story of singapore art

A Story of Singapore Art

An art feast that capturesa uniquely modern Singapore cross-fertilized by decades of East-West sensibility in fine art.

A Brief Overview

The story of Singapore art could be said to have first taken roots when the island flourished as a colonial port city under the British Empire. In addition to imported labourers from India and China, unrest and destitution brought on by civil conflicts and the great world wars culminated to a significant exodus of Chinese intellectuals (educators, scholars, writers and painters) and businessmen to Singapore in search of better work-life opportunities. By the early-20thcentury, Singapore (then still part of the Straits Settlements) was already a melting pot of diverse migrant traditions and cultures;the early Singapore art scene was naturally underpinned by these developments.

story of singapore art

During this period, most schools under the British Colonial system taught watercolour, charcoal and pastel lessons under its main art scheme while the more distinguished Chinese language-based schools such as Chinese High School often taught a combination of Western oil and Chinese ink paintings (in fact, a number of these Chinese art teachers were previously exposed to the Paris School of Art and classical Chinese painting during their art education in China in the 1920s).

Furthermore, art societies including United Artists Malaysia as well as the Society of Chinese Artists were in place in as early as the 1930s, and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) was formally established by Chinese artist-educator Lim Hak Tai in 1938.

To paint a simplified picture: the local art production in early Singapore may be broadly characterised into three veins –the traditional Chinese painting, the Nanyang style, and British watercolour style.

A composition by one of Singapore’s most influential pioneer watercolourists, Lim Cheng Hoe (1912 –1979). The artist was known for his appropriation of traditional British watercolour style in his depictions of local landscapes.

While the first adhered strictly to the painting and literati traditions in early Chinese culture, the latter two evolved into mainstream modern art styles; the Nanyang style in particular came to dominate the artistic climate in Singapore during the 1950s –1980s and would continue to exert significant influences today. Among the 2nd-generation artists (usually born between late 1930s –early 1950s) in Singapore, a small handful also managed to travel abroad for art education in the West; common destinations include London, America and Paris. As a result, they were able to actualise their practices in a context dramatically different from the more mainstream styles.

All the artists selected for this showcase are among our country’s most significant talents; they consist of varying styles and fortes and are in more than one way shaped by these transforming developments in Singapore history.

Pioneer Lineage

The Nanyang School was propagated by early Chinese immigrants comprising educators and artists who were schooled in both Chinese and dominant Western art styles before relocating from China. Most eventually taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and their practices posit an amalgam of East-West fine art concepts characterized by a distinct South-east Asian socio-cultural experience.

In 1952, 4 pioneer Chinese artists (who were also art teachers in NAFA and Chinese High School) Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Chong Swee embarked on a landmark painting trip to Bali. Inspired by the unique life and traits of the idyllic tropics, they returned with fresh inspirations and began devising groundbreaking pictorial styles that sparked off what would later be coined by Malayan art historians as the “Nanyang style of art”. This exerted great impact on the future generations of art students who enrolled at NAFA.

Cheong Soo Pieng(right) and Chen Wen Hsi (below)were among the immigrant wave of pioneer artist-educators who settled in Singapore in the 1930s; they subsequently evolved a highly stylized pictorial language embodying both Eastern and Western art practices localized in a Southeast Asian context–a trait that blossomed into a “trademark” of Singapore art.


One of Soo Pieng’s most stylised and iconic paintings, Drying Salted Fish, which depicts an idyllic Malayan village market scene is featured alongside Wen Hsi’s famous Chinese ink repertoire of Gibbons on the back of Singapore’s $50 bill.

Cheong Soo Pieng, Drying Salted Fish, 1978, Chinese ink and watercolour on cloth, 55.5 x 88.5 cm
Cheong Soo Pieng, Island, 1967, Oil on canvas, 96 x 70 cm

sland stems from a famous semi-abstract series devised by Soo Pieng between 1966 and 1968. Employing a unique and highly accomplished method of thin oil technique, the composition evokes a poetic subtlety reminiscent of a Chinese ink painting and exudes an idyllic tranquillity.

2nd-Generation Artists

Many pioneer artists and their students (the latter group usually comprises 2nd-generation Singapore-Chinese artists born between the late 1930s and early 1980s) developed their oeuvres in the Nanyang style and it remained the dominant school of art in Singapore between the 1950s and the 1970s.

It is important to note that the 2nd-generation artists were raised in an increasingly urbanized Singapore,hence their art do not stubbornly emulate a distinct Nanyang style crafted by their predecessors at NAFA.

There also exist some groups who consciously deviated from that path and carved a markedly different stylistic niche for themselves. To name a few significant groups: the Anglo-educated influenced by British Watercolour Style, the Equator Arts Society which adopted and localized the Social-Realist style in Europe, and those who went abroad for their art education and sought to express their Asian identity within a broader Western world.

The 2nd-generation artists in our show may be contextualized within these varying veins:

Tan Choh Tee was a graduate from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and was taught by several of the pioneer artists including Cheong Soo Pieng. During his education at NAFA, Choh Tee was deeply influenced by Western Modern Art movementss uch as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

His pictorial style is realist-impressionist in general; characterized by solid yet gestural brushwork and a rich, flavourful palette. He remains a persistent plein-air painter when it comes to capturing natural scenery, village and urban landscapes. His oil paintings of still life and nude are also popular among local collectors.

Tan Choh Tee, Loyang Malay Kampung, 2010, Oil on canvas, 65 x 53 cm
Tan Choh Tee, Mangosteens, 2010, Oil on canvas 36 x 46 cm

Ong Kim Seng followed the British watercolour style (typically characterized by broad brushwork and translucent washes; this was previously roliferated by pioneer artists such as Lim Cheng Hoe who attended the British colonial education system since the 1920s and subsequently pursued the watercolour medium in tandem with the modernisation of Singapore). Kim Seng studied in English schools and in his youth painted with The Sunday Group painters led by Lim Cheng Hoe. Raised in this particular backdrop and through decades of experimentation with the watercolour medium, he developed a charming and lyrical repertoire of watercolour landscape s unrivalled in the local art scene.

Kim Seng is a Cultural Medallion Awardee (1990) and winner of 7 awards from the prestigious American Watercolour Society.In addition to local and overseas museums and galleries, his works can be seen on display at several foreign missions and embassies representing Singapore. He also counts Queen Elizabeth II, Mr. Koizumi and Mr. H.E. Kofi Anan among the long list of royalties and diplomats who collect his watercolour landscapes.His Nepal series, in particular,is considered a premium collection on the market.

Ong Kim Seng, Nepal, 2013, Watercolour on paper, 53 x 73 cm
Ong Kim Seng, River Valley Road, 2014, Watercolour on paper, 36 x 51cm

A Cultural Medallion Award winner in 2003, Lim Tze Pengh as been writing and painting for over six decades. Though largely self-taught in art, he has amassed a diverse portfolio that traverses various mediums, and is most known for his nostalgic ink compositions of Old Singapore scenes as well as highly stylized series of Chinese calligraphy.

Since mid-2000s, the artist has been developing a ground breaking body of calligraphic work that pushes the conventional boundaries and re-appropriates the ideographic relations between painting and calligraphy. Rising above the preoccupation with legibility and signification, these modern calligraphic works attest to Tze Peng’s evolving practice and his ability to wield the Chinese brush in an increasingly free and uninhibited manner.

Lim Tze Peng, Old Chinatown, 1980s, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 68 x 68 cm
Lim Tze Peng, Calligraphy (春风不度玉门关), 2013,Chinese ink on paper, 100 x 103 cm

This calligraphy is rendered an effect reminiscent of ancient Chinese seal-engraving. The artist quotes the last line from a famous Tang poem, Liangzhou Song:

The Yellow River fades way up into the white clouds,A speck of a lone town amidst soaring peaks.The Qiang flute need not blame the willows,For the spring breeze doesn’t cross the Yumen Pass.

Wong Keen is among the small handful of 2nd-generation Singapore artists who studied art in the West and since early on deviated from the mainstream style in Singapore. Although as a young boy he took drawing and painting lessons under eminent pioneer artists Liu Kang and Chen Wen Hsi (who were also his family friends and teachers at the Chinese High School), he set his sight further than NAFA and boldly moved to America at 19 years of age after being accepted by the Art Students League in New York in 1961.

This early unusual path resulted in an innovative and distinct stylistic language shaped by Abstract Expressionism as well his early knowledge of Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. When he left in 1961, he was the first Singaporean to pursue art in New York and was the first Asian-Singaporean to have won the Edward G. McDowell Travelling Scholarship (1965) in the history of Art Students League. In Singapore, Wong Keen is most famed for his abstract executions of lotuses, nudes and landscapes and the Singapore Art Museum celebrated his masterful repertoire with a solo exhibition in 2007.

Wong Keen, Emerging of the Purple, 2013, Acrylic on rice paper, 104 x 97 cm
Wong Keen, Emerging of the Yellow, 2013, Acrylic on rice paper, 105 x 97 cm

Siew Hock Meng studied for a year at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and was also a student of Cheong Soo Pieng. However, unlike most of his contemporaries who ended up developing a localized version of Modern western expression, Hock Meng leaned towards the Realist style and participated at one point in the Equator Art Society painting activities (an influential art society propagating a Realist-Socialist art program between the late 1950s and 1970s).

Hock Meng’s visual language is morphed from years of independent and devoted study in realism and aesthetics in general.He is highly regarded in the region for his forte in pastel compositions, oil portraits and allegorical paintings imbued with complex mood and nuanced sensuality.

Siew Hock Meng, Bird’s Eye View, 2003, Oil on canvas, 41 x 51 cm
Siew Hock Meng, Bird’s Eye View, 1992, Pastel on cardboard, 60 x 80 cm

Young and/or Emerging Artists

Singapore has been for the last three decades, a modernized city with an increasingly globalized outlook; this is no doubt reflected in the practices of younger artists whotend to break away from the subject matter and medium expression particularly favoured by the older generations of artists.

Young and/or emerging artists typically occupy an important yet transient position within the art market –en route to accumulating artistic mileage, most of their works remain competitive and affordable on the market; once a breakthrough in status is achieved, the price differentiation for a young artist’s work becomes increasingly distinct and high in value.

Anthony Chua Say Hua is a prominent 3rd-generation artist and a former winner of the prestigious Young Artist Award (2001). He has also won several awards from the UOB Painting Competitions. Apart from abstract compositions,he has developed a fascinating ink series based on urban landscapes and old buildings in Singapore.

A versatile and expressive Chinese ink artist, Anthony’s practice is informed by Western Modernist aesthetics. As articulated by the artist, “My painting’s strength lies in the bold use of brush strokes with various effects created by different types of brushes such as the less conventional feather brushes.My creative processes are informed by both traditional Chinese ink and Modern Western strategies such as mark-making. The objective is to enable new artistic surfaces to be created and expressiveness articulated.”

Anthony Chua Say Hua, Orchestrated Mess, 2012, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 60 x 53 cm
Anthony Chua Say Hua, Leaning In, 2014, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 69 x 69cm

Ho Sou Ping is a 3rd-generation local artist and founder of artcommune gallery, which specializes in artworks by Singapore artists.In 2009, he gave up a comfortable 12-year career as an Aerospace Engineer to become a full-time artist.

Sou Ping was trained in traditional Chinese ink painting and calligraphy in his youth but has since delved into Western oil and watercolour paintings.As an artist, he has been experimenting with different fusions of Chinese and Western paintings. As an “art repreneur”, he also makes conscious effort to promote Singapore art through his gallery.He is a regular contributor of articles to the Singapore Chinese Press as well as various art magazines including the Malaysian Art Gallery Guide and Confabulation (The Pocket Arts Guide).

Ho Sou Ping,Golden Landscape, 2011, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 136 x 68 cm
Ho Sou Ping,Sabatu Holy Spring Temple Bali, 2014, Watercolour on paper, 50 x 40 cm
Ho Sou Ping,Sabatu Holy Spring Temple Bali, 2014, Watercolour on paper, 50 x 40 cm

Tam Kwan Yuen is a young, emerging watercolourist who specializes in painting contemporary urban scenes(vibrant nightspots, interiors of malls, restaurants and cafés) in meticulous details and an intriguing palette rich in transition browns and greys. He is also one of the rare few young Singapore artists who are bold enough to dive into a full-time art career shortly upon graduating from the National Technological University, Singapore.

Since his art career took off in 2013, his works have been selected for various international exhibitions including the Grand Harvest Exhibition at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center, Brooklyn, New York, the 33rd International Exhibition of San Diego Watercolor Society in the United States, the Watercolor Missouri International Exhibition 2014 (MoWS), USA, and the 37th International Exhibition of Watercolor Art Society of Houston (WAS-H), USA.

Tam Kwan Yuen, Billboard Ladies, 2013, Watercolour on paper, 72 x 56 cm
Tam Kwan Yuen, Fashion Sense,2013, Watercolour on paper, 38 x 56 cm

Originally born in Dalian, China, Zhu Hongh as been living in Singapore since 1997 and is currently a Singapore citizen. Schooled in architecture, his understanding of and passion for city life and architecture are expressed through the way he captures the spirit and essence of a building and its immediate surroundings.

Adopting askew lines and vibrant colours, the instinctive and playful distortions of architectural elements in his cityscapes and street scenes exhibit a distinctive and contemporary flavour. By injecting such unconventional and localised elements into what is supposedly one of the most traditional and timeless mediums in the Western art world, Zhu Hong paints like no other, and his works inspire us to observe familiar scenes and objects with fresh eyes.

Zhu Hong, My Artist Friend 2013, Watercolour on paper, 27 x 53 cm
Zhu Hong, Jalan Besar, 2011, Watercolour on paper, 29 x 80 cm

Leave a Comment