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DRIPPING WITH EMOTION: Boo, who wanted to paint ordinary people in a less ordinary way, was stirred by the scenes of Singaporeans coming together at Mr Lee Kuan Yew's funeral

Evoking the mood of a nation

The spontaneous turnout of Singaporeans at the funeral of the nation's first Prime Minister inspires artist Boo Sze Yang.
Aug 7, 2015 5:50 AM

WHAT will you remember most when you look back on 2015? The flight of the fighter planes during the National Day Parade? The fishcakes shaped in a five and a zero? Or the many song and dance programmes celebrating Singapore's history and founding fathers?

For artist Boo Sze Yang, who turns 50 this year, it would be the unexpected, unprecedented and spontaneous turnout of thousands of Singaporeans at the funeral of the nation's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on March 29.

The scenes Boo watched on TV stirred him. And what took shape from the strokes of his paintbrush were huddles of faceless figures, barely shielded under umbrellas, and solo portraits of people with bowed heads and clasped hands.

"That so many Singaporeans would come together and do something without anyone asking them to - that was a touching moment for me," recalls the artist, who was born in October 1965.

It so happened that Boo had started on his next series of paintings a couple of years ago, with the idea of painting a trilogy of themes featuring the scholar, the warrior and the ordinary person.

"Having painted cityscapes, I wanted to paint humans because they make us think about society at large," he elaborates. The three groups of people are based on Plato's The Republic, of how a state can become a city.

Boo began his series by painting portraits of Mr Lee in 2012. For "warriors", he had started painting the "keyboard warriors" of social media, and then Mr Lee's funeral gave Boo the inspiration on how to portray the proletariat. He hopes to exhibit the entire series in five years, when it has all been put together, revealing the idea behind it.

"We always think of Singaporeans as kiasu and selfish, but we're ultimately a group of people who can do greater things, just that there's been no occasion for us to show it. The death of Mr Lee brought the people together," Boo muses.

Although he didn't join the crowds during the week-long wake, he did cancel his trip to Paris for an exhibition. "I'm not a person who enjoys crowds, but I cancelled my trip because I felt that I needed to be in Singapore," he recalls.

Boo is known for his paintings of cathedrals, executed in the early 2000s when he was studying for his Masters degree in the UK. After "meditating" on those sacred spaces and being awed by their architecture, space and ambience, he looked for similar spaces in Singapore, and found them in shopping malls like Plaza Singapura. "I liked the composition and light . . . sometimes, the context comes later," he says. What ensued was a powerful statement on Singapore's values harboured in these temples of consumerism.

Portraiture is a challenge for him which he embraced by moving towards human figures for this series. Painting Mr Lee was an instinctive and yet decided move, "as he's affected me all my life".

Boo wanted to paint ordinary people in a less ordinary way, and on the day of Mr Lee's funeral, it clicked. "Even the rain worked with my style of painting," he shares. The result is this abstract figurative work, dripping with emotion - and a worthy reflection of Singapore's 50th year.

  • 29.03.15 is on at iPreciation, 50 Cuscaden Road, HPL House, until Aug 22. The artist will also launch his first monograph on Aug 15, which offers a mini-retrospective of his works over the last 20 years, including the exhibition of significant older works to complement the new series of works. The gallery is open from Monday to Friday, 10am-7pm, and on Saturday at 11am-6pm. Tel: 65 6339 0678.