Take a peek into Singapore’s art history

SINGAPORE - Prominent art collector Koh Seow Chuan and four of his friends have opened up their private collections for an exhibition which shows works from key periods in Singapore's art history.

The works also demonstrate how patronage helped several artists in their early years.

More than 80 works by 36 artists from the 1930s to the present offer a fascinating insight into how art in the region has evolved.

Several of these are being displayed for the first time in an exhibition titled Artists Imagine A Nation: SG50 Pictures Of People And Places From The Collections Of Koh Seow Chuan & Friends.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong opens the show this evening at the Lasalle College of the Arts.

Ahead of its opening, Mr Koh walked Life! through the exhibition together with fellow collector Linda Neo, and director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore Bala Starr, who is the curator of the show.

Mr Koh says: "These works track the major diversity of art from the 1930s and show us the beginnings of what we now know as the Nanyang movement. There is a great sense of history. It shows how artists travelled then, their various stylistic influences and how these have helped in the evolution of art in the region."

While some of the other collectors chose to remain anonymous, Mrs Linda Neo was open to the interview. She and her husband have been collecting South-east Asian art for about 20 years now.

Mr Koh persuaded them to loan some of their pieces, including a recent painting by Boo Sze Yang. In it, the artist interprets shopping malls as a sanctuary for modern men and women.

Ms Neo, 58, says: "The idea was to bring the new together with the old, to present such works together in order to better understand how contemporary art in Singapore has evolved."

The juxtaposition does work. Visitors can see unsual pieces such as the figure paintings in gouache on paper made in the 1950s by artist Lee Cheng Yong. The materials used are representative of the times the artists worked in. There are street scenes in oil done on small boards instead of canvases. Among the more contemporary works are drawings by Tang Da Wu, including a striking ink on paper representation of pioneer artist Georgette Chen that measures 260x152cm.

Also on show are landscapes in ink and watercolour by Lim Tze Peng and Ong Kim Seng. Among the most arresting works is Seah Kim Joo's majestic five- panel work called Untitled (Malayan Life) in batik and mixed media.

Accompanying the exhibition is an essay by Teo Hui Min, 25, a junior specialist for South-east Asian art at auction house Christie's.

Curator Starr says the idea was not just to present a chronological history, but also to explore "the history of various collections as well as the histories of the artists".

She says: "Some of the stories of the paintings, for instance, are apparent in the way they were framed. You can find details such as postal addresses, phone numbers and even identity card details on the back of some paintings."

As a curator, she wanted these stories to unfold too. As a result, the display is rather unusual.

Architect Helen Oja, who was commissioned to work on this project, has used a grid-like installation of stainless steel screens, which allows the viewer to see the backs of the paintings too. In some, several hinges are apparent, pointing to the number of times a work possibly left an artist's studio for a show.

It is such little details that make this show fascinating. Before the current way museum and gallery document art, artists had their own simple way of tracking the history of their art.

"Every piece has a special story," says Mr Koh.

View it


Where: Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Lasalle College of the Arts, 1 McNally Street

When: Till April 19. 10am to 6pm (except 1.30 to 2.30pm), Tuesday to Sunday. Closed on Monday and public holiday. Closed during Chinese New Year period from Wednesday to Friday

Admission: Free

Info: Call 6496-5000 or go to www.lasalle.edu.sg

This article was first published on February 17, 2015.
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