Painting Singapore

Untitled (Kampong House with Two Figures) (1957), Lim Cheng Hoe. © Family of Lim Cheng Hoe

Housed in National Gallery Singapore from 2 August 2018 to 5 January 2020, Lim Cheng Hoe: Painting Singapore was an exhibition featuring over 60 artworks belonging to Lim, a leading Singaporean watercolour artist of his generation. Framed by his two self-portraits and embellished with anecdotes taken from his personal diary, an underlying narrative drives through the exhibition. However, as the exhibition’s visitors come face-to-face with Lim once again — visibly matured and steely-eyed as compared to the fresh-faced self-portrait from before — what they leave with, was not just insights onto his life, but rather, a larger story on how Singapore had emerged from its colonial past into its contemporary affluence, and its relationship with art and any form of cultural production throughout. Remarkably, and also aptly, this story is not told unilaterally but through a plurality of voices as suggested by the programming accompanying the exhibition such as the Living Galleries Ekphrasis Poetry Tour & Workshop on 9 March 2019, Paintings into Poems on 6 April 2019 and also That Craving Within Me to Express Myself first performed on 8–9 September 2018 and again on 1–2 June 2019. Altogether, the exhibition situates itself within the world literature canon through the way it transcends expectations of the visual arts, while skilfully contributing to Singapore’s national narrative.

Playing a pivotal role in the telling of this story is Lim’s personal diary which served as research material for the curators, enabling the artworks to be contextualized amidst Singapore’s changing landscapes. As several of his works came to the gallery untitled and undated, the curators read his diary entries in different ways — first like a catalogue and then like a map — so as to trace the meaning and significance of his artworks by cross referencing them with his diary and also the geographical locations that his diary led them to. Identified in this manner was the exhibition’s penultimate piece, [Not titled] (Pulau Saigon with a view of the Supreme Court) as its subject, Pulau Saigon, is an island that no longer exists due to its merger with Singapore’s mainland. Aside from helping situate Singapore’s lost past, Lim’s diary also gave deeper meanings to his works. Herein, Lim’s diary humanized The Red Scarf by identifying the man in the portrait as Sadogapan and thereby emphasizing the personality behind the art. Furthering this narrative strand is how the gallery provoked conversation by placing The Red Scarf to the right of a cluster of four right-facing portraits. Lim’s naming of his sitter and the juxtaposition of the portraits as such brings each of the sitters’ differing appearances into dialogue with one another, thereby raising questions on Singapore’s multiculturalism and its intercultural relations across space and time. Picking up on this is the workshop component of the Living Galleries Ekphrasis Poetry Tour & Workshop facilitated by Singaporean writer Desmond Kon Zhicheng Mingde which used the arrangement of these five portraits as a teaching points on the art of ekphrasis, being the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device. By demonstrating how the exhibition’s underlying narrative can be expounded upon, the workshop emphasizes the connection between the two disciplines, consistent with the use of Lim’s diary in the exhibition’s design.

Untitled (Pulau Saigon with a view of Supreme Court) (1971), Lim Cheng Hoe. © Family of Lim Cheng Hoe

Building upon the creative charge inherent within Lim’s work, the gallery’s programming of events surrounding the exhibition crystalizes the stories implicit within his art into a dynamic work of literature that is both inclusive and accessible. Emphasizing the participatory aspect of the exhibition’s narrative is the tour component of the Living Galleries Ekphrasis Poetry Tour & Workshop which was preceded by an open-to-all poetry competition whereby its winners were also invited to perform their works as part of the tour. On top of building upon the tropes surfaced through Lim’s art, the tour also explored how meaning may travel across mediums by using music to accompany the poems inspired by Lim’s works. Beyond paint and words, the tour also plays upon the dramatic through its incorporation of a dance performance. Likewise, the Paintings into Poem event, whereby poets including the National Gallery’s poet-in-residence Edwin Thumboo performed ekphrastic poems responding to Lim’s Singapore River also demonstrates how meaning within the exhibition is crafted in a multimodal manner. Of note is Heng Siok Tian’s poem titled Singapore River, 1962 and how he referred to the Singapore River as “sungei, 河 and nati” demonstrating Singapore’s multilingual tradition which has since become a key aspect of its national narrative.

The Estuary (1970), Lim Cheng Hoe. © Family of Lim Cheng Hoe

Making meaning out of this diversity of voices may seem daunting but Pooja Nansi’s lecture-performance, That Craving Within Me to Express Myself, whose title she had borrowed from Lim’s diary entries gives comfort. A poet and educator, Nansi reflects upon the parallels between Lim and herself and in particular, the anguish they share over living in a rapidly transforming Singapore. Using Lim’s ominous depiction of foreboding clouds spreading over a creek in The Estuary as a reference point, Pooja spoke of how her children will never be able to visit where she had her first kiss and how “further cruelty happens when people have to continue living in a city that ceases to exist in their lifetime”. Herein, the narrative driving the exhibition seems to be one of displacement and loss, a topic that is contextually apparent considering Lim’s past as a civil servant who only painted as a hobby and how his former work site, the City Hall, is now occupied by the National Gallery Singapore, the gallery through which his art was exhibited in. Nonetheless, the pensive note Nansi ends her lecture-performance with is significant. As she ends by reciting Simon Tay’s 1985 poem Singapore Night Song, the words “if you cannot learn to love (yes love) / this city you have no other” makes clear how the narrative driving the exhibition is also one about love beyond loss. Herein, Nansi’s choice of ending with a poetry recital as opposed to a call-to-action echoes what she had earlier shared on arts education and the necessity of gaps within it. This reflects how Lim was largely self-taught and had to adapt and build upon what he had learned during his informal education as he shifted from the oil paintings — seen by the rest of the world as the pinnacle of art — in favour of watercolours, a medium more suited to Singapore’s tropical climate and the spirit of frugality characterizing the post-war era he lived in. Accordingly, the inclusivity emphasized through the exhibition’s programming can hence be read as a call to keep creating, whether through a diary, art or dance as they can serve as a reclamation of what was lost, and a broader contribution to the national narrative and ultimately, the construction of a home.

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Nicholas C.

Nicholas C.

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