Singapore: Chua Mia Tee
By Louis Ho
Full text also available in Chinese.
The National Gallery Singapore (NGS)’s latest survey on Chua Mia Tee, “Directing the Real,” and its 2020–21 Georgette Chen retrospective, “At Home in the World,” form a pair of counterpoints. The two exhibitions, of mid-20th-century figures who loom large in Singapore’s established art-historical narrative, presented starkly divergent visions of the country in the pivotal years that led up to, and followed, its independence: Chua’s laboring bodies and palimpsestic urban textures contrast Chen’s academically inflected still-lifes and idyllic landscapes; his sensitivity to the subaltern condition and sociopolitical change, informed by a realist idiom, differs from her celebration of the tropical and the traditional, articulated through a picturesque visual language; his works possess an ideological heft, hers reflect formalist concerns. The work of one has aged better than the other.
Chua’s exhibition has been a long time coming. His first solo institutional foray in almost 30 years, it is a much-needed look at an artist whose early work reflects the energy of the 1950s and ’60s, a tumultuous period of decolonization, and who later, in the post-independence, nation-building decades, captured a young country’s evolution as it sprinted to join the ranks of the developed world, all too eager to leave the travails of its recent past behind. In contrast to the stylized vocabularies of Nanyang school artists such as Chen, Chua’s oeuvre is characterized by a mode of representation purposively rooted in everyday reality. In an essay first published in Chinese in 1958, he remarks of the predilection for essentialized portrayals of tropical Southeast Asia: “Is the weather never cloudy in Malaya? Is there no night in Malaya? . . .The so-called ‘local colour’ is not a fixed, unchanging formula.”
It is on his early pieces that Chua’s reputation still rests, with the oil paintings Epic Poem of Malaya (1955) and National Language Class (1959) being especially lionized. The latter was painted the year that Singapore became a self-governing state and includes the questions, rendered on a depicted blackboard, “Siapa nama kamu? Di-mana awak tinggal? (What is your name? Where do you live?),” which have been read as rhetorical formulations of the Malaya peoples’ search for a unified, transethnic identity.
In Epic Poem, a group of students are gathered around an orator, presumably reciting the eponymous text. The work dates to a slightly earlier point in the 1950s that witnessed several violent student-led demonstrations in Singapore: the 1954 National Service riots, the 1955 Hock Lee bus riots, and the Chinese Middle School riots of 1956. Then-chief minister Lim Yew Hock’s order to dissolve the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students’ Union for its communist affiliations provoked the 1956 demonstration; the Malayan Communist Party had been outlawed by the British in 1948, at the start of the Malayan Emergency. Epic Poem, in foregrounding the spirit and ideals of the student movement, certainly evokes the ghosts of that era, as well as the fervor and eventual failure of the ambitions of the left.
It is a pity that these historical contexts were largely occluded in the exhibition. Included were archival materials relating to Chua’s involvement with the Singapore Chinese High Schools’ Graduates of 1953 Arts Research Group, the visual-arts section of which he led, and its more famous successor, the Equator Art Society, established in 1956. The Society is remembered for its espousal of the social-realist style and the left-leaning, anti-colonialist stance of many of its members—generally held to be the (unspoken) reason for its disbandment by the authorities in 1974. Scant attention was devoted, however, to the broader political climate that framed the existence of these organizations, or to understanding Chua’s early output within the specificities of its sociohistorical moment. Earlier exhibitions, most notably Singapore Art Museum’s “From Words to Pictures: Art During the Emergency” (2007), have situated his paintings, and the work of the Equator artists, within the exigencies of the time. The NGS retrospective thus seemed like a missed opportunity to expand, even in a defined fashion, the scope of commentary on the social history of postwar Singaporean art.
The narrative was perhaps owed to the artist’s personal disinclination for the radical politics of the leftist movement, a position reiterated by his daughter, Chua Yang. Art historian Lindy Poh likewise observes that “he was not interested in getting involved in politics . . . [but] identifies with ideas of social conscience or awareness, of art that has certain aspirations.” Chua Yang notes that her father, whose parents were immigrants from southern China, perceives himself as hailing from the same laboring class as many of his subjects—the construction workers, hawkers, and fishermen whom he imbues with “dignity, resilience, and grace.” A painting like Samsui Women (1977), for instance, in which a trio of the titular female workers toil away at a construction site, is immediately reminiscent of French Realist Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners (1857). The compositions’ figural arrangements are strikingly similar, and their portrayals of backbreaking labor monumentalize the humblest and most grueling of lives—the salt of the earth. The exhibition jettisoned the common descriptor “social realism” for the more generic “realism,” or simply “the real,” yet it is worth bearing in mind the milieu in which Realism emerged—in the wake of the 1848 French revolution, the year that The Communist Manifesto was published, and the subsequent push for democratic reform.
However compelling the early works are, the show-stoppers turned out to be Chua’s seldom-seen paintings of the island-state’s built environment in the decades after independence. A series of panoramas of the terrain around the mouth of the Singapore River, all executed in 1981, proffer bird’s-eye views of the commercial and civic districts, juxtaposing the historic and modern, nature and structure. Bank headquarters OCBC Centre and UOB Plaza tower over the surrounding shophouses and colonial-era buildings in Singapore – A Growing Nation, synecdochally suggesting the advent of Singapore’s rise as a global financial hub. Both skyscrapers were erected in the 1970s, when the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Stock Exchange of Singapore were also instituted. Untitled (Aerial View) portrays an expanse of sea, sky, and land, sliced through by the decisive linear momentum of the newly built Benjamin Sheares Bridge as it makes its single-minded way over the waters of Marina Bay.
If these tableaux allow the viewer a position of ocular dominance in surveying the landscape, the vantage point aligning the gaze with a sense of ownership and national pride, then Benjamin Sheares Bridge – The Viaduct reverses that perspective, embodying a more critical outlook on Singapore’s urban growth. Depicted closer to the ground, the bridge emerges like a Brutalist behemoth or an alien entity. Chua divided the pictorial field into oppositional spaces: the bridge’s futuristic, dystopic underside juxtaposed against the colonial General Post Office building in the sfumato-ed distance; the muddy reclaimed land beneath the viaduct contrasting with the sleek, vertical lines of commercial towers rising into the cerulean sky; a confined patch of green, dotted with several diminutive trees, hemmed in by the concrete colonnade on one side and the distant city on the other, trapped between development and history, infrastructure and commerce—a symbol of Singapore’s careful curation of its natural environment.
Prophetic and majestic, these landscape paintings call out for a place in the canon, alongside Chua’s celebrated earlier works. Whatever the omissions of the NGS show, it represents the sort of exhibition that Singapore needs, and deserves, at this juncture: a reminder of the struggles and realities of a bygone era, left behind in the relentless march toward the future.