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T. K. Sabapathy, born in 1938, is Singapore’s foremost art historian, curator and critic. For four decades, he has devoted his life to the research, documentation and support of contemporary visual arts in Singapore and Malaysia. He has been a lecturer of art history at the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological Institution and National Institute of Education. He set up and headed Singapore’s pioneer art research facilities, the Contemporary Asian Art Centre and subsequently, Asia Contemporary. He has also written countless articles, books, catalogues and artist monographs, making an invaluable contribution to the study of art in Southeast Asia, and is well respected for his scholarship and beloved for his tireless advocacy of art and artists of Singapore and Malaysia.
Thiagarajan Kanaga Sabapathy was born in 1938, incidentally the same year that Malaya’s first tertiary-level art academy, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), was founded.
Back then, the art scene in British Malaya was in its infancy, receiving little interest and investment from its colonial rulers and propelled largely by local and migrant Chinese artists who practised art in the Western watercolour and oil and Chinese ink traditions. Art education in Singapore during that and the following decades was limited to studio-based studies.
So when the Singapore-based University of Malaya began offering the history of art as an elective two-year undergraduate programme within its Faculty of Arts in the 1950s, Sabapathy—then a 20–year–old Raffles Institution alumni and sports champion who was curious about art—promptly took it up in 1958 after enrolling in the university with history as his major.
In the art history programme, Sabapathy was greatly inspired by his lecturer Michael Sullivan. He soaked in the latter’s lectures and devoured the programme’s readings. Sullivan was an Asian art scholar and the curator of the first University of Malaya Art Museum, and he was committed to forming a representative collection of Malayan art. He undertook archaeological surveys of Malaya, wrote about local art and artists, and set up a centre for research in Southeast Asian art, which was a greatly neglected field of study. His efforts were particularly impactful at a time of rising anti-colonialism sentiments and nationalism in the region. However, Sullivan left the university and Singapore in 1960 and Sabapathy would, years later, take up his cause.
Upon receiving his Bachelor’s degree in history, Sabapathy, encouraged by K.G. Tregonning, his professor in history—as well as Sullivan with whom he remained in contact—enrolled in graduate studies in the history of art at the Department of Art History at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1962 to 1965, he immersed himself in studies of European and Asian art, which was the closest he could get to the study of Southeast Asian art, and also formed a lasting friendship with the late Malaysian theatre doyen Krishen Jit, who was pursuing graduate studies in American history at Berkeley, with whom he collaborated years later on a few publications.
Upon graduating in 1965, Sabapathy left California for London. There, he studied Southeast Asian Art as a research fellow at The School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London from 1966 to 1969 while teaching Asian art three days a week at the Farnham School of Art in Surrey. From 1969 to 1970, he also taught Southeast Asian sculpture at St. Martin’s School of Art and harboured thoughts of returning to Singapore to teach art history.
In 1970, these hopes were swiftly snuffed out by an encounter in London with the then vice chancellor of the Singaporean university, the late politician Toh Chin Chye. During the meeting, Toh summarily dismissed the university’s art history programme as “unproductive” and told Sabapathy of his intention to close the facility. Sabapathy was bitterly disappointed.
That same year, the Universiti Sains Malaysia was founded in Penang, offering Malaysia’s first Fine Arts degree programme. Sabapathy was offered the post of art history lecturer. He relocated to Penang where he taught for almost 10 years from 1971, delving into the research of the modern in Malaysian art and feverishly creating course materials, catalogues, biographies and more where there had been none.
During this time, he continued in his pioneering work and laid solid foundations for the further study of modern Malayan art. His work brought him into close contact with the Singapore art community and scene as Malaysia and Singapore art overlapped considerably, given their long shared history as British Malaya. He also established a close friendship with fellow art writer and educator, the late Redza Piyadasa. With Piyadasa, he co-curated exhibitions and collaborated on numerous publications, including their famous 1979 study of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts artists in which they became the first to identify and define the now well-known “Nanyang” style of painting.
While Sabapathy was in Penang, art scholarship in Singapore had been dealt the blow promised by Toh. In 1973, three years after that meeting with Toh, the art history programme and university museum set up by Sullivan and expanded by his successor William Willetts was closed, and its collection divided between the newly split University of Malaya’s offshoots—the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and the University of Singapore, which stored its share of the collection in the archives of the National Museum of Singapore.
Knowing this, when his contract at the Universiti Sains Malaysia expired in 1980, Sabapathy returned to Singapore with his wife and child without hoping to revive an art history programme there. Instead, he earned a living writing articles on art for The Straits Times, and continued to do so until 1993. In 1981, Sabapathy received a job offer from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) head of the Department of Architecture to be a history of art lecturer.
This was the beginning of a long career as an educator in various Singapore institutions. Besides lecturing at NUS, Sabapathy in 2006 also started teaching at the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media. And in 2007, he began lecturing on the modern and the contemporary in the art of Southeast Asia at the National Institute of Education. At these institutions, Sabapathy’s programmes were often limited to introductory modules in spite of his repeated attempts to have school administrators and heads recognise the importance of the study of art history as an academic major.
In 1989, the National Museum of Singapore returned the old university museum’s collection of artifacts to the National University of Singapore. These were catalogued in the early ’90s and Sabapathy subsequently co-curated the South and Southeast Asian chapter for the 2002 opening of the South and Southeast Asian Art Gallery at the NUS Museum, which was one of his numerous curatorial projects.
In 2001, he realised an important aspiration of his former mentor Sullivan when he formed the Contemporary Asian Arts Centre (CAAC), a contemporary Asian art research facility at the LASALLE College of the Arts. From 2001 to 2004, he headed the centre as director and led the creation, development and funding of art and artist research projects, the publication of materials, and participation in regional art forums, collaborations and symposiums. In 2004, his involvement with the centre came to an end when funding for the centre ran out and it was absorbed into LASALLE.
Undeterred, Sabapathy subsequently established Asia Contemporary, an independent Southeast Asian art research institute, and headed it as founding director. The institute has since collaborated with artists and historians, including Alan Cruickshank, Director of the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia and Editor of Contemporary Visual Art+ Culture Broadsheet magazine, on residency and published works.
Sabapathy’s greatest contribution to the worlds of Singapore and regional art however possibly lies in the vast body of writings he has published over the decades. Spanning topics as diverse as themes in modern Southeast Asian art and the practices and works of individual artists such as Anthony Poon, Ng Eng Teng, Thomas Yeo, Cheo Chai-Hiang and Tan Teng Kee, his many books and countless articles documenting and commenting on local and regional art and artists have been invaluable resources that illuminate not only the vast and complex world of contemporary Southeast Asian—and especially Singapore—art but also its rich and intricately interlinked cultures and histories.
Today, his extensive knowledge of contemporary Southeast Asian art remains unparalleled and his tireless advocacy of Singapore artists is legendary.
Written with close reference to:
Road to Nowhere: The Quick Rise and the Long Fall of Art History in Singapore, T. K. Sabapathy, The Art Gallery at the National Institute of Education, Singapore, 2010.
Born in Singapore.
Studied art history from Michael Sullivan at the University of Malaya, Singapore.
Moved to San Francisco, California, to study art.
Studied history of art at the Department of Art History at University of California, Berkeley.
Moved to London, UK.
Taught Asian art at the Farnham School of Art in Surrey, UK.
Studied Southeast Asian Art as a research fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Taught Southeast Asian sculpture at St. Martin’s School of Art, London.
Taught history of art at the School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia.
Returned to Singapore
Wrote art and artist articles for Section Two (later renamed Life!) in The Straits Times..
Lecturer in the History of Art in the Department of Architecture in the National University of Singapore.
Lecturer in the History of Art in the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore.
Director of the Contemporary Asian Arts Centre at LASALLE College of the Arts.
Teaches modules on the modern and the contemporary in the art of Southeast Asia at the National Institute of Education.
Lecturer in the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University.
Published Road to Nowhere: The Quick Rise and the Long Fall of Art History in Singapore..
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.