Captured: Singapore Before The 1970s

Abdul Ghani Hamid’s “The Face of Mediation”. Photo credit: National Museum of Singapore.

Abdul Ghani Hamid’s “The Face of Mediation”. Photo credit: National Museum of Singapore.

If you have ever wondered about what was gripping the hearts and minds of Singaporean art makers after the Second World War, the current exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore, “A Changed World: Singapore Art 1950s – 1970s”, is meant just for you.

The museum’s Director, Angelita Teo expands on this: the more than 120 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures paint ‘a vivid picture of our nation’s early years, as seen through the ever-evolving expressions of local artists’.

For example, the anguish and turmoil that had gripped the country in the mid 1950s has been succinctly captured by Lim Hak Tai’s “Riot”. For those of you who are old enough to remember that significant period in Singapore’s history, Lim’s strong angular brush strokes and lines evocatively jar your memory of the communist-motivated Chinese middle school students’ demonstration against the 1954’s National Service Ordinance and the Hock Lee bus strike in 1955.

Undoubtedly, this painting symbolizes the real threat of communism taking over Singapore – a menace so strong that for decades after, all Singapore passports bore a stamp that amounted to a total ban on any form of entry into communist China.

And while the 1950s riots were also instigated by anti-colonial sentiments about building up a local army to defend the island for a white community that had discriminated against Asians, the concept of compulsory national service to defend our independent nation remained an unpopular issue among the Chinese Singaporean majority, even in the 1970s.

So 40 years ago, the question of whether every 18 year-old male would be mentally, emotionally and physically ready for the demands of armed combat has been surrealistically raised by Ho Kok Hoe’s “Conversation”.

Despite this somewhat ambiguous response to one aspect of nation building, the pride in our attainment of self-rule in the mid 1960s is irrevocably evident in Liu Kang’s bright and cheery multi-racial depiction of “National Day”.

Moreover, as many other Singaporean artists celebrated our young country’s united determination to build a better nation: Ong Kim Seng’s “Jalan Bukit Merah Block 106” and Lai Kui Fang’s “Construction of Sheares Bridge” condensed in essence the massively enduring infra-structural transformation of our city state.

That we owe this on-going revolutionary change to the frugality, strength and perseverance of the migrant male labourers and workers, as well as the sam sui women, populating the never ending boom in the local construction-related industries has been celebrated by Lai Foong Moi’s “Lunch Break” and Chua Tiag Ming’s “Drying Planks”.

This commemoration of our essentially basic make-up as a nation of immigrants is evident even in the 1950s: Cheong Soo Pieng’s “Untitled (Boats and Houses)” breathed into the then Singapore River its buzz of trade-related activities and its significance as the first point of landing for people who hailed from distant shores.

That we today descend from foreigners who had gamely adopted and adapted to the local tastes and nuances of the time is evident in the subject matter our local artists had chosen to convey: Cheong Soo Pieng’s “Landcape” and Chen Chong Swee’s “Kampong” created the attap house in lush tropical setting through a marriage of Chinese and western artistic influences.

At the same time, Georgette Chen’s “Malayan Fruits”, with Chen Wei Hsi’s “Fishing Village”, honoured the bountiful local produce our ancestors had reaped from the fertile soil and waters in the Malayan Peninsula.

This joyful liberation eventually morphed from different degrees of the representational into the abstract for some Singaporean artists: Ho Ho Ying’s “Composition” reinforces his argument that we can never be able to draw, paint, sculpt or photograph our subject matter into the actual objects they really are.

In “Horizontals I”, Choy Weng Yang had no greater motivation than the freedom to explore the way different colours interacted and related to each other. As for Abdul Ghani Hamid, the same sense of being without boundaries resulted in his “The Face of Mediation” – giving a non-figurative form to what he believed was the mental state of reflection and contemplation.

These 3 artworks seem to tell me this: we are not who we are by virtue of our genes or skin colour. We are what we experience and what we choose to hold dear in our hearts and minds. And so we will always have the unquenchable liberty to evolve for the better with our times.

Soak in this uplifting inspiration at the National Museum of Singapore, at 93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897. The exhibition “A Changed World: Singapore Art 1950s – 1970s” runs till 16 March 2014.

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