An insight into Singapore's Nanyang art period

An insight into Singapore's Nanyang art period

Singapore - Who was Marco Hsu? That's a question that would stump most Singapore art fans and even art students. More will get to know this name over the course of the next two years, however, with an exhibition at the NUS Museum providing a survey of Malayan art based on Hsu's record.

The exhibition, which opened on Wednesday night, was curated based on Hsu's book, A Brief History of Malayan Art, published in 1965 and the first book on Singapore's pioneering art scene.

It's especially notable as a primer for those curious about the roots of Singapore's "Nanyang" art period, borne out of the time Singapore was part of British-controlled Malaya. If you've always wondered about "Nanyang" art and its proponents such as Chen Wen Hsi, Georgette Chen and Liu Kang, this is an exhibition to catch.

The idea for such an exhibition was in gestation for many years, says Assistant Professor Lai Chee Kien, of the School of Design and Environment at the National University of Singapore, who translated Hsu's book from Mandarin to English in 1999 and envisioned such an exhibition.

"It's a significant book because it captures the political background of the time and the notion of new nationhood. It's great now to actually get to see many of the artworks illustrated in the book," he explains.

Dr Lai was invited to co-curate the exhibition when the NUS Museum's head Ahmad Mashadi organised it in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the book.

From the 1950s onwards, he explains, the question of a national and cultural identity was on the minds of politicians on both sides of the Causeway, given not only Malaya's imminent independence from Britain, but also the closing off of China after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Prior to this, the Chinese mindset was very much of the "Nanyang" (the colloquial term for the Chinese who emigrated to South-east Asia from China) frame because of the ties between China and South-east Asia. But after Mao Zedong gained control of China, and because of Communism, the option for the Chinese in Malaya to return to China was cut off.

"The overseas Chinese in Malaya then began to consider their long-term future in their place of sojourn," notes Dr Lai and Chang Yueh Siang, the curator at NUS Museum, in their introduction to the exhibition.

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