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Lee Kuan Yew (left) by Jeffrey Koh, painted in the style of Van Gogh. Park Seung Mo's portrait of Mr Lee (right) is made out of stainless steel mesh, which is displayed at Ode To Art gallery.
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"Though I'm not a Singaporean, I have noticed him for a long time. He is a visionary and well-respected globally. I've painted many famous figures such as Mandela, Gandhi and Mother Theresa - and now Mr Lee." - China artist Ren Zhen Yu. His painting of Lee Kuan Yew (above) stands at Ode To Art gallery

LKY mania

In the last few years, artworks featuring Lee Kuan Yew have turned into a flourishing cottage industry. BT Lifestyle finds out how the likeness of the founding father of modern Singapore is sweeping the art world
Feb 13, 2015 5:50 AM

WOULD you like to buy a Lee Kuan Yew painting executed in the style of Van Gogh or Warhol? How about cute Lee Kuan Yew cartoons drawn as Star Wars characters? Not your thing? Well, consider then the limited-edition LKY Pez candy dispenser sculpture at S$950 each - it'll certainly give you something to chew on.

In recent years, the art and design world has seen an explosion of LKY artworks. While most of the works are by independent local artists, the recent Art Stage Singapore art fair also saw numerous LKY paintings by foreign artists on display. In many cases, these artworks were quickly snapped up by collectors eager to display them in their homes.

Prices range from as low as S$10 for LKY Star Wars digital prints by local caricaturist Chan Shiuan, to as high as S$45,000 for a triptych of paintings by well-known artist Boo Sze Yang. Boo held an exhibition of LKY canvases at iPreciation gallery last year and saw several works priced from S$9,000 sold even before the exhibition opened.

Meanwhile, foreign artists, such as Korean sculptor Park Seung Mo, have turned their gaze on Mr Lee simply because the latter is Singapore's most famous figure. Park created a stunning, three-dimensional image of Mr Lee using stainless steel wires for Ode To Art Gallery. It is priced at S$29,000 and proceeds of its sale will go to the Sing50 Fund supported by The Business Times and The Straits Times.

Clearly, the business of selling Lee Kuan Yew art is a thriving one - even though the man himself has often expressed his dislike of "hagiography". While he was Prime Minister, Mr Lee refused to have any image of him adorn any public building. It was only when he turned 80 that one institution, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, was named after him.

Despite his personal misgivings, some artists are unabashed in displaying their admiration. Sukeshi Sondhi, a former Indian national-turned-Singapore citizen, started creating Pop Art paintings of Mr Lee two years ago and has sold some 50 works priced between S$500 and S$5,000.

She says: "I have a lot of respect for him because of what he's done for Singapore. If even half of it could be done to some of the Indian cities, it would be an incredible improvement. These paintings come from a good place - they are my tribute to him."

Some foreign artists, such as China's Ren Zhen Yu, hold similarly high regard for Mr Lee. Ren says: "Though I'm not a Singaporean, I have noticed him for a long time. He is a visionary and well-respected globally. I've painted many famous figures such as Mandela, Gandhi and Mother Theresa - and now Mr Lee."

Five years ago, Ren began rendering Mr Lee's image in electric hues such as shocking pink and lime green. The works are a hit with art collectors, with "orders for LKY paintings increasing in two years", he says.

Of course, not every artist feels such unequivocal admiration for Mr Lee. In some cases, their impulse to create the works stems from mixed feelings of having to live a life so directly shaped by his policies - from the popular and far-sighted ones to the more controversial ones.

One of the earliest art exhibitions that centred on Mr Lee, for instance, was 2010's Singapore Survey: Beyond LKY exhibition at Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery. Several artists, including Jason Wee, Jimmy Ong and Tang Da Wu, examined Mr Lee's cult of personality in a more critical way.

Painter Boo also didn't adopt a wholly reverential approach for his paintings of Mr Lee. His vigorous brushstrokes and runny paint create deliberately imperfect images of the leader. He says: "I look at him as how I would look at my own father, a powerful and distant figure for whom I have mixed feelings - a lot of gratitude, but also doubt."

Artist Jeffrey Koh, who worked with an Indonesian artist Budi Nugroho to create the LKY Pez candy-dispenser sculptures, says: "The topic of Mr Lee is sensitive. When I shared some images of my art online, I had calls from friends saying: 'Good luck! I'll come visit you in jail.' I think that's the kind of fear a lot of Singaporeans have. But I also think that if you do these things the right way, there's nothing to be fearful of."

The publishing industry, of course, has long known about the commercial draw of works associated with Mr Lee. Since the massive success of his 1998 memoir The Singapore Story and its 2000 sequel From Third World To First, there has been a proliferation of books exploring his ideas and legacy.

With the visual art explosion that's taking place in Singapore, as well as the many celebrations marking Singapore's 50th anniversary, the boom in LKY art is perhaps par for the course.

The Business Times meets four artists whose works reflect their feelings towards Singapore's founding father.