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Teo Eng Seng, born in 1938, is one of Singapore’s foremost sculptors. Believing in art as social statement, he famously abandoned oil painting in 1979 to pursue Asian roots in his newly invented medium of paperdyesculp, or pulped paper. Teo’s works frequently engage issues of the day—whether in making ironic commentary on the once-polluted state of the Singapore River in The Net: Most Definitely the Singapore River, or on materialism in Singapore as seen in the gilded cages of We’re Happy, Are You Happy?. In 1986, Teo received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.
Growing up as a young boy in the 1940s, Teo Eng Seng would express himself visually on any surface he could find, scribbling on walls and floors. In school, he would constantly be drawing, and even helped his teachers make posters. A prodigy and maverick in many ways, Teo staged his first solo show of paintings while studying in Pasir Panjang Secondary School in 1959, prompting the Singapore Free Press to call him “the first schoolboy in Singapore hold a one-man art exhibition”.
Teo left Singapore in 1961 with only 25 pounds in his pocket, embarking on a hitchhiking journey through India, Pakistan and Europe to reach his next destination in the UK. There, he began his tertiary art studies and obtained basic and teaching degrees in art. Trained as a fine art painter, he eventually took on the role of an art teacher in a school in Shoreditch, London upon graduation. Teo returned to Singapore in 1971 and joined the Singapore International School as an art teacher.
Believing that art should always be borne of struggle and created as social statement, Teo abandoned oil painting in 1979 and invented the new medium of paperdyesculp, which was for him “a conscious effort to kill the training I received in the West.” He found that art reviewers continued to judge his work against those of Western artists even when he returned from the UK, and so he decided to use paper—a material that has its roots in Asia—to be his new artistic medium. He named this medium “paperdyesculp” to both reflect its material and the artistic processes involved in his art.
This proved to be a successful endeavour, as from then on, his work ceased to be compared with Western artists and would come to be judged purely as an artistic creation by Teo. He would later move away from paperdyesculp some three decades later and use creased up canvas and cloth to create his textured surfaces.
Teo is best known for bringing modern art aesthetics and art as a conceptual practice to post-war generations of artists in Singapore. His sculptures, which have more recently been created from plastic waste, continue to provoke and tease at the social norms found in the city-state. He has also served in advisory roles in arts institutions and arts committees on a national level.
In 1986, Teo received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore. Refusing to acknowledge it as a reward to his work, Teo prefers to view it as a helpful burden that motivates and pressures him to create better art.
Today, Teo still continues to create art regularly. He holds the Dutch artist Rembrandt as his artistic hero and a constant inspiration for his art.
Born in Singapore.
Took art lessons at British Council, Singapore.
Staged his first exhibition while studying in Pasir Panjang Secondary School.
Enrolled at Central School of Art & Craft, London.
Enrolled at Birmingham College of Art & Design, England. Graduated with BA (Hons) Painting (Birmingham).
Enrolled at School of Art Education, Birmingham College of Art & Design. Graduated with Art Teacher’s Diploma (ATD), Birmingham, and Post-Graduate Certificate of Education (Birmingham University).
Art Master, Riland-Bedford School, Sutton Coldfield, England.
Deputy Head, Art Department, and In-Charge of Creative Photography and Film making, Shoreditch School, London.
Art teacher at Singapore International School (now known as United World College of South East Asia), Singapore. Eventually became Head of Department.
Abandoned oil painting and invented his new artistic medium paperdyesculp.
Member, Visual Arts Advisory Committee, Ministry of Culture, Singapore.
3rd Prize, UOB Painting of the Year Competition, Singapore.
Received Special Award by New Images, Modern Art Society, Singapore.
Received 3rd Prize, UOB Painting of the Year Competition, Singapore.
Received 1st Prize, UOB Painting of the Year Competition (Abstract Category), Singapore.
Received UOB Painting of The Year award, Singapore.
Received 3rd prize, Australian Art Award 85.
Received Overseas Education Study Tour award, National Day Art Exhibition.
Received Special Award in Art Exhibitions, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Alumni.
Received 50th Anniversary Art Award (Western Painting Category), The Society of Chinese Artists.
Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts in Singapore.
Received Long Service Award by Visual Arts Advisory Committee, Ministry of Community Development, Singapore.
Named Fine Art Fellow by Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, England..
Member, Creative Service Development Plan Task Force, Economic Development Board, Singapore.
Member, Library 2000: Subcommittee on the Arts, Ministry of Information and the Arts, Singapore.
Member, Subcommittee on the Arts, Singapore Arts Centre, Singapore.
Member, Panel of Arts Advisers, National Arts Council, Singapore.
Received Pingat APAD, Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya, Singapore.
Wall mural Commuters installed at Outram Park MRT Station, North East Line, Art in Transit programme, Land Transport Authority.
Head of Programme, Telok Kurau Studio, Singapore.
Received International Order of Merit (IOM), For Services to art and Art Exhibition by IBC Cambridge, UK.
Member, Arts Education Council, Ministry of Education, Singapore.
Received Da Vinci Diamond by IBC Cambridge, UK.
Received Special Recognition Award by Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, Singapore.
Published Teo Eng Seng: Art and Thoughts, a retrospective volume of art works.
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Catalogue cover of Teo Eng Seng's first exhibition as a schoolboy at Pasir Panjang Secondary School. 1959.
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Teo Eng Seng (holding camera) with friends sailing to India on the liner, State of Madras. 1961.
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.