8 not-to-miss Artworks from DBS Singapore Gallery

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by sgArtLovers on 5 February 2020

The National Gallery of Singapore (“NGS”) stands on the former supreme court and city hall architecture. With a vast collection of over 8000 artworks, NGS oversees the world’s largest collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian Art. Within NGS, lies 2 permanent exhibitions – DBS Singapore Gallery (“DBS-SG”) and UOB Southeast Asia Gallery (“UOB-SEAG”).  

This article is part 1/2 of our NGS permanent gallery series, if you like to read up more about our recommendations for UOB-SEAG, click here.

The DBS-SG has an amazing collection of 300+ artworks and displays them on a rotational basis across 3 galleries. Named “SIAPA NAMA KAMU”, meaning “What is your name?”, the gallery seeks to display the progress of art in Singapore since the 19th Century. However, without knowing the context of the artworks and having to endure a cold and dimly lit gallery, it might be a challenging task for one to complete the 3 galleries.

Therefore, we task our sgArtLovers’ art enthusiast to the challenge – to provide you with 8 not-to-miss Artworks from DBS-SG. We hope to provide you with bite-sized information and lesser known facts of these Artworks, so that you will be able to easily understand and appreciate the artworks from the 3 galleries.

Our favorites are “Put Down Your Whip” and “Money Suit“. Let us know which one is your favorite!

The 8 artworks
8 not-to-miss Artworks from DBS Singapore Gallery

February 5, 2020 by sgartlovers

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William Farquhar Collection of Natural Drawings (Gallery 1)

Artists Unknown (1808-1818)

Fig 1: William Farquhar Collection of Natural Drawings
William Farquhar Collection of Natural Drawings is one of the first paintings you will see when you enter the gallery.  It sends a message that Singapore’s art history commenced with the arrival of British’s colonialization. Perhaps in view of the revisionist and post-colonialism tide, some viewers may be uncomfortable with this starting point. Regardless, this is an interesting artwork to view.
  • These beautiful art works are commissioned to document the botany of Malacca and Singapore.
  • They were drawn by a group of Macau artists.
  • These drawings were auctioned off at Sotheby’s London and acquired by Singaporean businessman Goh Geok Kim for a value of SGD3 million. He then donated it to the National Museum of Singapore.
Put Down Your Whip (Gallery 1)

Xu Beihong (1939)

Fig 2: Put Down Your Whip
Put Down Your Whip was painted by Xu Beihong, one of the four pioneers of Chinese Modern Art. You may wonder how this painting situates itself within Singapore’s art history. While Xu was an eminent artist in China, he visited Singapore 7 times and spent more than 3 years of his career here during 1939-1942. This painting, being one of his most famous works, was drawn during his time spent in his Singapore’s residence at the now demolished no. 16 Geylang Lorong 35.

Xu sought refuge in Singapore, under the backdrop of the ongoing 2nd Sino-Japanese War in China. He spent his time producing multiple famous works here and then auctioned them off in exhibitions to fund-raise for the Chinese war efforts back at home. This painting narrates the story of a father and daughter refugee who seek a living by performing skits in villages after they have been displaced from their home when the Japanese invaded China in 1931’s Mukden incident. During the performance, the father whipped her starving daughter to push her to continue performing. An audience shouted “Put down your whip” to protect the protagonist against her father’s violence.
  • This painting relayed the message of extreme hardships that the Chinese experienced during the era of Japanese invasion.
  • The illustration of a Chinese solder in the background meant to be a tribute to the Chinese military in defending their homelands.
  • Xu and Wang Ying (the protagonist in the painting) were on the mission to use arts in rallying the overseas Chinese’s support for the defense of their homeland. Their success showed that the overseas Chinese community back then are very strongly rooted to their Chinese identity.
  • In 2007, this painting was auctioned off in Hong Kong for USD 9.2 million to a private collector. It is now on loan to the NGS. This explains why an additional plastic frame was added to protect it!
Georgette Chen (Gallery 1)

Self-portrait (1934)

Fig 3: Georgette Chen
Georgette Chen is one of the pioneers of the Nanyang School. The Nanyang style is similar to what Xu’s conception of east-west syncretism art should be, except these artists sought to localize art into a Southeast Asian context. Chen, being the only female artist among her peers, is exceptional in her artistic achievements given the gender biasness of her times.

Chen learnt western art since young and studied Western painting professionally in Paris. Her works were exhibited in major exhibitions in Paris. She migrated to Singapore in 1953 and taught in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts for 26 years.
  • Chen was very much involved in the politics of China as her first husband Eugene Chen was China’s foreign minister under the Sun Yat Sen government.
  • During the second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), her husband and her were under house arrest by the Kuo Ming Tang government.
  • Channel NewsAsia has made a 3-part documentary on her.
Souri (Gallery 1)

Liu Kang (1953)

Fig 4: Souri
As the exhibition’s narrative shift towards the Nanyang Art style, we begin to see an increasing number of paintings that revolve around the theme of Southeast Asian native icons – namely Balinese. Souri is possibly the name of the dancer featured in the painting. Donned in traditional Balinese costume and headdress, Souri can be seen engaging in a ritualistic Balinese dance, in front of the Hindu god Bhoma.

The 1952 historic Bali Field Trip by artists Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Ping provided the inspiration of what an untouched and truly indigenous Southeast Asia image should be like. The Bali experience created the 1953 paint of Souri and opened a new chapter that defined the Nanyang Art Style – a localized painting form that draws inspiration from the region.
  • One reason that art historians proposed why Bali was chosen to be the representation of Southeast Asian Art could be due to Belgian Painter Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur ‘s Balinese art themes that left a deep impression on Singapore’s art circle.
  • Liu Kang, just like Georgette Chen, received formal western painting classes in Paris.
  • Liu arrived in Singapore to escape the 2nd Sino-Japanese War.
  • Liu documented the atrocities of Japanese soldiers in his sketchbook Chop Suey and published it after the war in 1946.
National Language Class (Gallery 2)

Chua Mia Tee (1959)

Fig 5: National Language Class
The main attraction of the gallery will be this painting. Siapa Nama Kamu, the 3 Malay words can be seen inscribed on the blackboard within the painting, is synonymous with the exhibition’s naming.

After the end of the Japanese occupation, paintings in Southeast Asia involve strong socio-political themes that explore issues like post-colonialism, national identity, social hardships and struggles. Singaporean artists alike, used art as a medium to open up discussions on such entangling issues.

This era of paintings was dominated by the social-realism style. There was also an evident shift in the way Chinese communities view their identity. The inclination to relate art to Singapore’s social context highlighted the concerns these artists had for their home – Singapore. National Language Class hinted the need for the Chinese to assimilate themselves into this piece of land by learning and respecting the national language Malay. By asking Siapa Nama Kamu (What is your name?), Chua evokes the question of identity and assimilation of the Chinese migrant community in an era of self-governance Singapore.
  • Chua Mia Tee’s family migrated from China to Singapore during the Sino-Japanese war. Arriving at the age of 6, Chua’s formative years was spent in Singapore, which explained his emotional connection to this piece of land as his home.
  • Chua’s art education was in NAFA, under the tutelage of many prominent Nanyang Artists. He started to co-teach while studying in NAFA and went on to become a lecturer in NAFA upon graduation
  • Chua’s realistic art style reflected his belief that act should reflect life. His social realist paintings became a good documentation of Singaporeans lifestyle. 
  • Chua was the commissioned official painter for many prominent political figures in Singapore such as Yusof Bin Ishak.
  • Chua is one of the founding members of the Equator Art Society.
Persecution (Gallery 2)

Koeh Sia Yong (1963)

Fig 6: Persecution
Just like Chua, Koeh’s artistic conviction is for art to “reflect reality and preserve history”. This painting narrates the Operation Sook Ching undertaken by the Japanese military to cleanse Singapore from the anti-Japanese members, who were mostly Chinese.
  • There are many Singaporean artists who produced art that documented the atrocities of Japanese occupation. 
  • Keoh, like Chua, is a second-generation artist who received education from NAFA. He is also part of the Equator Art Society.
Money Suit (Gallery 3)

Vincent Leow (1992)

Fig 7: Money Suit
As our history develops, Singapore went from the struggles of post-war independence to being one of the Four Asian Tigers. Our economic miracle and prosperity cultivated a new social culture that promotes the pursuit of wealth.  Materialism and consumerism became the by-product of this capitalist system.

To express dissatisfaction towards this social phenomenon, Vincent parodied the Chinese fengshui object the Three-Legged Toad in his performance art rendition. Three-Legged Toad is believed to be a relic that attracts and protect wealth. I believe if you are Chinese and dig hard enough, you may find such objects in your family or relatives’ home!

Donned in a money suit, while biting on to a stack of fake American dollars, Vincent leapt around the space of a warehouse in the toad’s manner as a form of performance art. Titled Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: The Three-Legged Toad, this art was performed at a show called The Space; an initiative of The Artist’s Village that featured 40 local and 20 international artists. The money suit was then lacquered and preserved as a contemporary artwork.
  • Vincent’s artworks, just like his predecessors, are very grounded in Singapore’s socio-political context. As a result, his works are often critical and controversial in the medium of performance and sketches. See Vincent’s controversial works.
  • In one of his performance artworks, he drank his own urine!
  • Vincent is one of the early members of the now defunct art collective The Artists Village.
Walks Through a Chair (Gallery 3)

Matthew Ngui (1992)

Fig 8a: Walks Through a Chair
Fig 8b: Walks Through a Chair

Chair can be seen as an installation and performance art. Ngui had done a video of him walking through the Chair, since the Chair is ultimately pieces of wood that construct into an image of a chair only when you position yourself at a specific angle of perception. Ngui’s installation serve as a critique towards single-mindedness and narrow perspectives.

  • This installation became the first Singaporean artwork to be displayed in the most prestigious contemporary art event Documenta X.

Now, what are your thoughts about the Siapa Nama Kamu Exhibition? The exhibition narrative is coherent in using different significant artworks to tell the story of Singapore’s art history.  This presents an anti-thesis to the opinion that many may have on Singapore, as a cultural desert. We do have our own artforms and artistic interventions. The empowerment of art on Singapore’s society is prominent especially in the early years of nation building but died down thereafter. Perhaps we can ask ourselves what can be done to revitalize the passion and innovation in arts that our older generations used to have.

The proud moment in Singapore’s art history seem to be the creation of the Nanyang art style. This art movement was created by Chinese immigrants who later made Singapore their home. With the rise in xenophobia in Singapore and increasing debates on foreign talents, Singaporeans should remember their identities as descendants of early immigrants. We should also acknowledge that this nation is successful because of its diversity and welcoming of immigrants.

However, it does seem that Singapore’s art history is dominated by Chinese artists and made me wonder where the voices of non-Chinese artists during these periods are. While the exhibition commenced with a timeline from the arrival of British, where can one find indigenous art of this land prior to the arrival of colonization and immigrants?