Chua Mia Tee exhibition opens at National Gallery Singapore
Alongside Tan Swie Hian, Lim Tze Peng and Ong Kim Seng, Chua Mia Tee is a Singaporean painter whose work has always resonated with the general public. Indeed, receiving the Cultural Medallion in 2015 cemented his status as one of the nation’s favourite visual artists. Now, his first solo exhibition since 1992, Directing The Real at National Gallery Singapore – which runs for a year from Nov 2021 to Nov 2022 – presents the perfect chance to see his work in all its glory.
Focusing on Chua’s early practice from the 1950s to 1980s, the exhibition presents a fresh perspective on the artist by looking at his work through the lens of film alongside Singapore’s rapid development. It offers a reflection of the nation’s journey before and after independence and a glimpse into the lives of the diverse communities who have contributed to its story and made it their home.
While he is firmly in the realist school, Chua’s work goes beyond mere representation. There is always a sprinkle of poetry in his compositions, and he almost always engages the viewer by telling a story, drawing on his observations of people and life around him in the streets of Singapore.
Chua’s narrative style is attractive because he hints at a story and lets the viewer use their imagination. “The painter,” he once said, “assumes the role of screenwriter, director and actor to freely shape the subject’s image.” And indeed he writes the ‘script’ for a canvas, works up compositions like a set designer, and then directs the action with his brush.
A case in point is Portable Cinema (1977) in which a weary street vendor lights up the day of two little boys with his portable moving picture handcart, just as the tropical sun lights up his white shirt. The result is completely authentic, and it is no wonder that Chua’s paintings speak so easily and directly to so many people.
The clatter of crockery and cutlery and the hubbub of tightly packed factory workers grabbing lunch is almost palpable in this 1974 painting, Workers in a Canteen.
Chua usually worked with oil paint on canvas, but he was a highly skilled watercolourist, too. The Blacksmiths, from 1981, shows masterful use of pencil and watercolour to portray the kind of manual labour that filled the lives of many Singaporeans, even as new industries were moving in to supplant the old trades.
This work from 1955, entitled Road Construction Worker, is a beautiful figure painting in its own right and a meditation on the contribution of the manual labourers who built modern Singapore, then and now.
Pagoda Street (1980) displays Chua’s outstanding draughtsmanship, tonal control, and mastery of crowd scenes, to great effect.
Singapore River (1978) contrasts dilapidated riverside buildings with distant colonial grandeur and the high-rise concrete and glass blocks emblematic of the modern city state.
The exhibition runs until Nov 2022. Find out more about Chua Mia Tee: Directing the Real here.