Are Singapore ink artists getting enough recognition?

Picasso once famously said that if he had been born Chinese, he would have been a calligrapher, not a painter.

I think that had the Spaniard known more about Chinese art when he said this in 1956, he would have also taken up calligraphy and ink painting as well as seal carving and poetry, as many ink artists usually do.

A literati artist aspires to excel in all these arts. In Singapore, Fan Chang Tien (1907-1987) was a remarkable exemplar of such artistic excellence. But is he getting the recognition he deserves?

This is the question that emerged in a recent symposium on Fan's legacy held in conjunction with an exhibition of his works at The Arts House, which ended on May 20.

The report on the discussion by Leong Weng Kam (Painter Deserves More Recognition, The Straits Times, May 16) calling for greater recognition of Fan's outstanding artistic achievements offers much food for thought.

Calligrapher-poet Pan Shou’s work at HDB Hub.

Some would argue that Fan has been accorded recognition as seen in a major retrospective at the National Museum in 1989 and another at the Singapore Art Museum in 1998.

His family has also published a substantial book on his life and art.

Besides, two of his paintings are included in the exhibition Siapa Nama Kamu? now on at the National Gallery Singapore.

Fan's legacy is an integral part of Singapore's ink tradition, which in itself is an important chapter in the story of Singapore art.

The discussion on whether enough has been done to recognise Fan's achievements could also be extended to other first-generation ink artists such as Lim Hak Tai, Pan Shou, See Hiang To, Wong Jai Ling, Huang Pao Fang and Wu Tsai-yen.

Take calligrapher-poet Pan for instance. His works are found in public places and on the mastheads of publications, but how many people recognise that the works are by one of Singapore's best calligraphers?

Whenever I visit the HDB Hub in Toa Payoh, I go and look at a huge piece of calligraphy by him hanging prominently in a lobby.

The artwork is apt for the headquarters of the Housing and Development Board, whose mission is to provide affordable homes for Singaporeans.

The work contains an extract from a poem by Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (712-770) written by Pan in elegant running script (semi-cursive style) strokes.

The inscription on the work tells us it was done in 1988, but it is not clear when it went up on the wall.

A poet himself, Pan could not have chosen better lines from Song Of My Cottage Unroofed By Autumn Gales to reflect the sentiments of those grateful for having a roof over their head.

In his old age, Du Fu lived in a shabby cottage and one stormy autumn night, strong winds blew the roof off. When he went to recover the roof across the river, he found a group of children running away with it.

In despair he wrote:

If we could have houses built by the thousands,

As shelter for all the world's poor scholars,

Whose faces would brighten up,

As their houses stand solid as a mountain,

Unmoved by the wind and rain.

It is a pity that this great piece of art is hung in a space with heavy foot traffic. Practically everybody who walks past the work is rushing to go somewhere else. They are just too much in a hurry to stop and look at the work.

Perhaps a note can be placed next to it giving more information about the artist, the work and its significance as well as a translation of the poem.

We should do more to help people appreciate such a meaningful work of art.

• Teo Han Wue is former director of Art Retreat incorporating Wu Guanzhong Gallery.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2016, with the headline 'Are Singapore ink artists getting enough recognition?'. Print Edition | Subscribe