Wee Beng Chong 黄明宗, Singapore first Cultural Medallion winner
Wee Beng Chong is Singapore’s first Cultural Medallion winner.
Well, many of us do not know him and many of us may not even know what is the Cultural Medallion award. It is unfortunate that many Singaporeans do not know much about our very own artists, who are working hard to create art based on their lives in Singapore, and they have been working on it quietly for the past 80 years.
First of all, what is the Cultural Medallion award? The Cultural Medallion award is the Singapore government’s top arts and culture award, given to Singaporeans who have excelled in dance, theatre, literature, music, photography, art and film. It was started in 1979 by the late President Ong Teng Cheong.
Basically if you are a Cultural Medallion winner, you are recognized as Singapore’s best in dance/theatre/literature/music/photography/art/film.
Wee Beng Chong is the first Cultural Medallion winner in art. He is 83 years old this year. He studied under Singapore’s pioneer artists and graduated from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in 1958. In 1964 he went to Paris to study and further his skills in sculpture making. After his return from Paris in 1968, he started his long teaching career in NAFA, where he is still teaching now as an adjunct lecturer.
Wee Beng Chong is a multidisciplinary artist; he does oil paintings, Chinese ink paintings, Chinese calligraphy, sculpture, print making, seal carving and mixed media.
Even if you are not familiar with art, just reading this long list makes you feel impressed. If you are familiar with art, you will know how difficult it is to excel in these diverse areas of art making.
So I visited Wee Beng Chong, Singapore’s first Cultural Medallion winner’s recent solo art exhibtion “Depth of Being”, at the NAFA art gallery last Saturday. True to his multidisciplinary artist reputation, there were oil paintings, Chinese ink paintings, sculpture and Chinese calligraphy on exhibit. There were works from the 1960s to his more recent works (yes, he is still actively creating art despite his advanced age and health condition).
To me, it was amazing to see oil paintings and Chinese ink paintings made by the same artist in the same exhibition. It shows his immense talent and skills in handling two distinct mediums.
Take for example, the Chinese ink painting “Returning Boat” (1960) and the oil painting “Repairing Boats” (1967). Both paintings have a similar subject of fishermen with their fishing boats in early Singapore.
The Chinese ink painting “Returning Boat” depicts a traditional fishing boat parked on the beach with fishermen busy packing after a trip out. The fishermen are bare bodied on the top and wearing a sarong for the bottom, most likely a typical fishing village scene in Singapore in the 1950s/1960s.
As typical of Chinese ink paintings, there are writings in Chinese calligraphy on the painting. It is an exquisite Chinese ink painting with a subject that is 100% local, making the painting refreshing and interesting.
I really like Wee Beng Chong’s “Returning Boat” Chinese ink painting; sometimes it is hard to “appreciate” Chinese ink paintings when it is about bamboos or mountains, scenes that are not available in Singapore.
Of course a Singapore artist can go to China and get inspired by these typical scenes in Chinese ink paintings but I feel more connected to the artist when I see scenes that I can relate to (even though of course I was not born yet to witness such fishing villages in early Singapore, but I feel intrigued by this painting to imagine what it must have been like).
Because it is a Chinese ink painting, it has its own presence and essence; the painting feels so poetic; it is light, calming and idyllic.
When I look at his oil painting “Repairing Boats”, the feeling is entirely different. As typical of oil paintings, it has a heavier mood, the painting is darker in colour and shades. The boats here are huge fishing boats and the fishermen repairing the boats are smaller in contrast to the boats. They look overwhelmed by the boats. The boats are also parked on the beach here (so it appears there are no jetty in Singapore then?).
What is similar to the Chinese ink painting here is the lines – the planks, the boats, the humans, the sticks – all the lines are exquisitely and clearly drawn out, much as the lines in the Chinese ink painting. The same brushstrokes of the same artist painting in a different medium. How cool is that.
Unfortunately the exhibition is ending today, 14 April, so you cannot go and see these two paintings in person. But now you know Wee Beng Chong, Singapore’s first Cultural Medallion winner.
“Depth of Being: Wee Beng-Chong 黄明宗缤纷艺境展” art exhibition was held from 31 March to 14 April 2021 at the The Ngee Ann Kongsi Galleries 1 & 2, NAFA Campus in Singapore.