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Ong goes for greater scope, size and ambition
From Bukit Larangan to Borobudur: Recent Drawings by Jimmy Ong 2000 - 2015
By TK Sabapathy
Hardcover, published by FOST
100 pages with 14 plates and 21 illustrations
S$95 from FOST Gallery
Reviewed by Helmi Yusof
IN the past decade, Jimmy Ong's art has taken on a striking new dimension. The veteran artist is one of Singapore's best. He still produces gorgeous figures and landscapes using black charcoal on paper, but his pictorial storytelling has expanded in scope, size and ambition.
Executed on much larger pieces of paper - one work stretches up to 4.8 metres long - they feature historical figures such as Parameswara, Admiral Cheng Ho and Sir Stamford Raffles amid verdant landscapes of the past. These images, however, are no straight retelling of history. Rather, they seek to highlight contemporary issues of power, sexuality and politics through the evocation of history.
A new book by Singapore's foremost art historian TK Sabapathy carefully tracks Ong's artistic trajectory to explain how he has arrived at this point.
The coffee-table book titled From Bukit Larangan To Borobudur is published by FOST gallery. It features 14 exquisite plates and 21 illustrations and makes a terrific gift for any art lover.
One of Ong's first drawings marking this artistic development is Farquhar Descends Forbidden Hill.
Ong drew William Farquhar, the first British Resident and Commandant of colonial Singapore, climbing down from Bukit Larangan (aka Forbidden Hill, Fort Canning). Farquhar had climbed the hill to fire a cannon to signal the beginning of British rule in 1819.
But in Ong's drawing, Farquhar is rendered shirtless and sweating while his face is turned away from the viewer. Climbing down, he needs the assistance of his companion, a turbanned Asian man.
Instead of depicting the scene with weight and momentousness, Ong chooses to depict it as a somewhat humdrum one, deliberately removing all signs of power.
Likewise, in Mapping Boro Budur, we see Raffles lying on the ground, staring at the Javanese locals as they stare back at him. He appears almost as large as the Borobodur, the ancient site in Java which he helped rediscover. But he is similarly stripped of authority. Raffles, as Sabapathy notes, had spent more time in Java than he did in Singapore. Yet, notably, Raffles is not valorised in Indonesia the way he is in Singapore.
Ong asks crucial questions about power, history, culture and iconography through these drawings. On a surface level, the drawings provide instant pleasure with their fluid beauty and ample details. But they pose several questions worth confronting.