Octogenarian trades medicine men for construction workers

Singaporean artist Chen Cheng Mei with some of her oil paintings and sketches of her travels.

SINGAPORE - In an art career that has spanned the 1950s right up to the present, Singaporean artist Chen Cheng Mei has painted Kashmiri mountains, Mexican villages and Amazonian medicine men.

Now 86, however, she has trained her paintbrush homewards.

Chen, a founding member of the Ten-Men Art Group, which journeyed through South-east Asia in the 1960s to sketch and paint, says: "Now I don't go travelling, I'm too old already. When I was young, I could move about, I could travel. But now, I have to paint what's nearby."

The second-generation artist's latest solo exhibition, Joie De Vivre: Chen Cheng Mei, at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), features more than 40 oil paintings and sketches done between 1954 and 2005.

Some of the paintings on display include oil-on-canvas depictions of Indian towns and Sri Lankan markets, as well as bumboats on the Singapore River.

Ms Bridget Tracy Tan, director of the Institute of South-east Asian Arts & Art Galleries at Nafa, who curated the exhibition, says: "What I tried to do was find an interesting combination of some of her older pieces, some figurative, abstract and some natural landscapes, and find a way to contrast them so they can tell their own story."

Chen enrolled at Nafa in 1949 under the tutelage of luminaries such as Cheong Soo Pieng, who pioneered the Nanyang art style; Lim Hak Tai, Nafa's founding principal; and Chinese painter See Hiang Toh. There, she worked on oil painting and print- making while studying Chinese calligraphy.

After graduating, she worked for more than 20 years as a French translator in the telegraph communications department of the Bank of China.

She had to find time in her busy schedule to do art. "After getting home, I'd just draw after dinner. Draw, draw, draw until midnight."

While working, she took leave to travel extensively to the United States, Mexico, China, Samoa, Tahiti and Papua New Guinea. Her works have been shown in countries such as Monaco, Japan, Australia and Mexico.

Despite her prolific painting output, this is only her third solo exhibition in Singapore. "True art workers don't like to chu ming chu ming" is her modest explanation, using the Chinese phrase which means "become famous".

The sprightly octogenarian still paints every afternoon at her home in Bukit Timah. Lately, the subject of her work has been a group of construction workers working near her home.

"They like to talk to me and they will tell me about their families. And they go, 'You're like my mummy'," says Chen, a widowed mother of two.

"I always buy food for them to make them happy because they work so hard the whole day."

Her open-hearted way of connecting with the world fuels her paintings.

She says: "The reason I paint is so that people will see it and feel happy. If they are happy, there will be no quarrels and no fighting. There will be peace. That is the art worker's aim."

View it

Where: Lim Hak Tai Gallery, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Campus 1, 80 Bencoolen Street
When: Till March 23, 11am to 7pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays
Admission: Free

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