Exhibition celebrates the vibrant realism of Chua Mia Tee’s paintings, Arts News & Top Stories

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SINGAPORE – Cinematographic, alive, dynamic. These words are often used to describe the art of Chua Mia Tee. His famous painting Epic Poem Of Malaya, in which a man reads a poem to an enthusiastic audience of Chinese students, is no exception.

This 1955 oil on canvas work is so realistic that some people tried to deploy a fly on one of the student’s arms when the painting was first exhibited, says Dr Seng Yu Jin, deputy director of the National Gallery of Singapore (conservation and research).

The work of Chua, one of Singapore’s foremost realistic painters, is one of the first things visitors will see when they enter the next exhibition of his works at the gallery.

Chua Mia Tee: Directing The Real opens its doors to the public next Friday (November 26), one day after the artist turns 90.

The one-year event, whose title refers to the cinematic quality of his work, is Chua’s first solo institutional exhibition since 1992. It highlights some fifty works from the 1950s to the 1980s, capturing scenes and portraits of people from Singapore in its transformative years.

Curator Clarissa Chikiamco notes that Chua is “incredibly gifted technically – so much so that some of his paintings may appear to be photographs.”

“But for Mr. Chua, that was not enough to be an artist. An artist must go beyond objective representations, to bring out the truth, virtue and beauty of life,” she adds. referring to the Chinese precepts of zhen, shan, mei.

Chua’s daughter Chua Yang, 53, an obstetrician and gynecologist, spoke to reporters during a preview of the show Thursday, November 18. The artist was absent from the event because he had suffered a stroke in late September.

Dr Chua says: “It is very moving (for me) to see so many old paintings that have been collected by a variety of people and businesses – some of these paintings that I haven’t seen since I was a child, when they were painted at home. “

She adds that her father “is doing quite well at home”.

Chua, recipient of a cultural medallion, was born in Shantou, Guangdong, in 1931, and moved to Singapore in 1937 to flee the Sino-Japanese war.

He is one of the founding members of the Equator Art Society, a group of artists who promoted the social realist style in Singapore. They were interested in portraying the social conditions and life of the masses, especially the working class.

Chua’s 1974 painting Workers In A Canteen, for example, testifies to his respect for blue collar workers.

Workers in a Canteen (1974) by Chua Mia Tee. PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY OF SINGAPORE

Besides scenes of ordinary people, the exhibit contains several depictions of famous people from Singapore’s history, ranging from Chua’s portrait of the first president Yusof bin Ishak, which appears on the country’s banknotes; to a 1960 bronze bust of Zubir Said, who composed the national anthem.

Other highlights include the famous National Language Class (1959), taken from Siapa Nama Kamu? exhibition at the bottom; as well as Portable Cinema (1977), in which two boys look through slits to see moving figures as a salesperson spins the reels.


Portable Cinema (1977) by Chua Mia Tee. PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY OF SINGAPORE

The exhibition also features archival documents.

Curator Lim Shujuan said, “Mr. Chua has made several woodcuts that have been published in magazines and some of them will be displayed in the archive display cabinet.”

Chua has two children with the late artist Lee Boon Ngan, who died in 2017. The exhibit includes a 1957 portrait of her from the gallery’s collection – a side profile of Lee with her hair in braids.

The family visit the painting every Chinese New Year, says Dr Chua, adding that his father said he painted it “because she looks so adorable (ke ai)”.

“He and mum always painted together, they did everything together,” says Dr Chua.

“Every time they traveled together and he had a new painting – a city scene or a countryside – he found an opportunity to sneak it up.”


Epic poem from Malaysia by Chua MIa Tee. PHOTO: NATIONAL GALLERY OF SINGAPORE

Dr Chua, an avid photographer, will mount her first photo exhibition – with around 15 photos of her father, most of the past three years – at the Leica Galerie at the Raffles Hotel from December 1 to January 11.

One shows Chua working on his latest work, a painting of himself standing next to a portrait of his wife, in April (2021).

“Over those two years he had an urgency to revisit some of his iconic material choices. He painted Chinatown, the Singapore River, a few paintings of koi and this latest self-portrait,” adds Dr Chua.

In a 1982 interview with The Straits Times, Chua compared the realism of his art to “cinema – real horses, real soldiers”.

He made a similar comparison on a 1979 TV show, where he talks about Workers In A Canteen, which has over 70 people, and suggests that a photographer might have had a harder time composing.

He said in Mandarin: “Painting can offer more freedom. You can paint as you like. The painter is also the director, the actor, the decorator and the photographer. At the same time, such a painting can be kept longer than a color photo. “

to see him

Chua Mia Tee: directing the real one

Or: Level 4 Gallery, National Gallery Singapore, City Hall Wing, 1 St Andrew’s Road
When: Nov 26 to Nov 20 (2022), every day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
TRM: Town hall
Admission: Free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents
Info: Website of the Museum of Fine Arts

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