Powerful, dynamic nude drawings by late pioneer artist S. Namasivayam to go on display in Gillman Barracks

Solamalay Namasivayam, Untitled, 1997. Charcoal and Pastel on Paper, 89 x 119 cm.
Solamalay Namasivayam, Untitled, 1997. Charcoal and Pastel on Paper, 89 x 119 cm.PHOTO: COURTESY OF YEO WORKSHOP

SINGAPORE - The late Singaporean artist and educator Solamalay Namasivayam, who died in 2013 at the age of 87, was a formidable man: a "Michelangelesque" pioneer of figurative art here, and an old-school intellectual who listened to Dvorak, quoted Dante and did not suffer fools.

Yet his contributions as an artist are often overlooked. Ask most people if they have heard of him, and you will likely get blank stares.

"He was really uninterested in self-promotion," explains Audrey Yeo, whose gallery Yeo Workshop will soon run an exhibition of his works. "He was very dedicated to philosophy, academia and life drawings, more so than the celebrity of marketing. He didn't think he was going to make a living from (art)."

Solamalay Namasivayam: Points of Articulation runs at the Gillman Barracks gallery from Nov 16 to Dec 22 and will feature more than 20 works depicting the human figure - from monochromatic charcoal or ink on paper to coloured works done in pastels or gouache. They are from the artist's family and date mostly from the 1990s onwards.

Artists Alvin Ong, Jason Wee, Mike HJ Chang and Milenko Prvacki have also been invited to create art responding to the late artist's work, and these will be displayed at Art Outreach next door.

Namasivayam, or "Nama" to his friends, was a respected educator who spent two decades lecturing at the National Institute of Education. On the cusp of 1990, he formally founded the art society, Group 90, with Chia Wai Hon, Sim Tong Khern and Brother Joseph McNally. They organised life drawing sessions and later included artists such as Liu Kang, Ng Eng Teng and Earl Lu.

This was a time when there was a dearth of formal platforms for people to practise life drawing in Singapore. Nudity was still taboo, and it was hard to find people who would agree to pose nude. Many of the models Namasivayam found for the group were foreign visitors or backpackers.

Yeo says: "I was quite shocked when (Namasivayam's son) pulled out one of his scrolls of an African American man - he was really powerful - and I saw another one of a woman with an equal muscular strength in her thighs. I thought that was a really powerful way to portray a woman's body."

A Colombo Plan Scholar, Namasivayam did his bachelor's degree in fine arts in Sydney. He was interested in anatomy, and would read medical books and visit the morgue there to draw the human body.


Solamalay Namasivayam, Untitled. Charcoal and Pastel on Paper, 119 x 89.5 cm. PHOTO: COURTESY OF YEO WORKSHOP

"He starts with the joints (when he draws)," Yeo observes. "You can see here where medical science intersects with the arts."

Group 90 member Sim, 89, who was a close friend of Namasivayam, speaks of the "dynamic" quality of the figures he painted.


Solamalay Namasivayam, Untitled. Charcoal and Pastel on Paper, 61 x 91 cm. PHOTO: COURTESY OF YEO WORKSHOP

"He didn't draw outlines or shapes but would do a combination of comparative parts to form the complete whole. Since he was able to apply tonal values as well as different qualities of light shapes and forms, each piece seemed to be moving at the end of the exercise. "

Fellow artist Chia wrote in a 1994 essay that Namasivayam "is all for expressing the dynamism of the nude, bursting with an inner energy of Michelangelesque proportions. He works like one possessed who cannot wait to empty his pent-up emotions, carrying everything before him with his very vigorous brush strokes backed by an acute sense of distortion."


Solamalay Namasivayam, Cosmic Balance, 1994. Acrylic on Canvas, 77 x 127 cm. PHOTO: COURTESY OF YEO WORKSHOP

Namasivayam, Yeo suggests, was Singapore's equivalent of Egon Schiele, the famous Austrian figurative painter. "I was surprised to see so much work by a Singaporean artist of the nude life figure, which I thought was more of a European style of art-making. To see that there was a Singaporean artist who had so many works, and this quality of gesture, was pretty amazing."

In a 1997 oral history interview with the National Archives of Singapore, he describes the human figure as "the most difficult of all subjects of art". "If you can master it, you can literally draw anything," says the artist, who had previously also done still life studies of inanimate objects, landscapes, and avant-garde experiments with abstract forms and patterns.

The late artist was a highly articulate speaker and a voracious reader who had a vast collection of art books. He was obsessed with his craft. "Don't be desultory in your work," he remarked in his personal notes. "Once you start your drawing stick to it'."


Solamalay Namasivayam, Untitled. Ink on Paper, 84 x 61 cm. PHOTO: COURTESY OF YEO WORKSHOP

After two decades at NIE, he spent three years at the Singapore Educational Media Service before joining Lasalle College of the Arts in 1987 as a fine arts and specialist lecturer in figure drawing, introducing life drawing into the syllabus.

Namasivayam's son N. Nedumaran describes his father as a "hard taskmasker" and colossal figure who loomed large over him.

  • VIEW IT/ SOLAMALAY NAMASIVAYAM: POINTS OF ARTICULATION

  • Where: Yeo Workshop, 47 Malan Road, 01-25 (main exhibition); Art Outreach, 47 Malan Road, 01-24 (programmes; exhibition of contemporary works)

    When: Nov 16 to Dec 22; 11am to 7pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), noon to 6pm (Sundays), closed on Mondays. Opens from 5.30pm on Nov 16

    Admission: Free

    Info: There will be a talk on Nov 16 from 3pm to 5.30pm.

    On Nov 30, artist Yanyun Chen will run a life drawing session ($25 per participant; materials provided) at Art Outreach from 2pm to 5pm. Strictly only for people aged 18 and above. Sign up at https://lifedrawing-yanyunchen.peatix.com .

    Visit www.yeoworkshop.com, e-mail info@yeoworkshop.com or call 6734-5168 for more information

"He was more like a school principal than a father. I used to respect him from afar," says the 56-year-old writer and illustrator, who grew up in a house in the Teachers' Housing Estate near Upper Thomson Road.

"If I had to choose one word to describe my dad, it was dignity. He didn't suffer fools. He didn't like frivolous people."

Nedumaran recalls that his father had a studio ("his atelier") in the airy basement of their house, and would often paint while listening to classical music.

He would also drive to places such as Upper Peirce Reservoir and across the Causeway into Malaysia, stepping out with his camera and sketchbook if something caught his eye. (These books, filled with sketches, doodles and watercolour vignettes, will also be on display).

"My wish is to take my last breath with a drawn line," Namasivayam told The Sunday Times in 2011. He would die from lung cancer two years later, still drawing and clutching his sketchbook in his final days.