A brush with tradition

30 January 2018
The Straits Times, Life! Page 1

Students majoring in Chinese ink at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts include (from far left) Lee Ju-lyn, Ernest Seah Chien Soo and Ho Seok Kee

Is the art of Chinese ink painting a washout in Singapore? Only a handful of young artists seem to take to the traditional art form, but art watchers say these 20somethings and 30somethings have just begun to explore what this medium can do. They include students and alumni from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), featured in the school’s ongoing exhibition Perceptions – Chinese Ink At Nafa, who exhibit more than Chinese ink landscapes on scrolls. Lee Ju-Lyn, 35, who is doing a diploma in fine arts, has chosen a traditional subject, lotuses, but painted them in Cubist forms. Her most striking work in the show, however, is an installation of calligraphy practice papers mounted on red shelves.

Ink painter Hong Sek Chern, 50, also cites Singapore’s English-speaking environment as a reason for the decline of Chinese ink’s popularity. Poetry and calligraphy become more difficult when one is less comfortable in the language. A Nafa alumnus, she taught at the school from 1999 to 2006 and recalls years when not a single student signed up to specialise in Chinese ink painting. Part of the reason is also the global art environment, she says. There are just not that many residencies or scholarships around the world for Chinese ink painters, which means fewer opportunities for students who want to establish themselves. Recognising this, Nafa recently re-vamped its tertiary-level curriculum to ensure that students do not merely study one specialisation, as in Hong’s time. Students doing Chinese ink have to try other practices. Currently, there are fewer than 10 tertiary-level students at Nafa specialising in Chinese ink.

Interestingly, not all are Chinese. One of the most promising names is Nur Hikmah Mohamed Tahir, or “Emma”, a 23-year-old skate-boarding, hijab-wearing ink enthusiast whose work We Are More Than Our Veil melds Arabic calligraphy with a self-portrait in Chinese ink. It brings on the immediate question: Why is she, a Malay artist, doing Chinese ink? Like any artist, she says she is “attracted to ink painting principles such as the techniques of brushstrokes, compositions and handling the water density with the ink to get perfect strokes and smudges”.

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Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.