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Visual Arts

Chua Ek Kay

One of Singapore's pioneering post-war Chinese immigrant artists

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Without a strong foundation in calligraphy, where will your artistic lines come from? Without reading, how can you conceive art? Without good learning, how can you be an expert?

Translated from Chua Ek Kay’s diary entry, courtesy of Chua Ek Kay’s wife Mdm Yeo Yang Kwee.

Chua Ek Kay was a member of the pioneering batch of post-war Chinese immigrant artists in Singapore who—while rooted in Chinese ink—were equally engaged in contemporary expression. Chua’s distinctive style blended traditional Chinese ink painting styles with Western theories and techniques, creating paintings charged with energy, emotion and keen poetic sensibility. He became the first Chinese ink painter to win the UOB Painting of the Year Award in 1991. In 1999, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contribution to visual arts in Singapore.

Born in Guangdong, China on 21 Nov 1947, Chua Ek Kay moved to Singapore as a child with his family in the 1950s, and settled down in Liang Seah Street. He loved the arts growing up, and was always listening to music and reading Chinese literature and poetry. As a student in Catholic High School, he was known for his ability to recite Chinese poetry from memory.

However, being the eldest of seven children in a non-affluent family, Chua did not pursue his literary and artistic interests seriously after graduating. Instead he took on a variety of jobs to add to the family income, only buying himself a guitar with money from his first job. It was not until 1975 that a 28-year-old Chua decided to learn traditional Chinese ink painting and seal carving from master Shanghai School ink painter Fan Chang Tien. Along the way, Chua was influenced and found inspiration in the work of Chinese art historian and painter Huang Binhong, and in the work of pioneering Singapore Nanyang artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng.

A decade later in 1985, he resigned from his job as a manager of a garment factory to practice art full-time, while he worked part-time as a lecturer at the National University of Singapore’s Extramural Studies Department to support his passion.

Chua believed that to be a good artist, one not only had to have a good traditional foundation in art, one also should be well-read and possess a cultured soul. He read voraciously, listened to music and played his guitar, finding inspiration in classical poetry, books and music. He channeled his creative energies into painting and, three years later in 1988, held his first exhibition at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, featuring a selection of Chinese brush paintings and calligraphy.

For inspiration, Chua also explored old and new physical and mental landscapes, finding inspiration in the Chinese cultural influences and street scenes of his childhood, and in existing street scenes with old shophouses juxtaposed against contemporary urbanised settings. He also explored natural landscapes as well as forms of art that were new to him such as Aboriginal Australian cave art and Western art. He became deeply fascinated by the new avenues of thought, approach and technique that Western art offered and found similarities between the Shanghai School of ink painting and the Western art of Matisse, Picasso and Jackson Pollock.

Fired by his developing interest, he decided to go back to school in 1990 and enrolled in LASALLE College of the Arts to study Western painting. During 1994 to 1995, he pursued further art studies at the University of Tasmania, where he received a Bachelors in Fine Art, and the University of Western Sydney where he attained a master's degree.

When Chua returned to Singapore, he created one of his most famous works and his own personal favourite, Song of Cicada (1996). A large five-panel work inspired by the Tasmanian scenery, it showcased Chua’s impactful new voice merging his Chinese roots and Buddhist beliefs with Western influences. The work’s large expanse of space punctuated by a few falling autumnal leaves was a potent and symbolic visual poem that invited audiences to imagine and contemplate.

Over the decades, Chua held seven solo exhibitions and participated in numerous group exhibitions. He painted many scenes of old Singapore, featuring old shophouses, alleyways and other scenes from Singapore’s old quarters which were disappearing in a rapidly urbanising nation, often depicting in Chinese ink the places he had lived in or visited with nostalgia and deep feeling. He also painted scenes of natural beauty, depicting mountains, lakes and lotuses with a poetic sensibility. Many of his paintings were guided by his Buddhist leanings, portraying the essence of things rather than offering physical representation, evoking both energy and emotion in a subtle yet powerful way.

Chua’s artistic excellence was recognised over the years. He became the first Chinese ink painter to win the UOB Painting of the Year Award in 1991 and won the Juror’s Choice award at the Philip Morris Group of Companies ASEAN Art Awards in 1998. In 1999, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Chua passed away on 8 Feb 2008. A month later on 18 March, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts held a roundtable session Remembering Chua Ek Kay: Ink Painting and the Idea of the Contemporary. On 17 May, the Singapore Art Museum and the Singapore Management University held a memorial service for Chua, at which his widow Mdm Yeo Yang Kwee unveiled two of Chua’s untitled paintings and donated a representative collection of his works to the Singapore Art Museum.

Chua’s legacy continues to influence and inspire artists, and can also be glimpsed at Clarke Quay MRT station. His artworks from his The Reflections series adorn the walls of the station, presenting a multi-faceted portrait of the Singapore River throughout Singapore history in different mediums. His life as an artist was documented in the film Being and Becoming Chua Ek Kay, which had its premiere screening at the Singapore Art Museum on 6 Mar 2013.

Timeline

21 Nov 1947

Born in Guangdong, China.

1953

Moved to Singapore with family.

1967 to 1970

Attended Catholic High School.

1975 to 1984

Studied art with master Shanghai School ink painter Fang Chang Tien.

1985

Part-time lecturer, National University of Singapore, Extramural Studies Department.

1988

Participated in A Selection of Chinese Brush Paintings and Calligraphy exhibition, Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Singapore.

1989

Graduated from LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts with Advanced Diploma.

1991

Received UOB Painting of the Year award. Was the first Chinese ink painter to do so.

1992

Participated in Duality and Tension exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1993

Received National Arts Council scholarship for practising artists.

1994

Graduated from University of Tasmania, Australia, with Bachelor of Fine Arts.

1995

Graduated from University of Western Sydney, Australia, with MA (Hons.) Visual Arts.

Solo exhibition Recent Works by Chua Ek Kay, University of Western Sydney, Australia.

1997

Solo exhibition Colour of Infinity, Caldwell House, CHIJMES and Art Forum, Singapore.

1998

Received Juror’s Choice award, Philip Morris Group of Companies ASEAN Art Awards, Singapore.

Participated in Philip Morris ASEAN Art Exhibition, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Solo exhibition Hunter of the Wilderness, Art Forum, Singapore.

1999

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Participated in CRISP exhibition, Singapore Art Museum.

Participated in Power and Poetry, Monuments and Meditations in Chinese Ink Painting, Singapore Art Museum.

Participated in Beyond Tradition: Art of the New Migrant Chinese, Earl Lu Gallery, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore.

Participated in Ambulation, Earl Lu Gallery, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore.

2000

Solo exhibition Lyrical Spaces, Wetterling Teo Gallery, Singapore.

2001

Solo exhibition Street Scenes Revisited, Soobin Gallery, Singapore.

Participated in ASEAN Art Today 2001, Earl Lu Gallery, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore.

Participated in Ink & Colour, 3 Singaporean Artists, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Participated in Nokia Singapore Art 2001, Singapore Art Museum.

Sep 2001 to Sep 2003

Appointed to the National Arts Council, Singapore.

2002

Received LASALLE College of the Arts Fellowship.

Sept 2002

First Singaporean artist to participate in Singapore Tyler Print Institute's Visiting Artists Programme.

2003

Participated in Timeless Space Damask Asia, London, UK.

2005

Solo exhibition 逸溪 (YiXi), Shanghai Art Museum, China.

2007

Solo exhibition Along the River Banks, Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

8 Feb 2008

Passed away at age 61.

18 Mar 2008

Remembering Chua Ek Kay: Ink Painting and the Idea of the Contemporary roundtable session, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

6 Mar 2013

Documentary Being and Becoming Chua Ek Kay premiered at the Singapore Art Museum.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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