Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Malim Nawar Morning - a prose poem

A prose poem inspired by seven years in rural Malaysia

Honey Khor's Scintillating images of Love

Booklet for forthcoming solo showcase, 9th November 2014, Zhe Xuan Fine Art Gallery, Cheras, Malaysia

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Cambodia Chill - a prose poem

Based on 3 years of observational writing in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Nanyang Style?

An illustrated 'essay' charting the founding and growth of what has become known as the 'Nanyang Style' of Art in Malaysian and Singapore.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

A Nanyang Sharing

31st August 2014
Streetview Hotel
Muar, Johor

A Nanyang Sharing.

After a day sketching the visual delights of Muar, in the State of Johor, Malaysia, a host of kind people took time out to listen to me share what little knowledge I have accrued in regards to Nanyang, the (Singapore) Nanyang style of painting, its forebears and those who continued the style.

I was counterpointed by Dr Cheah Thien Soong, a son of Nanyang and renowned modernist ink brush painter and teacher, aided by my dear wife - artist Pei Yeou (aka Honey Khor) and Si Jie Loo. We thank all who were involved with the sharing, especially Lau Moa Seng (another son of Nanyang) and his hard working family, Yeo Eng Hin (together with his wife, both former students of Nanyang) and members of the audience who also had connections to Nanyang, for helping co-ordinate the event and MC Teo Peng Heng James, plus all who ensured this event was a great success.

It was an off-the-cuff sharing which had begun with the idea of just a few friends talking and drinking together. The idea grew and before I knew it, and as unprepared as I was, I was 'lecturing' to a hall of interested parties at the Streetview Hotel in Muar. There were no slides, only a whiteboard, but thank whatever power that may be for that whiteboard and its pens, as I slipped into 'teacher' mode, not for the first time, and dragged up what little knowledge I had. But it was all good, and we have been booked to do a second and third round, but a little bit more prepared perhaps. Below are some of the images.
Teo Peng Heng James
Honey Khor

A view to the audience

Dr Cheah Thien Soong

The obligatory group photo

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Road trip to Nanyang

The name Nanyang simply means South Seas, or South East Asia (in Mandarin). The term refers to those lands reached from China via the South China Sea, but in art terminology Nanyang has also come to mean a fusion of Western and Eastern artistic styles (especially in Singapore) into a new style - the Nanyang style of art.

Our idea (such as it was), was to travel down to Singapore, meet some nice people and collect some information about the Nanyang Academy of Arts. And that we did, in a roundabout way, for life has a strange way of changing your plans. To quote Robert Burns……

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren't alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy.

Or, in English, the best laid plans of mice and men, often go astray.

We had thought of going directly to Singapore, by bus, feet up watching copious films. We  changed to driving down, and staying with our friend in Johor Bahru and chatting endless chats. Eventually, with a little nudging from friends, we added a diversion to see an exhibition in Malacca to the itinerary, stayed over for two nights, and the road trip was never the same thereafter.

With the niggling thought of beginning to write about the Nanyang (Southern Seas) style of Singaporean art we (the intrepid Dusun team), climbed into our brilliant red motor vehicle - comparable to the Bat car, or Green Hornet’s ‘Black Beauty and, on Sunday, 27th July, as the Selangor sun was customarily blazing, we launched out from Kuala Lumpur towards the ancient port of Malacca. Malacca, if you recall, is famed for its mix of Chinese and Malay peoples, architecture, dress style and foods in a unique style called Baba/Nonya, also called Peranakan (descendent). 

That sensually intriguing port (of Malacca) had been variously a Malay fishing village, a Singaporean sultanate refuge, a Portuguese, then Dutch and finally a British colony, and now a prized possession of the Federation of Malaysia. Intrepid Chinese seafarers, adventurous Chinese settlers and brave Chinese sea commanders all thought highly of Malacca. In modern times, Malacca preserves lashings of authentic Chinese heritage, amidst remnants of Portuguese and Dutch styles, as well as the general tat of tourist paraphernalia.

Malacca’s Li Chi Mao Art Museum is a repository of the works of Prof. Li Chi Mao, born in Woyang County, Anhuei Province, China, in 1925, and is considered a national treasure in Taiwan. The museum (art gallery) honouring him is situated on Lorong Hang Jebat, Malacca, and was hosting an exhibition of art relating to that city by five exceptional Chinese Malaysian artists - Yip Sek Quai, Chua Chay Hwa, Tan Puey Tee, Lau Mao Seng and Yeo Eng Hin. The exhibition was called Malacca’s Decade of Changes. It was a ‘joint painting’ exhibition.

And what, other than being Chinese Malaysians, you might wonder, was the significance of this exhibition in relation to the afore mentioned Nanyang style from Singapore. Well, as it turns out, three out of five artists exhibiting at Li Chi Mao were former direct students of the Nanyang Academy. Husband and wife team Chua Chay Hwa and Yeo Eng Hin graduated from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, in Singapore, 1978 and 1977 respectively, and went on to follow the links created with France, by Nanyang teacher Georgette Chen, by attending the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris. Lau Mao Seng graduated from Nanyang somewhat earlier - in 1967. Tan Puey Tee is a retired school headmaster and self taught painter, while Yip Sek Quai graduated from the Kuala Lumpur Collage of Art, itself having connections to Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, as the founder of Kuala Lumpur College of Art (Cheah Yew Saik) was, himself, a graduate from Nanyang.
As you might expect, from such a dynamic five person exhibition, there was a profusion of styles and images at Malacca’s Decade of Changes. A proliferation of fused Western and Eastern styles from Impressionism (Chua Chay Hwa) Expressionism (Lau Mao Seng - slated to feature in Dusun Quarterly soon) Cubism (Yip Sek Quai), as well as a blend of watercolour and Chinese ink painting from Tan Puey Tee. Yeo Eng Hin (featured in Dusun Quarterly 1 2013) rendered remarkable cityscapes in his own inimitable style, playing with texture and spectator/artist interaction. There is little doubt that the exhibition was a resounding success. How could it be otherwise with such experienced artists presenting their works for an eager public. Surrounded by intriguing artworks, we debated origins of Nanyang, its style and its forebears deferentially, and just a tad intensely as the audience was represented by many factions of the Malaysian art world - auction houses, galleries, artists and art critics (well, me). For me, the stars of the show were the ebullient, vibrantly energetic neo-Expressionist canvas-board oil pastels, vigorously created by Muar artist Lau Mao Seng.

Yet the surprises were only just beginning.

Opposite our, far from salubrious, hotel in Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Malacca, rested a small, yet fascinating, gallery of modern art - the Shih Wen Naphaporn Artist Studio. Owner, painter and all round good fellow Chiang Shih Wen (graduate of the already mentioned Kuala Lumpur College of Art) and his stunning artist wife Naphaporn Phanwiset, guided us around their artworks and what made the gallery tick, metaphorically that is. 

Chiang Shih Wen’s artworks are heavily reminiscent of Dali’s Cubist Self Portrait (1923) and the Russian painter Lyubov Popova’s ‘Painterly Architectonics’ (1915 to 1919). Brightly coloured strips of Malacca’s Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese architectures tend to excite the visitor’s eyes, giving a remarkable visual flavour of Chiang Shih Wen’s Malacca. Taking trouble to execute detail, Chiang Shih Wen meticulously adds the text of Malacca sign boards to his imagery in multicoloured, scintillating, street scenes. As well as the obvious likenesses to various approaches to Cubism, there is something of the Fauve about that painter, forging his own painterly style in his fascinating home town. 

In the studio, wooden trays of ‘Rembrandt’ oil colours and pots of workmanlike brushes shared space with Taoist/Buddhist figures, Yves Saint Laurent Belle D’Opium and L’Oreal Studio, as you might expect from an area shared by male and female artists. 

Naphaporn Phanwiset (Chiang Shih Wen’s wife), had recently been painting images of luscious, exotic and maybe even erotic fruit, reminiscent of Lim Kim Hai (more of him down the page). Not long ago, Naphaporn Phanwiset had produced a peach painting. It bore all the well rounded and sensual hallmarks of a budding Georgia O’Keeffe. A table cloth with all the sexual suggestiveness of an 0’Keeffe, was mounted by very feminine peaches and masculine standing bottles. The painting seemed to revel in its potential lewdness. It was a triumph of feminism and female boldness. The question became rhetorical as the viewer might consider ‘how could she not paint fruit when her husband had, and their very good friend Lim Kim Hai (aka The Apple Man) does’, but Naphaporn Phanwiset, with O’Keeffe potential, has stripped away Lim Kim Hai's classicism, replacing it with a budding sensuality which one hopes will only grow and bare even more mouthwatering fruit, actual and metaphorical.

Master painter Lim Kim Hai was with us on that day, in Chiang Shih Wen’s gallery. Having taken our farewells of the gallery, we stepped back into the Malacca humidity and squeezed along the minuscule, ramshackle, pathways to Lim Kim Hai's studio gallery, also doubling as a repository for his collection of fine antiques, further along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. 

Like Chua Chay Hwa and Yeo Eng Hin, Lim Kim Hai is a graduate of that famous Nanyang Academy of Fine Art. Also like them, he headed to Paris after graduation but stayed on until 2002, when he finally settled in Malacca to resume his painting. Lim Kim Hai is somewhat unfairly known as ‘The Apple Man’, due to the many canvases he has painted of that very European fruit. I say unfairly, because he has only been painting apple ‘portraits’ since the 1980s, and exclusively since 1990. Before his concentration on the one subject (apples), Lim Kim Hai had learned to paint, exquisitely, in a classical European (detailed) style.

Lim Kim Hai’s studio/gallery is at the rear of his huge collection of Malaysian antiques. Number 42 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (named after the founder of Malacca’s Chinese Association) was formerly the Dutch Heeren Street and is at the very core of the Unesco World Heritage Site of Malacca. Coming off the street, the first ‘room’ presented a wealth (literally) of antique furniture and silk carpets. The carpets reminded me of those I had witnessed in carpet showrooms in Northern India. Beautiful silk carpets with a unique silk sheen and delicate coloration. Gaps amidst the wall clad fruit cornucopia, indicated the spaces where paintings had been recently sent to Singapore, for a group exhibition. Wooden, antique, furniture brought the Chinese feel closer. Chairs for house and clan leaders differed from those of the lesser members of the family, but we were not there to ogle Lim Kim Hai’s antiques, as beautiful as they were, but to see his studio.

At the very rear of the antique gallery, Lim Kim Hai’s spacious studio piqued our curiosity. We were lucky to witness three canvases, in three different stages of completion, one standing on a terracotta tiled floor and the other two on wooden easels, one larger, one smaller. The artist explained his process, from initial background colour (in this case colours, brushed together to represent a golden hue), to the first tentative drawings of apples, through to his first colours and a near-finished work, replete with apple ‘portraits’. To my wife (she being a painter) he explained his painterly techniques and the lack of linseed oil, the use of varnish and turpentine (not white spirit). To me he explained that he kept his ‘subjects’ in the fridge. A moment of unease came over me until I realised that he didn’t mean dead bodies, but apples. With that he produced a bag of ’pommes’ (French), being kept fresh in his fridge, and laid them out for us to see the subjects of his current paintings.

The following morning, after July rain and tears in our eyes, we reluctantly left Malacca and dropped in on Muar, in the neighbouring state of Johor. Muar is an ancient city, believed to be older even than Malacca and, like Malacca, had been variously visited by the British, Dutch and Portuguese over the years. We were there to follow up on the brief meeting we had with veteran Nanyang artist Lau Moa Seng, in that Malacca exhibition. 

The Malacca rain had followed us into Johor state, and its northern capital Muar. Through the rain we weaved with that infamous Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid song making the dampness a little more romantic than it really was. We found Eng Bee Book Co, amidst gardens that would put most Malaysian plant nurseries to shame, and were warmly welcomed by Lau Moa Seng and his enthusiastic family.

Picking our way through what was, in reality, not a book store but a wonderland art store, ducking under suspended flying frogs (more resembling Garuda than any frogs I had yet to encounter) and further marvelling at curious examples of colourful rocks on wooden plinths, we eventually came to the store at the rear of the building. And what a store it was, more like Warehouse 13 than a shop store, and in that virtual Chinese Aladdin’s Cave were life-sized wooden artist’s mannikins. imported from China. Unnerving male, female and child mannikins stood on huge shelving units, sternly, woodenly regarding us with eerily blank expressions.

In the main section was a corridor. To the left of that corridor, about four foot from the ground, was a long segmented rack, from which Lau Moa Seng began to pull canvas boards of his stunning paintings. It was estimated that there were well over two hundred oil pastel ‘painted’ canvases on those racks, all with a sombre black background from which sparkling colours would catch the viewer’s eye.

Muar life was represented, vividly, on those energetic canvas boards. They were the byproduct of many years of vigorous, vivacious Expressionistic fervour, as Lau Moa Seng sought to capture his neighbours and his neighbourhood in his hometown of Muar. Each canvas board was a lightning ‘sketch’, capturing the moment and, in many ways reminiscent of Georgette Chen’s works. Georgette Li Ying Chen was Lau Moa Seng’s teacher at the Nanyang Academy, in Singapore, she taught there from 1954 to 1980 and was using pastels exclusively during the 1960s. Lau Moa Seng graduated from the Nanyang Academy in 1967.

Lau Moa Seng explained that canvas board, alone, was suitable for his zealous way of working. Framed canvas was too flexible, unable to resist his animated way of working. He needed a surface resistant to his robust strokes of oil pastel, and small enough to be completed at one sitting en plein air.

Loaded with art books, art materials and a mind full of superb oil canvas board ‘paintings’, we bade farewell to those amazing people at the Eng Bee Book Co, and travelled south, to Johor Bahru. It was there that we reconnected with our dear interior design friend from the MIA (Malaysian Institute of Arts - founded by Chung Chen Sun, a Nanyang Academy graduate, in 1967), left our car and travelled on by bus, across the causeway, on to Merlion Island (Singapore), for research about the Nanyang Academy.

Foo Kwee Horng, a former assistant to Professor T. K. Sabapathy (along with Redza Piyadasa, a writer on all things Nanyang, and an inspiration to all art historians in Malaysia and Singapore) met with us and, through a couple of meetings, gave me information re the Nanyang Academy. It was a positive time in Singapore, the SAM (Singapore Art Museum), the Singapore National Library and the meetings that we had. 

It was exciting to be in ‘Nanyang City’, the birthplace of a style, ideas, concepts of Western and Eastern art that began a fusion with the founding of the Nanyang Academy in 1938, and that historical trip to Bali in 1952. Nanyang resonates in Singapore and Malaysia to the present day. Our trip was a ‘look see’, in preparation for a much longer exposition. I pondered on that while Pei Yeou, my artist wife and graduate from MIA, drove us via Port Dickson, back to Selangor.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

That Nanyang Touch

I was at the Nanyang Touch exhibition, housed in the Chinese Assembly Hall, Kuala Lumpur. Amidst swaying crimson Chinese drapes, Dr Cheah Thien Soong, president of Cao Tang Men Eastern Arts Society and master Nanyang Chinese ink painter, was waxing lyrically eloquent in Mandarin. His dignified white pony tail nodded as he talked. It was a testimony to his comfortable earnestness, in that hall, in this year of the horse (Ma), now galloping past it's 2014 zenith. It was Nanyang Touch, the Cao Tang Men Eastern Arts Society exhibition, and the hall was bedecked with Chinese dignitaries, Chinese ink painting artists and their brush-stroked, absorbent paper works hung as testimonies to diligence.

The red lanterns were raised, but without Yimou Zhang filming was restricted to stills. The insistent flash of digital photography, illuminating earnest speakers and idle gawkers alike, caught us all like rabbits in the glare, but we all became enlightened, in many other ways, during those hours of the exhibition.

The Chinese Assembly Hall, tucked away at Kuala Lumpur’s No.1, Jalan Maharajalela, was acutely reminiscent of a bygone era. There were shades and echoes of 1930s Art Deco amidst its Neo—Classical structure, but now anachronistic, ageing, worn by so many operas, rumbustious speechifying and the annual Gong Xi Fa Choi bon homie. In another age, and in another ‘motherland’, red cheeked, moon faced young maidens might have peered from the balconies, at spring or moon festivals, proud of their heritage, culture, their simple good fortune at being born into a race of such exceptionally talented people.

It was to honour both Dr Cheah Thien Soong and his hard working, persistently artistic students, that the illustrious and the talented were gathered, seated, intent on Mandarin speakers on the crimson stage. Dr Cheah Thien Soong, in this the year of the horse, was represented in Chinese ink, painted, sitting proud on his black stallion mount, like Sun Wu, smiling broadly for his audience. Dr Cheah Thien Soong is chief, a general of the arts, he is a Nanyang innovator, inspiring yet another generation of creative beings.

Dr Cheah is a former Nanyang (South Seas) Academy of Fine Arts (Singapore) student. Nanyang, if you will remember, led the way from the 1930s, to somewhere in the 1980s/90s, as a most original and perhaps even profound school of art. Taking its name from the region it was in, Nanyang had been one of many such, predominately Chinese, art schools springing up as Chinese immigrant artists fled their homeland, and settled in Singapore during the 1930s. Nanyang, founded by artist and teacher Lim Hak Tai, was the only one to survive the Japanese invasion, and gradually became a haven for visiting Chinese artists, giving lectures. After secession from Malaysia (1965), both Singapore and Nanyang grew exponentially.

Other than being the premier art school in the region, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts was responsible for developing a unique fusion of Western (Paris) and Eastern (China) styles of art, emerging from out of what was loosely called the Shanghai School. Singapore in those years between 1920s and the 1950s was a melting-pot of cultures, with Western artists and Chinese artists visiting and exhibiting. Oil on canvas, and ink on paper, were equally valid and valued in the Nanyang Academy. It is rumoured that it was a trip to Bali (1952), by Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang, that hastened the metamorphosis of styles, bringing a greater awareness of the region to those Chinese artists, who were so impressed with the brightness of colours, and the general ambiance of that Hindu island.

Nanyang broke with Chinese tradition for the ink painting artists, and stirred up a renewed vigour for the oil painters who, perhaps, were subconsciously working through echoes of Western Post-Impressionism, and in particular those semi-erotic images delivered to a Victorian world by Paul Gaugin, imaging his South Seas. Elements of local (Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian) flora and fauna began to insinuate themselves onto absorbent ink papers, deviating from the strict signs, symbols and metaphors associated with traditional Chinese ink painting. Georgette Chen, educated in Paris, New York and Shanghai, brought her own fusion of Eastern and Western styles to Nanyang when she moved to Singapore (from Penang) in 1954.

The Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), Malaysia’s first school of art, from which my own dear wife graduated, was founded in Kuala Lumpur (1966) by  Chung Chen Sun, who himself was a graduate of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Dr Cheah Thien Soong, one of my wife’s teachers, graduated also from the Nanyang, in 1962, and in 1990 began teaching at the Malaysian Institute of Art to continue the innovations began in Singapore so many years previously.

In that Kuala Lumpur Assembly Hall, the fusion of local imagery and authentic Chinese brushwork was nowhere more evident than in those magnificent images of red-headed hornbills, bustling marketing women, bedazzling bright blue and green peacocks and the majestic jackfruit, plump, hanging, barely able to contain the gravity begging the pair to spread their seeds in the waiting, fecund, earth.

In the Nanyang Touch exhibition, Malaysia was seen with fresh, excited eyes, rendered with practised dexterity and presented to an anxiously waiting public with aplomb. Ink brush painting was revealed as more adroit, more adventurous than ever could have been imagined in Shanghai. That tentative grafting, began in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore, had quite literally borne fruit in those two hanging Artocarpus heterophylli (Nangka) which served as symbols of a bright new future for that Nanyang Touch, which Dr Cheah Thien Soong strives each year to preserve and prosper.

To say that the exhibition was a success was to underestimate the whole enterprise. It was a superb undertaking by a skilled team, lead by an enthused leader committed to his art and to the crafts of his culture and heritage. In its links to the forerunners of Malaysia’s art eduction system, Nanyang Touch reminds us all of the debt that Malaysia owes to both the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and to the Malaysian Institute of Art, their teachers and their graduates.