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Reflections of Singapore's past
ONE of the most endearing paintings in this new series by artist Foo Kwee Horng is "My First TV Experience". In it, two kids squat in front of a TV with their backs to the viewer as they watch Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew shed tears.
In his painted reflection of how "Things are Seldom Black and White", the title of his solo show at Ion Art Gallery, many paintings seem to reflect the journey of modern Singapore from independence.
While it's his first show of works carrying socio-political themes, the 47-year-old artist was in fact reflecting on a very personal search for his own roots, he shares.
It started when he had planned to go to China in 2015, to trace the tulou or the Hakka-style circular building made from clay and soil that his grandfather had helped build, by sending over money. His grandfather had not even seen the house built in 1943, as he died in 1959, but he was one of the three co-owners.
Foo's eldest uncle later relinquished the family's stake in the building. "So really, it was just to see the house that my grandfather had helped build, and to trace some family roots," he shares, adding that he even found one of the oldest cousins, in his 80s, in Hong Kong.
Foo is better known for his watercolours portraying picturesque views of Singapore urban scenes and Singaporeans in traditional trades. In this series though, he chose to paint in oil because of its more deliberate nature.
A former art teacher, Foo says that after leaving the school system in 2010, he had been practising with oils and finally felt confident enough to use it for this series of works. "The subject matter is also different - and with oils, I had more time to deliberate on the images and also add more layers to it as my research went on," he says.
Most of the inspiration came from old photographs - as he mused about his family's journey and roots in China, Malaysia and finally Singapore. And politics - the late Mr Lee especially - played a huge part.
"To a certain extent, you just can't ignore Mr Lee. Not that I wanted these works to be a straightforward homage to him, but I'd wanted to appropriate his image as a commentary," he adds.
In one painting, Mr Lee is speaking at a rally in Fullerton Square, December 1976; another is of him meeting Mao Tse Tung in 1976. He also painted Mr Lee greeting Deng Xiaoping's delegation arriving at Paya Lebar airport in 1978.
Foo reflects on Singapore's early pro-China policies through these paintings, recalling his frustrating inability to speak Hakka with his relatives in China.
Another "political" painting features Mr Lee with Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first Prime Minister, on the same canvas with Mahathir Mohamed, known to be the most antagonistic towards Singapore. The piece is entitled "Let Me Show You the Way Out". Does Merdeka still imply the independence or freedom that we took it to mean in the 1950s, he asks.
"The works are more historical and political in their commentary, but these were all events which shaped Singapore - and in turn, my journey and roots," shares Foo.
But he's quick to point out that these paintings show incomplete black and white truths, hence the title. In this series, his challenge was not just painting with oils, but also in expressing how national events had shaped his life, he shares. "The working process was much harder . . . but the medium also allowed me to develop my thoughts."
Incidentally, a new edition of the book featuring Foo's works, Scenes of Singapore, will be launched in August, with an addition of over 20 images.
- Things Are Seldom Black and White by Foo Kwee Horng will be held from Aug 5-14 at Ion Art Gallery, Level 4, Ion Orchard. It's presented by Utterly Art under the umbrella title of "SouthEastAsiaS.pE.A.K" Series to celebrate the 49th anniversary of Asean. ION Art Gallery is open from 10am to 10pm daily. To contact the gallerist, please call 9487 2006.