Members of defunct art society hold exhibition

Six of the 10 former members of the Equator Art Society (from left) Tong Chin Sye, Koeh Sia Yong, Hua Chai Yong, Lim Yew Kuan, Ong Kim Seng and Yong Cheong Thye.

SINGAPORE - Watercolourist Ong Kim Seng was only 17 in 1962 when he joined the Equator Art Society, a controversial art group formed by left-leaning artists in the turbulent 1950s.

Fresh out of Pasir Panjang Secondary School, he attended free art classes for members at the society's two-storey shophouse opposite the leftist political party Partai Rakyat in Geylang. He was also a regular at its annual exhibition, usually held at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

At its height in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the society had several hundred members, mostly from its literature and music sections which were infiltrated by activists from the communists underground.

By 1972, the society was deregistered after it failed to submit a fresh application for membership with a full list of its committee members as required by the Registry of Societies then, said its last president, oil painter Koeh Sia Yong, 75.

The name Equator Art Society may have since gone into near oblivion, mainly due to its links with the leftist movement, but many former members like Ong, now 68, and other pioneers including founding president Lim Yew Kuan, oil painters Chua Mia Tee, Tan Choh Tee and Lee Boon Wang, and watercolourists Hua Chai Yong and Tong Chin Sye have continued to paint as professionals.

So there were some raised eyebrows when 10 of them decided to put on an exhibition of their past works using the defunct society's name.

Why stage the show, titled "137km North of the Equator: A Story of the Equator Art Society and Realist Artists in Singapore", more than 40 years after the society was deregistered?

Artcommune Gallery manager Ho Sou Ping, 41, an artist himself, said he is staging the 10-day exhibition which opened on Friday to create greater awareness of the group's significant contributions to Singapore's art history.

"I have to deal with artists in my work, and found many were the society's members who paint social realist works in a distinctive style using the more sombre dark brown, but little has been written about them," he explained.

When Mr Ho met art researchers Loo Ching Ling, 30, and Jermaine Huang, 28, in February, he immediately drew their attention to the group and the artists' works.

The result is an 8,000-word essay they wrote for the exhibition in English and Chinese containing interviews with several former Equator Art Society members. Also on display are old exhibition catalogues and a framed original emblem of the society showing Rodin's Thinker, to signify the ideals-driven intentions of the founding members.

"It has been fascinating researching the society's past and we hope to develop our essay into a book about the group and the artists' contributions to realist art if we can find sponsors," said Miss Loo, who curated the show with Ms Huang.

She found it interesting to learn about the society's social events for members, such as movie outings and picnics, and the "experimental learning" sessions to allow aspiring artists to work alongside labourers and fishermen to understand their lives better.

The artists wanted to reflect society and social ills through art. So many of their works depict ordinary workers, such as Koeh's 1968 oil painting Cannot Grow Vegetables Anymore, and Ong's 1966 watercolour Welder II, which are included in the show.

The show provides a glimpse into the society and an opportunity for its former members to get together, said Hua, 70.

Many former members, including founding president Lim, now 86, clarified that most of the artists never promoted or got involved in leftist political activities.

"There may have been a few who did, but the society was formed solely to promote the practice of art," said Lim, a 2011 Cultural Medallion recipient.

He said it was unfortunate that the society was perceived as a breeding ground for the leftist movement and was closely watched by the British colonial government and later, the People's Action Party Government.

He recalled that when he returned from the Chelsea School of Art in London in 1961 after completing a three-year course, he was questioned for three days by Singapore's Special Branch, including over his involvement with the Equator Art Society.

After that, he kept his distance from the society, also because he was busy teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) which was founded by his late father Lim Hak Tai.

Koeh remembers that in 1967, when the society's members staged an exhibition to protest against the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War with paintings of war atrocities committed by Americans, the police arrived just in time to stop the show from opening.

Tong, 74, who joined the society in 1958, attributed the group's socialist links to Chinese translations of art textbooks by Russian artists which taught that art should reflect society.

He said the art classes, usually attended by working adults on Saturday afternoons, were very structured and divided into elementary, intermediate and advanced levels.

Ong, who is now Singapore's top watercolourist and also a Cultural Medallion recipient, said he joined the society because he could not afford the fees at Nafa.

"I had my only formal training in art there between 1962 and the early 1970s and wish the society did not get deregistered," he said. The society made its mark on realist art in Singapore. "Had the society continued to this day, I am sure the development of Singapore art would have been very different," he added.

The 137km North of the Equator exhibition is being held at Artcommune Gallery, Block 231, Bain Street, #02-43, Bras Basah Complex, from noon to 7pm daily. It ends on Aug 25. Admission is free.

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