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Ho Ho Ying

Singapore's pioneering abstract artist

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Ho Ho Ying, born in Hainan, China in 1935, is a prominent pioneering abstract artist who co-founded the Modern Art Society, Singapore in the 1960s, and an influential art critic who wrote eloquent essays calling for Singapore art to grow in a new direction, arguing the case for abstraction as opposed to realism. His body of work, developed since the ’50s and largely composed of abstract oil works, marries the spontaneity of abstract expressionism with the refinement of Chinese calligraphy with assuredness. He received the Pingat APAD from Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya, Singapore, for his contributions in uniting various ethnic art organisations in 1975, and has exhibited widely in Singapore and overseas to acclaim. In 2012, Ho Ho Ying received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts.

Ho Ho Ying was born on 20 Feb 1935 on Hainan Island in China. His childhood years were spent with his mother as his father had left Hainan to work in Singapore as a cook for the mother of Datuk Loke Wan Tho. In 1942, when Ho was nine, his mother took him to Singapore to escape the Sino-Japanese war and reunite with his father.

In Singapore, Ho’s parents enrolled him in The Chinese High School, which was popular among Chinese immigrants. There, he studied art under art teachers and practitioners Liu Kang and Chen Wen Hsi who were then teaching art full-time at the school, and developed a love and talent for art. He learnt the basics of Western art and realism from Liu while Chen instructed him on the use of colour and his imagination.

Being poor however, he could not afford art materials, but he was helped by Chen who often offered him money to obtain his materials. He would also often go to the Singapore University library, which was close to his home on Duchess Road, after school to read art books, getting acquainted with 19th-century masters such as Van Gogh and Cézanne. With Liu and Chen’s guidance and support, Ho gained proficiency in painting and went on to receive school awards.

In 1953, however, tragedy struck when Ho’s mother, who had recently given birth to Ho’s youngest sister, died of cervical cancer. At the time, Ho’s father was working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the household of Datuk Loke Wan Tho’s mother. An 18-year-old Ho became the sole caregiver of his younger siblings—a nine-year-old sister, two brothers aged five and six, and an infant sister aged four and a half months. Money was scarce as his father often could not remit money home in time, and Ho had to buy food and other provisions on credit.

These early hardships did not deter Ho’s determination and love for art and he went on to become a practicing artist. Nine years later, in 1962, Ho attained a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Language and Literature from Nanyang University. As a young aspiring artist, he had worked through the various artistic influences of the times, from the older representational approaches, to modern non-representational styles such as Cubism, to one that finally really excited him—abstract expressionism.

He had also become a firm believer in the need for local artistic reform. In 1963, bound together by shared ideals and beliefs, Ho formed an informal art group with fellow artists Wee Beng Chong, Tong Siang Eng, Tay Chee Toh, Tan Yee Hong, Johnda Goh and Ng Yat Chuang. They held frequent gatherings and, in the same year, jointly held Singapore’s first dedicated modern art exhibition at the National Library. The exhibition succinctly introduced its philosophy:

“Modern artists have finally found the depth and breadth of the human soul, and make full use of the new forms of art to express new feelings and thinking.”

In October 1964, Ho, together with Tay Chee Toh, Tong Siang Eng and Wee Beng Chong, officially registered and founded the Modern Art Society, Singapore. It aimed to nurture Singapore modern art and provide Singapore modern artists with platforms for development and exhibition. The preface in the society’s catalogue articulated the their beliefs and direction:

“Let us have a look at our era... Realism has passed its golden age; Impressionism has done its duty, Fauvism and Cubism are declining….Any attempt to recover past glory shall be in vain, because history will not repeat... Art, like all things in the world, is ever changing, and we are trying to catch up with the change.”

During that time up to the ’70s, Ho regularly voiced his views on the current state of Singapore art in numerous Mandarin essays, expressing his opinions on art and art criticism and commenting on the Singapore art scene then. His essays included Art, besides being New, has to Possess an Intrinsic Quality in order to Strike a Sympathetic Chord in the Hearts of the Viewers. His essay The current art scene in Singapore—published in the newspapers in 1964—in particular, expressed Ho’s desire for Singapore art to move away from convention and grow in a new direction, and for organisers to take risks with showing modern works. In his essay, he argued the case for abstraction as opposed to realism with logic and conviction.

At the same time, he created numerous works including oil paintings with refined textures and abstract forms such as Rhythm of Dance (1958), Cave Age (1969) and Stone Age (1969). They showed his evolution from a young art student raised on the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy to a young artist influenced by the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock whose work he had seen in art publications. Embracing the latter genre’s spontaneous expression while retaining elements of traditional Chinese aesthetics, Ho created a body of work that was entirely his own—spontaneous yet refined, expressive yet contemplative.

With the Modern Art Society, Ho Ying participated in many contemporary art exhibitions in Singapore and overseas. Together with the society, he also received many invitations to participate in exhibitions such as the 1972 International Art Exhibition organised by Poland’s Ministry of Culture and Society of Visual Arts in Poland, a 1980 exhibition organised by the Taichung Culture Foundation in Taiwan, a 1989 exhibition by the Contemporary Art Society of Korea in South Korea, and many Asian International Art Exhibition (AIAE) exhibitions held in countries such as Japan, Indonesia, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia over the years. In 1995, when the AIAE was held in Singapore for the first time, Ho and the Modern Art Society jointly presented the AIAE with the National Heritage Board at the National Museum.

Since then, Ho has exhibited in many countries such as Australia, China, France, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, USA and Vietnam. Under his and his fellow founder-artists’ guidance, the Modern Art Society is currently one of Singapore’s most respected art associations, with 50 members and continued participation in exhibitions in Singapore and overseas. Many of the society’s members are successful artists who have won accolades. Ho himself received the APAD award by Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya for his contributions in promoting art among different racial groups in Singapore and uniting various ethnic art organisations in 1975. In 2012, Ho Ho Ying received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts.

Today, Ho’s works continue to inspire artists and his essays are valuable documents that give insight into the various concerns faced by the Singapore art community during important periods in Singapore’s history.

Timeline

20 Feb 1935

Born in Hainan, China.

1944

Moved to Singapore with his mother.

1951 to 1955

Attended Chinese High School.

Taught art by Liu Kang and Chen Wen Hsi

1956

Group exhibition – Singapore Art Society’s annual exhibition

1960

Group exhibition – Exhibited two mural paintings The Life of Student and The Happy Land in the Arts building, Nanyang University, Singapore.

Established Nanyang University Art Society.

1962

Graduated from Nanyang University with Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Language and Literature.

1963

Formed an informal art group with Wee Beng Chong, Tong Siang Eng, Tay Chee Toh, Tan Yee Hong, Johnda Goh and Ng Yat Chuang.

Group exhibition – The First Modern Art Exhibition, National Library. This was the first dedicated exhibition of modern art in Singapore.

Group exhibition – International Youth Art Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan.

1964

Co-founder, Modern Art Society, Singapore.

Group exhibition – Joint exhibition of modern art in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Group exhibition – International Youth Art Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan.

1965

Group exhibition – Joint exhibition of modern art in Singapore.

1965 to 1995

Training officer, National Youth Leadership Training Institute.

1966

Group exhibition – Joint exhibition of modern art in Singapore.

1966 to 1971

President, Modern Art Society, Singapore.

1972

Group exhibition – the Wave Art exhibition at Raffles Hotel, Singapore.

1973 to 1978

President, Modern Art Society, Singapore.

1975

Received Pingat APAD, Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya, Singapore.

1978

Group exhibition – Modern Art Exhibition with 11 other Singapore artists at the National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1979

Received Contribution to Modern Art Award, Modern Art Society, Singapore.

1980 to 1983

President, Modern Art Society, Singapore.

1984 to 1995

President, The Singapore Art Society.

1986

Group exhibition – Peoples’ Association art exhibition at National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1987

Commissioned work – collaboration with Leo Hee Tong for steel sculpture Towards the 21st Century at Somerset MRT Station, Singapore.

1992 to 1996

Co-founder and President, Federation of Art Societies.

1995 to 2002

Led Creative Chinese Calligraphy Art in Federation of Art Societies.

1996 to 1997

Attended and graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, China.

1998

Published Hangzhou Diary.

1998 to 2003

President, Federation of Art Societies.

2000

Received Karongguini Art Exhibition Gold Award, Federation of Art Societies, Singapore.

2001

Published Passionate Family & Art Oddity, a collection of short stories in Chinese.

Received Special Gold Award (Chinese Calligraphy), Tengkwangke, China

2003

Founder, FASS Chengdu Art Studio, Chengdu, China.

2005

Published Beyond Image: Calligraphy & Painting – Artworks by Ho Ho Ying.

Published Re-connecting: Liu Kang and Ho Ho Ying: Selected Writings on Singapore Art and Art Criticism, translated from Chinese.

2012

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts.

Mar 2014

Solo exhibition Ho Ho Ying – Present, Gallery 1 and 2, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore.


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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