Revisiting the pioneers: A dip into the Nanyang Art Scene

Singapore, a westernised city that grew from traditional asian roots. With its multicultural tapestry stemming from a myriad of races and religions, our culture is one that is unique due to its blend of everything. Needless to say, this brews a fertile ground for artistic expression. 

Emerged in the early 20th century comes the Nanyang Art Style — one of the pioneer movements that kickstarted Singapore's art community. This art style represents a fusion of Eastern and Western artistic influences, creating a vibrant and distinct visual language.

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(Left) Georgette Chen, Self-portrait, 1946. (Right) Liu Kang, Life by the river, 1975 (Google Arts & Culture

Nanyang Art often portrays scenes from everyday life in Southeast Asia. Artists were inspired by the rich tapestry of the region, depicting its landscapes, people, and cultural traditions. These depictions provided a unique perspective on Southeast Asian life, capturing its essence through the eyes of the artists.

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Chen Wen Hsi, Gibbons. (chenwenhsi.com)

Chen Wen Hsi's fascination towards Gibbons, a small ape indigenous to Southeast Asia, is a testament to his connection with nature. During his time in Singapore, he was captivated by the agile and graceful movements of these primates in the dense rainforests, making these wildlife a recurring subject in his works as he studies this Southeast Asian lifeforms. Hi style was heavily influenced by Chinese painting and Cubism, creating these beautiful inked abstraction of shapes and colours.

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Georgina Gray, Birds of India (left) Mythical Royal Rumble (right)

Georgina Gray is one that comes to mind in the depiction of wildlife (or imaginary animals) with abstraction. Being of English and Chinese descent, her works are inspired by her travels, wildlife and the world around her. Though not distinctly painting the Southeast Asian scene, she collaborates with her two sons in creating these works that inject that family fun narrative into her works. 

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Yeo Siak Goon, The Old Bridge

 

On the other hand, Yeo Siak Goon is one that cherishes Singapore's heritage and landscape as evident in his works. His artistic style is greatly inspired by his love for nature and his fascination with tropical islands. It is one that has impressionistic qualities while evoking a cultural feel.

Another key characteristic for works in this movement was its vibrant colours and bold strokes. In the process of development of the Nanyang Art, the artists were trying to find their voice and artistic vision. They were departing from their then traditional Chinese roots of painting to produce something more uniquely regional. Taking inspirations from the western styles such as Cubism and Impressionism, they combined it with what they knew to paint a narrative about Southeast Asia. 

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Liu Kang, Outdoor Painting (In Johore), 1954. (National Gallery, 2020) 

Seen in Liu Kang's Outdoor Painting, the artist depicts the scene of their artistic process. Liu Kang painted the artists who in turn were painting what looks to be three friends modelled with arms around one another, depicting a scene on friendship. Using a vibrant palette, this scene is brought to life with a cheery tone.

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Deborah McKellar, The Golden Chest (left) Chinese Checkers (right)

Speaking of a vivid colour palette to reinvent the city's everday scene, we have none other than Deborah McKellar. Her textile works are characterized by their bold colours and printed patterns, creating a new perspective to her works. Singapore's exotic and bustling city life continues to be her muse as she continues to capture the city's diversity with vitality.

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Dyn, E:CHNTWN (left) E:LPS (right)

Dyn is also another one of our portfolios, using bold bright colours to depict Singapore's architecture. His works bears reminiscence to the western pop-art style, juxtaposed against the architecture we have seen in our asian society such as the shophouses along Chinatown or the food centres we see at Lau Pa Sat. Dyn aims to highlight the importance of our personal and cultural history. He brings life to the past, evoking nostalgia.

 

Nanyang Art has left an indelible mark on Singapore's artistic landscape. Not only has it glorified the nation's multicultural identity, but also provided a platform for artists to explore their unique cultural heritage. It is a movement that still inspires the artist of today to explore their unique identity while still holding true to their roots, serving as a bridge between the past and the present.