“Chua Mia Tee is a painter who loves real life.” That sums up for me the art of second generation Nanyang artist, Chua Mia Tee.
While there are many paintings with significance with regards to Singapore’s history, such as the “Epic Poem of Malaya”, “National Language Class” or “Depiction of Lee Kuan Yew’s Return from the Merdeka Talks in London”, it is Chua’s paintings of the people that connected with me.
Paintings of the people of Singapore, of ordinary people going about their daily lives in Singapore in the 1970s.
“Bird Singing Contest”, a 1979 oil on canvas painting, is a busy painting, with delicately drawn bird cages in the top half of the painting and crowds of men sitting around in round tables at the bottom half of the painting.
There are more than 30 men in this painting, all individuals with their own personality – from their clothes (long sleeve shirts, t shirts with slogans), accessories (watches and spectacles), actions (reading newspapers, chatting, looking at the cages, daydreaming), and even sitting positions (legs propped up, crossed legs).
This big group of people is similar to his other painting “Workers in a Canteen”, where he painted more than 70 workers having lunch at Jurong shipyard. In a video interview recorded in 1979 where he talked about the painting, he said that “the painter is also the director, actor, production designer and photographer”.
The scene he paints is often real life but the painting is directed by him – he decides the arrangement of the setting, the expressions of the people, the story that he wants to tell. The director on the canvas – that is the power and privilege of an artist.
In this 1979 oil on canvas painting titled “Eating on Banana Leaves”, we have another glimpse of life in Singapore, of a multi racial group of Singaporeans having lunch together, with details of the food from the fried fish head to the coconut drink.
Chua Mia Tee is indeed a painter who loves real life; portraying the essence of life in his realism mode of art.
“Chua Mia Tee 蔡名智 - Directing the Real” art exhibition runs from 26 November 2021 to 20 November 2022 at the National Gallery in Singapore.
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