Merdeka takes on various meanings in paintings by Vincent Leow

Artist Vincent Leow with his painting MERDE-KA (2018).
Artist Vincent Leow with his painting MERDE-KA (2018).ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

The Malay word for freedom, "Merdeka", has long been used as a rallying cry for independence in Singapore and Malaysia.

Now the word takes centre stage in two new paintings by Singapore artist Vincent Leow, 57, which are on display at a solo show at iPreciation gallery in Cuscaden Road.

The Last Battle, made using wax, resin, cotton, graphite and varnish, features part of a speech by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad after his dramatic comeback in the Malaysia general election last year.

Next to it is a painting whose strawberry-red hues were inspired by a 1965 photo of a Merdeka banner lifting off over Hong Lim Park. The painting, irreverently titled MERDE-KA - "merde" being French for "sh**" - is filled with definitions of the word "Merdeka".

The word "Merdeka" holds such fascination for Leow because of its rich associations - suggesting independence, prosperity and freedom from slavery - across various cultural contexts.

Leow's exhibition, titled Passing, is a collection of 25 works, mostly paintings, that he created between 2007 and last year. They reflect his sensitivity to current affairs and deal with the idea of loss - which, the artist suggests, could mean anything from death to acts of obfuscation and erasure.

The exhibition runs till Jan 26.

Leow, who teaches at the School of the Arts, was one of the earliest members of contemporary art group The Artists Village.

His works can be found in the collections of the National Gallery Singapore, Singapore Art Museum and the Fukuoka Art Museum.

He was known for his controversial performance art in his younger days. During one show in the early 1990s, he went on stage, urinated into a coffee cup and drank his urine in front of 60 people to show that life goes in circles and that "what comes from you will eventually come back to you".

While the works displayed at Passing might not seem as shocking at first glance, they are provocative in their own way.

More than half of them were created during Leow's time in the United Arab Emirates, where he taught painting at the University of Sharjah from 2008 to 2013. The paintings that emerged from this period were often dark, heavy pieces inspired by events such as the Syrian war and Arab Spring.

When he was in the UAE, Leow's Syrian colleagues and students, who had friends and family in the war-torn country, showed him photos of the war on their mobile phones.

"Some of the images were of torture and abuse... they reminded me of Goya's The Disasters Of War series... and how nothing has changed in terms of the brutality of war."

One painting features a sinister hybrid of a man and a wolf with a severed limb, which is visually echoed in the stump of a tree nearby. Another painting, Big Bad Wolf, comprises multiple images - a city in peril, "horned" human figures, a baby, book, candle and an outline of a dog-like creature - layered over one another .

"I see painting as a little bit like making a film," says Leow. "In the past, paintings were 'films'. If you go into the Louvre or into a church, all these (paintings) tell the story of God... we experience storytelling in a painting... In a way, I try to pack everything into one."

In recent years, rows of text - written out letter by letter using stencils - have featured more heavily in his paintings.

"The text opens up new avenues of how to develop the work, and how people can interpret it differently... (But) when (the artist) is manually copying and writing it out, there is ' loss' - typos, or some of it is faded away.

"Meaning is sometimes only a very small part of a painting."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2019, with the headline 'Merdeka takes on various meanings in paintings'. Print Edition | Subscribe