Wednesday, September 05, 2007

National Language Class

Hey guys. A brief history of my misappropriation of Chua Mia Tee's 1959 oil painting, National Language Class.

I was approached by Torrance Goh of to design an invitation for Rojak 9 (in spite of the fact that I'm not a card-carrying artist or designer. I decided to borrow from a few real artists (as well as bucking the photographic and cartoon genre of the previous Rojak invites) by using National Language Class as a basis for my advert.

It's a social realist painting of Chinese Singaporeans studying Malay in preparation for their new role as citizens of an independent Malaya. Spell #7's done a dramatic interpretation of it, P-10 and Koh Nguang How used it as the impetus for their conceptual art series "Errata". I found the image through Google Images, added a few cartoonish lahdidahs, and showed them to Torrance and Willie. So far so good.

But I knew I'd have to approach Singapore Art Museum to officially request legal use of the image. Thankfully, my request ended up the hands of the young and very generous Seng Yu-Jin, who's just curated a great little gallery show called "From Words to Pictures: Art of the Emergency 1949-1960" about this very period of Singapore art and its place in politics. He invited me down for the curatour the very same day he received the request.

(Yes, that's National Language Class just behind Patricia Goh's shoulder.)

Y'see, Yu-Jin had watched "Georgette", and he's studied Lichtenstein, so he was rather amicable to my pomo machinations on early Singapore art. He did, however, believe I should approach the artist himself. And although Chua Mia Tee was once a prominent member of the socialist-linked Equator Art Society, he's now the court painter for the PAP - he's done glory-hallelujah paintings of Lee Kuan Yew and all six of our Presidents, and his work's terribly commercially collectable

So he's got a nice swank bungalow where he lives and paints with his wife, floral painter Lee Boon Ngan. And that's where Willie and I went on Monday, to ask him permission to use the painting.

It was like walking on eggs - me pulling off the stammering-humble-good-kid routine, Willie explaining everything in biaozhun huayu about the unimpeachable projects of, before getting round to my explanation of why I was using his painting in connection in ka-tong-pian style. He wasn't too happy about this - he said that his piece was "yuan lai hen yan su" and I agreed that my design was "wan pi" but that was the whole point of a younger perspective - we have to pay homage through our silliness.

And eventually, Mr Chua told us, "da shuan shi ke yi."

And we breathed and drank our milky coffee, and he showed us around his living room. He pointed out his wood carvings from Zambia, the prints he sells with oil brush textures added because the originals are just too expensive for collectors, his design on the old two-dollar bills and his koi paintings - people were doing knockoffs of his koi, so he started drawing hungry, angry koi in turbulent water, gaping and shutting their mouths to break the surface. No-one else does that. It's become his signature.

Willie was marvelling at how hard it must have been to learn to paint water. Mr Chua told us it was all a matter of studying and practice - he told us about the old days, when they channeled all their energy into focussing on their technique and polishing it till it shone - and how today, all of us young people want everything to be done fast, efficient, and clever.

Guk. I'm guilty as charged. Things like "Lee Low Tar", they're written with wit because I don't have the craft.

Anyway, Mr Chua gave both of us copies of this book from one of his recent exhibitions.

I'll have to post him a copy of "last boy" - I figure he'll find it less suspect than "SQ21".

He also told us a bit of trivia about National Language Class - how it was done within a week, 10 hours at the easel a day, and how when S. Rajaratnam saw it at the show and said he liked it, the young Mr Chua just *gave* him the painting, like that. I should have that sense of charity. I should.

Btw, it's just been confirmed - Rojak 9 will take place at the new LaSalle building, on the green, from 8pm onwards on Saturday 15 September. Be there!


Mezzo said...

Oh my, Kelas Bahasa Kebangsaan! (let me show off my totally not-l33t Malay...) That's totally awesome. Did you watch the play on it last year?

Did Yujin fill you in on the political implications of that painting?

Suzanne said...

Tack for svenska!
I like angry hungry koi.
Lots of juicy contradictions and discomfort in that scene.
If you had patience (assuming patience is what you think you lack), how would you hone your craft? And to what kind of work would you put it?

Ng Yi-Sheng said...

I would get really, really good at writing character-driven narrative fiction. Like Truman Capote-good. Sigh.

Suzanne said...

I think you will, if you want to. But maybe you'll have to cut down on your myriad extra-curricular activities...but maybe not,(maybe I'm just jealous) maybe better to just DO everything!
My difficulties with character-driven fiction, I mean production of, include: (aside from the main one of not sitting down and writing), having to wait until my parents/in-laws are dead, fear of offending people I know by writing about them, inability to understand(disintrest in undersatnding?) anyone but Myself.
A character I love: Eva Trout, from Elizabeth Bowen's novel of the same name. Check her out one day.

Ng Yi-Sheng said...

Is she the sister of Kilgore Trout from the Kurt Vonnegut books?

Suzanne said...

I wonder....did Kurt Vonnegut read Elizabeth Bowen? Interesting if so...I met Vonnegut at my alma mater once...and my mother is a Hoosier too. I see I was correct about all your activities. After I wrote that I thought maybe I had been presumptuous...but anyway, all those projects and excursions sound fun! And good fodder for later chewing and regurgitating