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.

Hsu, meanwhile, represents the "second wave" of Chinese who came to Malaya in the early 1900s - the "intelligentsia" that followed the first wave of labourers from the 18th century onwards, recruited to meet the needs of Chinese schools in Malaya.

A Chinese school teacher and later principal, Hsu had come to teach in Singapore, and in the 1960s, he was asked to write regular columns about art in the Chinese-language Nanfang Evening Post. The articles were compiled into the book.

The exhibition at the NUS Museum is curated according to the book and its 18 chapters. Ms Chang points out that most of the works shown were taken from the university's own archival collection, which includes the collection from Nanyang University when it was merged with NUS in 1980.

A few works are borrowed from other institutions such as the Singapore Art Museum and private collectors. But as Hsu's book starts off with an examination of pre-historic art in Malaya, and also the traditional indigenous arts, so does the exhibition - drawn from the university's prehistoric artefact collection.

From there, early Indian and Chinese influences are examined, and then the influence of Malay crafts as well as the transmission of Western values and culture.

The bulk of the show, however, looks at the works of Nanyang artists which are influenced by local colour and themes, the multi-cultural diversity and, more interestingly, the guidebook that accompanies the exhibition expounds on the Malayanisation of Chinese painting.

"In the Malayan phase, the Chinese in Malaya had to distance themselves from China - so it's interesting to see this reflected in art," says Ms Chang.

The exhibition will be used in some courses for first-year Yale-NUS students as well as for NUS students.

Not only is this the 50th anniversary of the book - which is no longer in circulation and is not included in the modern art student's curriculum - this year also marks Singapore's 50th year of independence from Britain. "We are also now interpreting Nanyang and Malayan art in a different way today, 50 years after 1963 and post-1965," concludes Dr Lai.

Between Here and Nanyang: Marco Hsu's Brief History of Malayan Art will be on show from now until 2015, at the NUS Museum, NUS Centre for the Arts, 50 Kent Ridge Crescent. Tel: 6516 8817. Opening hours are 10am-7.30pm (Tues-Sat) and 10am-6pm (Sundays). Closed on Mondays and public holidays.

Get The Business Times for more stories.