired by their encounters with people and places across the global south.

The silent subjects of a 1981 oil painting by Cambodian artist You Khin have inspired the name of National Gallery Singapore's latest exhibition. PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

Most of the artworks are from the gallery's collection. You Khin's are recent acquisitions, and some of Chen's are being shown for the first time.

It is the first show to take place in the gallery's new Dalam Southeast Asia project space. Three more small exhibitions, which will also spotlight overlooked artists from the region, are slated to run by 2023.

Dr Nelson adds: "Every year, more than 100 artworks in the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery are changed as part of our regular refreshing of the exhibition.

"It is our hope that Dalam Southeast Asia provides people with an impetus to return to the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery and see what else is there for them to discover."

You Khin (left) and Chen Cheng Mei were born 20 years apart and did not know each other but there are parallels between their practices, which often depict everyday scenes away from South-east Asia. PHOTOS: NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVE/GIFT OF YOU MOY/WIFE OF ARTIST, COURTESY OF FAMILY OF CHEN CHENG MEI

View it/The Tailors and the Mannequins: Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin

Where: Dalam Southeast Asia, UOB Southeast Asia Gallery, Level 3 National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road
When: Oct 29 to April 10, 10am to 7pm daily
Admission: Free for Singaporeans and permanent residents
Info: National Gallery Singapore's website

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