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Lim Yew Kuan is an important second-generation Nanyang artist and was the second principal of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), succeeding his father and founding principal, Lim Hak Tai. Trained at NAFA and the Chelsea School of Art, he steered NAFA through some of its most difficult times in the ’60s and ’70s and nurtured generations of artists. Through half a century, he has exhibited widely to local and international acclaim, received numerous sculpture commissions, and created a large and impressive body of work—comprising paintings, woodcuts and sculpture—that reflects robust Nanyang influences, a strong social and collective consciousness and great artistic integrity. In 2011, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts.
Lim Yew Kuan was born in 1928 in Xiamen, China. At the age of 10, after the Sino-Japanese war had broken out in China, he was summoned to Singapore by his father, the late artist-educator, Lim Hak Tai, who had moved there to teach art and pursue his dream of setting up an arts school. The younger Lim arrived with others fleeing China for the safe harbour of Nanyang.
In Singapore, he lived with his father and siblings, his mother having passed away in transit while journeying to join his father. Lim’s father first enrolled him in a Chinese primary school, then in a missionary school. His art education also began as his father gave him his first art lessons.
When Singapore was occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945 during the Second World War, Lim’s schooling was halted. His father, the principal of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) which he had founded in 1937, was forced to close the school and stopped working. To help make ends meet, Lim started renting out Chinese illustration books while his eldest brother Yew Ming became the family’s breadwinner, selling ice-cream. One night, the Japanese secret police came to their home and took Yew Ming away. Lim and his family never saw him again.
The Second World War ended, and the Japanese army surrendered in 1945. Lim’s father reopened his school the following year. In 1948, Lim started his art studies at NAFA. After obtaining his diploma in Western painting from NAFA in 1950, Lim taught at NAFA while practising his art. Fuelled by the social injustices he had witnessed during the Japanese Occupation—including the taking of his own brother—and observing a rising social inequality, Lim created many social realist paintings and woodblock prints—his 1954 work Searching depicting a labourer stumbling among staring, well-heeled passers-by. In 1956, he founded the Equator Art Society devoted to social realist art. Made up of idealistic young artists including Chua Mia Tee and Ong Kim Seng, the society advocated an anti-colonial stance while promoting national pride and a collective consciousness, with a sympathetic focus on the working masses.
In 1958, Lim moved to the UK to pursue further studies at Chelsea School of Art in London. There, he studied painting, etching and lithography, and graduated in 1961. Upon his return to Singapore in 1962, Lim started working as an art lecturer at the Teachers’ Training College. He also resumed his activities with the Equator Art Society, organising and participating in its mixed-media exhibitions. With his father troubled by ailing health, Lim returned to NAFA as its deputy principal. The following year, his father passed away, and the NAFA board appointed Lim to succeed his father as principal.
Lim inherited the financial problems that had been dogging NAFA’s existence since its inception. In 1973, NAFA teetered on the brink of closure, only managing to stay open when its alumni came to its aid by selling their paintings to raise funds for the school. Then in 1979, when NAFA suffered its worst financial crisis, a new board of directors appointed a new principal, and Lim became vice-principal.
Lim stayed at NAFA through the decades, teaching and nurturing generations of artists—some of whom would become renowned artists and Cultural Medallion winners—until he retired in 1994. He also created works in various media including watercolour, oil, woodcut and sculpture, creating a diverse range of works that reflected and explored his Nanyang artistic and cultural heritage, his Western training and his experiences of life in rapidly changing Singapore with dynamism and vision.
In a career that spans over 60 years, he has taken part in innumerable exhibitions locally and abroad to acclaim. He has also been commissioned to create marble busts of Singapore’s first president, Yusok Ishak (1966, 1997), and former president, Benjamin Sheares (1999), and a full-size bronze sculpture of his father, Lim Hak Tai (2009), which was commissioned for the opening of the Lim Hak Tai gallery in NAFA. His works are also in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Singapore Art Gallery, the Istana, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other local and overseas collections. His contributions and excellence were honoured in 1980 with the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal). In 2011, Lim received the Cultural Medallion for his contribution to visual arts.
In 2010, he had his first solo exhibition, showing invigorating new works alongside old ones at a retrospective of his works at NAFA. In 2011, he held an exhibition at Xiamen Museum of Art entitled Crossing Visions: Singapore and Xiamen, which explored the Nanyang style created from the cross-cultural influences that his father and he had drawn upon. Throughout, his works remain true to the beliefs once printed in his Equator Art Society’s 1966 catalogue:
“The value of the genuine school of art lies in the fact that it does not lose its integrity amidst the ugly commercial dealings belonging to the decadent bourgeois. Instead, it always works to faithfully reflect or expose the very root of the reality of life, to spread the Truth, the Virtue, and the Beauty of this world.”
Lim passed away in 2021 at the age of 92.
Born in Xiamen, China.
Moved to Singapore to join his father, Lim Hak Tai.
Graduated from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), Singapore, with Diploma in Western Painting.
Senior Art Lecturer, NAFA.
Exhibited in NAFA 16th Anniversary Exhibition.
Member, The Singapore Chinese High Schools’ Graduates of 1953 Arts Association (Yiyanhui).
Founder and president, Equator Art Society.
Exhibited in Yiyanhui’s first exhibition.
Exhibited in the Equator Art Society’s first exhibition, at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce Exhibition Hall, Singapore.
Graduated from the Chelsea School of Art with NDD-Diploma in Design (Painting), London, UK.
Graduated from Chelsea School of Art with Printmaking (Etching and Lithography), London, UK.
Returned to Singapore.
Exhibited in Malaysia Art Exhibition, Ministry of Culture, Victoria Memorial Hall, Singapore.
Art Lecturer, Teachers’ Training College, Singapore.
Principal, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore. Succeeded his father and founding principal, Lim Hak Tai.
Exhibited in 1966 Woodcut Exhibition, National Library, Singapore.
Exhibited in Singapore’s First Sculpture Show.
Exhibited in Singapore’s Second Sculpture Show.
Exhibited in Pameran Retrospektif Pelukis-Pelukis Nanyang, The National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Vice-principal, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore.
Received Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal).
Received Long Service Award, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
Created bronze sculpture of his father. Lim Hak Tai.
Exhibited in Six Artists Exhibition, The Paragon, Singapore.
Exhibited at the Taiwan International Art Conference.
Exhibited in A Century of Art in Singapore, Singapore Art Museum.
Exhibited in Nine Artists in Bali, Agung Rai Museum of Art, Bali, Indonesia.
Exhibited in The Birth of Modern Art in South East Asia, Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan.
Exhibited in History through Prints: Woodblock Prints in Singapore, National Museum of Singapore.
Exhibited in NAFA Alumni Exhibition, Penang, Malaysia.
Created bust sculpture of former Singapore president Benjamin Sheares, commissioned by the Singapore government.
Exhibited and lectured in Singapore in Prints: 1950s to 1960s, A Historical Narrative through Woodblock Prints, National University of Singapore.
Exhibited in Exposition des oeuvres de M. Lim Yew Kuan ‘Hommage A Paris’, Cite International des Arts, Paris, France.
Exhibited and lectured in Nanyang 1950-1965: Passage to Singapore Art, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan.
Exhibted in Cite Internationale des Arts, Paris.
Exhibited in City Inspirations, Cape of Good Hope Gallery.
Exhibited in Soaring to New Frontier, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
Conferred NAFA Fellowship, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
Exhibited in Time Phase Print – 24th Anniversary of the Printmaking Society, Jendela (Visual Arts Space), Esplanade, Singapore.
Exhibited in Imprints of the Past: Remembering the 1966 Woodcut Exhibition, National Library of Singapore.
Exhibited in ARTSingapore, The Contemporary Art Fair, Suntec City, Singapore.
Created bronze sculpture of his father. Lim Hak Tai the opening of the Lim Hak Tai Gallery, NAFA, Singapore.
Exhibited in Art Revolution Taipei, Taiwan Expo Hall.
Lim Yew Kuan Retrospective Exhibition, first retrospective of his works at the Lim Hak Tai Gallery, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts.
Exhibited in Crossing Visions – Singapore and Xiamen; Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan Art Exhibition, Xiamen Art Museum, China.
Created a life-sized sculpture of Lim Hak Tai for the Xiamen Art Museum, China.
Passed away in Singapore at age 92.
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Lim Yew Kuan (second from right) with his father Lim Hak Tai (far right), brother Lim Yew Qu (second from left) and Chang Ming Tse, a veteran NAFA teacher. 1938.
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Lim Yew Kuan sculpting a bust of former president Benjamin Sheares with then president Ong Teng Cheong looking on. 1999.
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Lim Yew Kuan with his bronze sculpture of his father Lim Hak Tai at the opening of the Lim Hak Tai Gallery in NAFA. 2009.
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Low Sze Wee (right) of National Heritage Board unveiling the sculpture of Lim Hak Tai in Xiamen, China. 2011.
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.