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Art What!: Chua Mia Tee – Directing The Real at National Gallery Singapore

This November, National Gallery Singapore presents Chua Mia Tee: Directing the Real, which spotlights leading realist artist Chua Mia Tee. Taking inspiration from the artist’s quote on how “the painter assumes the role of screenwriter, director and actor to freely shape the subject’s image”, the exhibition offers audiences an insight into Chua’s distinct view on realism that goes beyond the mere representation of reality. A landmark exhibition, marking his first solo institutional exhibition since 1992, Chua Mia Tee: Directing the Real showcases his masterfully painted works that depict vivid scenes and portraits of life and people of Singapore during its transformative years from the 1950s – 1980s.

Coinciding nicely with Chua Mia Tee’s 90th birthday on 25th November, the exhibition features over 50 works from Chua across four decades, alongside archival materials, filmic recordings, and quotes from the artist’s writings, offering deeper insights into Chua’s artistic philosophies. Audiences are invited to discover how his paintings of life in Singapore went beyond realist depictions, reflecting his intentional direction of the image to bring out the “truths” that engage and move the audience.

Chua Mia Tee

Focusing on works from the 1950s – 1980s, the exhibition also sheds light on a period where Chua’s artistic growth runs parallel to the development and transformation of Singapore as a nation in its early years. Through his vivid depictions of the country and its inhabitants in this period, the exhibition examines the social tensions across different segments of society as the young nation was laying the foundations for progress and development.

Although he is widely recognised as a realist painter, Chua is also a skilled sculptor, creating busts of his kin, artists, and key local figures. His keen ability to bring his subjects to life and his diverse body of work – from landscapes to figure painting, everyday life and the community, paintings and sketches to sculptural busts – is a reflection of the people, life and societal changes in Singapore, as well as the tensions in the nation’s changing landscape the artist himself lived through.

Portable Cinema. 1977. Oil on canvas. Gift of Times Publishing. Limited Collection of National Gallery Singapore. 2004-00564.

From his days as a young artist, Chua Mia Tee helped champion the growth of Singapore’s visual arts scene as the visual arts instructor for the Singapore Chinese High Schools’ Graduates of 1953 Arts Research Group and as one of the founding members of the Equator Art Society, a group that consisted of artists who were primarily concerned with depicting social conditions and the masses, especially the labouring class. While he was a student at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, he served as a student-teacher and continued teaching after he graduated. His invaluable contributions to Singapore’s art and history earned him the Cultural Medallion in 2015.

“National Gallery Singapore is honoured to hold Chua Mia Tee’s first solo museum exhibition in nearly 30 years,” says Dr Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore. “As an artist, educator and active member of the historically influential Equator Art Society, Chua is an influential figure in Singapore’s art history and landscape who has made nationally significant artistic contributions throughout his distinguished career.”

“We hope that as the Gallery continues to spotlight the practice of critical local artists, such as Chua Mia Tee, greater appreciation for their legacy and greater interest in local and regional art will be cultivated among our audiences.”

– Dr Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore.

The exhibition is divided into three main sections, each spotlighting a critical aspect of Chua’s practice and life in Singapore in the 1950s – 1980s. Zooming in on his role in Singapore’s art history, the first section, Point of View: A Search for the Real, introduces viewers to artworks which capture local communities through the lens of Chua’s personal experiences and, just as importantly, his principles.

National Language Class. 1959. Oil on canvas. Gift of Equator Art Society. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. P-0145

Largely focused on his works in the 1950s in post-World War II Singapore and Malaya, the section seeks to showcase Chua’s approach in directing his artworks to represent the narratives and voices of the people. Instead of leveraging on art to convey “ideal” values to the people, Chua championed the need for artists to draw from personal experience and depict familiar aspects of society to create meaningful works that resonated with the public.

Epic Poem of Malaya. 1955. Oil on canvas. Collection of National Gallery Singapore .This work has been collectively adopted by [Adopt Now] supporters 2006-01219

This section features some of his most celebrated works, such as Epic Poem of Malaya, National Language Class, and sculptural busts. Shedding more light on Chua’s activities with the Equator Art Society, this section also features artworks that were shown at the first Equator Art Society exhibition in 1958, and archival materials of the art group, including films of the group’s exhibitions, bonding activities, and publications.

This period in particular was important for Chua’s formation as an artist, where he was writing a lot, including several articles that articulated his position and role as an artist. Zooming in on Epic Poem Of Malaya, perhaps Chua’s most well-known work, the painting represents Singapore’s period of Malayanisation, a movement which many artists during the period were also part of in the move towards independence and breaking free of British colonial rule. When the painting was revealed, it cemented his technical proficiency at capturing realistic details. From the Chinese students with their clearly-recognised uniforms, to their expressions rapt with attention as they listened to this dream of Malaya, while the clouds give way to a ray of light, it is a theatrical style of painting that resembles a film still.

Cinema as a whole has also had a tendency to inform his artistic practice. In fact, in a 1980s interview, Chua explained how he was captivated by cinema since he was a child, and always referred back to filmmaking during his artistic process, hoping for his images to always be dynamic and never static, almost like composing a narrative as he planned out a stage set and brought out his themes and subject matter. Technical mastery was never enough for Chua, but to allow a subject to go beyond objective depiction, and bringing out its inner truth, and a certain intangible quality to his work that made it all the more special.

The second section features realist portraits by Chua, who seeks to capture the essence and characteristics of his subjects, carefully deciding which features to represent in detail, which to omit, and which to apply with broad strokes. These paintings capture Singapore’s past years through the faces of everyday people such as those in the working class and the labouring masses, like boatmen and workers at a shipyard, whom he held in particularly high esteem.

The Blacksmiths. 1981. Pencil and watercolour on paper.
Collection of Teresa Koh and Howie Lau.

Chua was also commissioned to paint and sketch portraits of key local figures which became a key part of his artistic practice through the decades. Visitors can look forward to the rare opportunity of viewing a selection of commissioned portraits of Singapore’s leaders, including Lim Kim San and President Yusof bin Ishak.

Pagoda Street, Chinatown. 1980. Oil on canvas. Collection of Benny and Rosemary Oh

From the 1970s to 1980s, Chua was keenly aware of the fast-changing life and landscapes of his growing nation and the urban setting became a central theme in several of his paintings as he sought to document the Singapore that he knew. The exhibition’s third and final section spotlights these paintings and sketches, which were carefully constructed to capture the ambience and atmosphere of the scenes he was familiar with. Chua distinctively captures vanishing trades and evolving places at the time for posterity, such as Singapore’s portable cinemas of yesterday and old Chinatown where he used to live. To contrast these scenic remnants of Singapore’s past, the exhibition also displays large paintings of the country’s urban landscapes, which contemporary audiences will recognise today.

Singapore River. 1978. Oil on canvas. Collection of Lim & Tan Securities Pte Ltd.

It is through Chua’s landscapes that he captures such key moments of Singapore’s history, such as in ‘Singapore River’, where somehow, remnants of the colonial era, shophouses and even a modern building peeks in at the corner to show how much change and progress we’ve had since independence. His realism also contributes to an immense sense of nostalgia, such as his depictions of Chinatown where he used to live, a subject he goes back to time and time again.

Benjamin Sheares Bridge–The Viaduct. 1981. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. P-1109.

While Chua Mia Tee himself could not be present at the exhibition preview, his daughter Dr Chua Yang, a gynaecologist and obstetrician, instead came by to talk about her father and her memories of him working in her childhood. “It’s an emotional moment for me to see all these old paintings here, and so many I haven’t seen since my own childhood,” says Dr Chua. “

And while she thinks the art gene skips a generation, Dr Chua also happens to be an accomplished photographer. “While my niece is an artist in London, unfortunately, I can’t paint to save my life,” admits Dr Chua. “I remember how in my childhood, he and mom always painted together, and one of his favourite subjects to paint was her. Dad and I come by the Gallery quite often and sometimes we’d wander by and see mom in the form of a painting. They would spend so much time taking walks with their easels, or sculpting and sketching each other at home. Back then, he was able to paint a portrait in maybe 2 days, or less, and they would continue to hone their craft together for years.”

“In the time since they met, of course his subject matter has varied, from painting other members of the family, and city scenes, but he would always find a way to fit my mom into the painting somehow. They really were childhood sweethearts and remained so in love until she passed in 2017.”

– Dr Chua Yang, daughter of Chua Mia Tee
Bust of Lee Boon Ngan. c. 1959 .Plaster of paris. Collection of the artist.

“Even after she passed, dad would persevere in his daily walks, on in the morning between the hours of 7 and 8, often in the Botanic Gardens, before sitting down for breakfast at a kopitiam somewhere. And at home when he gets in the mood to paint, he would just sit down and be at it for hours, so much that he won’t even hear us calling for him for meals,” Dr Chua recalls. “And at the end of the day, what was most important wasn’t the awards or a newspaper feature, but that people saw his work and appreciated them for what they were, and see the compassion and truth behind each work.”

While modern and contemporary art and movements have had their share of rises and falls, realist art has never gone out of fashion, and will outlive us beyond our lifetimes, mostly because of the unique skillset required to produce such works, capturing memories, place and time in the span of a painting. This was something Chua always recognised, even in a time where there was little support for such a ‘bohemian’ lifestyle, and continually pushed his craft forward.

Workers in a Canteen. 1974. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. P-0236.

Chua Mia Tee: Directing The Real is a celebration of the life and achievements of the artist, to acknowledge his importance, and to continue the Gallery’s efforts to not just organise but further research and strengthen the collection of key Singaporean artists. There is no denying Chua Mia Tee’s impact and significance on the local arts scene and his work as integral to capturing our national identity, and this exhibition represents that, while also capitalising on input and guidance from Chua himself to understand his practice and access archival materials, some of which are being exhibited for the first time.

Chua Mia Tee: Directing The Real will be on show at National Gallery Singapore, Level 4 Gallery from 26th November 2021 to 20th November 2022. More information available here

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