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Visual Arts

Tay Boon Pin

Prominent Singapore visual artist.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

To paint well, I must understand how they [the subjects] live.

Tay Boon Pin is a prominent Singapore artist. Born in an Indonesian fishing village, he relocated to Singapore in the early 1950s and studied art at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts under the mentorship of illustrious first-generation Nanyang artists. Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen. In Singapore's pre-independence years, Tay was a founding member of the Equator Art Society and became respected for his social realist paintings depicting the lives of working-class folk. Later on, he also became known for his paintings of a vibrant, pre-1980s Singapore River as well as those depicting the lives of fishing folk in many parts of Southeast Asia.

Tay Boon Pin was born in 1936 in a small fishing village in Bagansiapiapi in Sumatra , Indonesia, where he received some basic education as a young child. In 1945, when the Japanese surrendered, racial conflict escalated in Indonesia, and Tay was sent away to safer lands when he was nine, travelling by sea for two days to Malacca, where he then made his way to Singapore. He stayed in Singapore for a couple of years until the situation in Indonesia subsided and returned to his hometown in Indonesia where he helped his father out with his fishing business.

Back in his hometown, Tay developed an interest in art but he found no opportunities for art education there. In 1952, encouraged by friends and kin, he returned to Singapore to pursue his studies, enrolling first at Chung Cheng High School. The following year, he made the switch to the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) where he was mentored by teachers such as celebrated Nanyang style artists, Cheong Soo Pieng, Georgette Chen and principal Lim Hak Tai, and developed a solid foundation in art. He enjoyed his art lessons immensely and spent long hours painting daily. His years at NAFA made a huge impact on him, and it was then that he began to understand the significance of art in both society and life.

Singapore in the ’50s and ’60s was a battleground of political and social tumult, with regular protests, strikes and riots arising from a surge of anti-colonialism, pro-independence leanings and Malayan nationalism. After graduating from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1956, Tay co-founded the Equator Art Society with several fellow artists including Lim Yew Kuan, Chua Mia Tee and Ong Kim Seng. Galvanised by the work and idealism of social realist painters in countries such as Holland, France and China, Tay and his peers in the Equator Art Society aimed to depict the social realities of the lives of local, common folk. They resisted producing peaceful landscape paintings and gentle portraits of life in Singapore-Malaya like many of their NAFA predecessors and peers did. Instead, Tay and his cohort depicted working-class people in everyday situations in emotive, realist woodcut prints, sculptures, drawings and paintings, alive with the vigour and dignity with which their subjects endured their daily hardships.

Through the ’50s and ’60s, Tay researched and held seminars on painting techniques with the Equator Art Society and participated in its group exhibitions. These were well attended and drew much praise as well as some criticism for the society's leftist leanings. The change in political climate over the years meant that in 1972, the Equator Art Society was dissolved, and Tay focused his attention on his work and a solo art career.

From 1958 till 1975, Tay earned his living as an illustrator for children's books and an executive creative director for a few international publishers. From 1976 to 1999, he found other work as a fine art teacher as well as an art director with various publishers and a full-time executive creative director with various advertising agencies.

Outside of work, Tay continued to pursue his art practice with diligence and love. He did not participate in many exhibitions after the disbandment of the Equator Art Society. However, his lack of public presence had nothing to do with inactivity but perhaps more to do with his aversion towards public attention. Among the few exhibitions he did partake in over the next few decades were a joint art exhibition with Koh Yik Song in Singapore in 1974, a joint art exhibition with Tan Chin Soon in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia almost a decade later in 1983, and a highly acclaimed group exhibition organised by the Singapore Art Museum entitled From Words to Pictures: Art During the Emergency almost two and a half decades later in 2007.

Despite the gaps in public showcases, Tay's practice is marked by a steady commitment to both his art-making and his notion of authenticity as an artist. Putting urban social realities aside, Tay’s work has another prevalent theme—man's relationship with the sea. This stems not only from Tay's childhood growing up among fisherfolk, but also from the sea voyage he made as a young boy fleeing a turbulent Indonesia. The two-day boat journey left a deep and lasting impression on his young mind, and many of his fishing and sea paintings depict the rough beauty of the sea.

During the heyday of the Singapore River, Tay visited the river every weekend to paint vibrant scenes of a river bursting with life, colour and activity as he felt that the river was then the lifeline of Singapore and its people. When that lifeline was cut off by 1983's River Cleanup Campaign and the river was "cleansed" of its bustling warehouses, bumboats, dhonies, junks, sampans, boatmen, hawkers and merchants, Tay continued to visit regularly even as he spent more time seeking out the subjects that had always been closest to his heart—fisherfolk and the sea.

Throughout the decades, Tay travelled extensively within Southeast Asia, to places such as Bali, Malaysia and Thailand, to search for fishing villages, painting exquisite works of realism on location. He was particularly drawn to the fishing villages of Kelantan, Terengganu and Bali. He often stayed in these villages for a month or two and would try to depict the local ways of life as honestly as he could. Once, he managed to persuade a reluctant fisherman to take him along on his daily fishing trip. But when the boat was in the middle of the sea, rocking with the waves, Tay was hit with severe seasickness, forcing the fishermen to cut short their day's work and turn back to shore. Although he has had to, from then on, paint scenes of fishing at sea with the help of photographs and imagination, Tay still firmly believes that the artist should experience some of his subjects’ lives in order to truly render them with authentic emotion.

When Tay finally held his first solo exhibition at Echo Art Galerie (Singapore) in 2011, followed by a second solo exhibition, Voyages, at Hai Hui Art Gallery (Singapore) in 2013, showcasing mainly works from the ’70s and ’80s, he was met with enthusiasm by fellow artists and art lovers who were touched by the warmth in his works and impressed by his keen eye for his subjects, as they reveal the artist’s apparent sense of kinship to the sea.

Tay still practises his art with dedication and thinks often of his NAFA mentors with great fondness and gratitude. He remembers that Georgette Chen, in particular, never missed his Equator Art Society exhibitions and always encouraged him in his practice. Looking upon his work, we see that it is perhaps this spirit of love and thankfulness that lights Tay’s body of work so beautifully and fills his scenes of fishermen pulling in their nets, boatmen rowing at the old Clarke Quay, and workers enjoying a short respite, with such grace and empathy.



Born in a small fishing village in Bagansiapiapi in Sumatra, Indonesia.


Relocated to Singapore.


Returned to Indonesia.


Returned to Singapore.

Attended Chung Cheng Secondary School.

1953 to 1956

Attended Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.


Established Equator Art Society with fellow artists.

1956 to 1970

Researched and held seminars on painting techniques with the Equator Art Society.

Participated in group exhibitions with the society.

1956 to 1972

Member, Equator Art Society.


Held joint art exhibition with Koh Yik Song in Singapore.


Held joint art exhibition with Tan Chin Soon in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


Participated in From Words to Pictures: Art During the Emergency exhibition organised by Singapore Art Museum


Held first solo exhibition at Echo Art Galerie, Singapore.


Held second solo exhibition Voyages at Hai Hui Art Gallery, Singapore.


Participated in group exhibition Equator: Selected Paintings from 50-70’s at Hai Hui Art Gallery


Held third solo exhibition at Hai Hui Art Gallery, Singapore.


Held fourth solo exhibition at Hai Hui Art Gallery, 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.

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