A salute to the 2020 Cultural Medallion winners
As we build up to the unveiling of the 2021 Cultural Medallion recipients, The A List revisits the stellar careers of the 2020 recipients: Sarkasi bin Said, who sadly passed away only a few weeks ago, and Dr Vincent Leow.
An early member of The Artists Village in the late 1980s, Vincent Leow was a pivotal figure in the art collective movement in Singapore, co-founding Plastique Kinetic Worms (PKW) with Yvonne Lee in 1998 and serving as its artistic director in exhibitions and programmes across Southeast Asia.
Leow’s engagement with a wide range of media has resulted in performances, installations, sculptures, paintings and mixed-media work, maintaining the streak of rebelliousness and determination to travel the path less followed that defines alternative art. A shock demonstration of urophagia during a performance in 1992 cemented his reputation as the enfant terrible of the local art scene.
Without betraying his avant-garde roots, Leow has become a respected teacher, guiding and teaching generations of young creatives over three decades as Head of Sculpture and Senior Lecturer for the MA in Fine Arts programme at his alma mater, LASALLE College of the Arts. His classes at the School of the Arts (SOTA) continue to inspire young artists today.
Leow’s solo exhibitions include Tags & Treats: Works by Vincent Leow at Singapore Art Museum (2010); For Andy’s Pranks & Swimming Lessons (Beijing, 2007) and Vincent Leow: Recent Paintings (USA, 1991). He has represented Singapore on numerous international platforms, notably at the Singapore Pavilion of the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. A taste for kitsch and an eclectic visual vocabulary drawing from popular culture and mass media, literature, cinema, and politics, make Leow an exemplar of post-modern visual art.
Last year’s Cultural Medallion spotlight also shone on another inspiring artist: Sarkasi bin Said, better known as Tzee (b. 1940). He emerged a generation before Leow and had a very different artistic point of departure – traditional batik painting. Yet, like Leow, he was an innovator, drawing critical attention for his wax-resisting technique, bold use of colour, and fresh depictions of the natural world. By tapping into abstractionism and perfecting new techniques, Tzee re-energised batik painting in Singapore and the wider region, and he kept mining this rich creative vein for almost 60 years.
Sarkasi dropped out of Beatty Secondary School at 16 to pursue his interest in art – cycling around to find good locations and then selling his landscapes. Being of Javanese origin, batik got into his blood early; his grandmother earned extra cash from selling her batik cloth. But it was only when he saw batik techniques in the work of foreign painters that he fully immersed himself in the art.
Sarkasi spent time in the batik manufacturing centre of Karangmalang in Yogyakarta, later studying in Jakarta under famed Indonesian batik painter, Pak Aznam Effendy. As his international reputation blossomed, Sarkasi exhibited in France, Japan, the Philippines and the US, as well as Indonesia and Brunei.
In Singapore, his batik paintings grace the halls of hospitals, government buildings and The Istana, and many political leaders have worn shirts designed by him. In a sense, Tzee literally became part of the fabric of the nation. Ever energetic, he achieved a Guinness World Record at the age of 63 with a 103-metre-long batik painting.
Like Vincent Leow, Tzee devoted himself to teaching and promoting the arts. He was a leading light of the Malay Heritage Centre and worked tirelessly for the National Arts Council. At the same time he mentored many young artists and served as an external examiner and adviser in art schools all over Singapore. He also taught art, as a volunteer, in Changi Prison, Sembawang Drug Rehabilitation Centre and Jamiyah Children’s Home.
The Cultural Medallion was the brainchild of then Minister of Culture Ong Teng Cheong, who envisioned a pinnacle arts award that recognised not only personal artistic merit, but also an enduring contribution and commitment to the arts that inspires others and enriches Singapore’s cultural landscape.
Since 1979, the National Arts Council has bestowed the honour on 128 artists. Each and every Medallion is presented personally by the President of the day. Recipients are eligible for project grants of up to $80,000, supporting not only their own artistic pursuits, but their efforts towards advancing Singapore’s artistic development for the benefit of society. The 2021 recipients will be announced on 24 Nov and, as ever, The A List will keep you posted.