Singapore Art Awards: The painter, the toy pianist and the twins

Cultural Medallion recipient Margaret Leng Tan. — TODAY pic
Cultural Medallion recipient Margaret Leng Tan. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Oct 17 — One is a pioneering artist who created some of Singapore’s most iconic realist paintings, while the other is an avant-garde musician who made waves internationally with her performances on toy pianos. They might seem as different as night and day, but Chua Mia Tee, 84, and Margaret Leng Tan, 69, now have something in common: Both have just received the Cultural Medallion at the National Arts Council’s annual arts awards.

The two artists were among the four recipients of Singapore’s highest honours in the arts at a ceremony held last night at the Istana. The other two artists were The Necessary Stage’s resident playwright Haresh Sharma and Chinese language author Lim Hung Chang (or Lin Gao).

The Young Artist Award was also presented to seven recipients: Composer Diana Soh, film-maker Kirsten Tan, multi-disciplinary artist (and current President’s Young Talents exhibition participant) Loo Zihan, lighting designer James Tan, musician Riduan Zalani and identical artist-twins Chun Kai Feng and Chun Kai Qun.

To some, it might come as a shock that Chua and Tan, both institutional icons in the Singapore art scene, have only just been given the Cultural Medallion. But, hey, better late than never.

The realist painter

Nonetheless, for Chua — who is best known for his paintings National Language Class and Epic Poem of Malaya, as well as the ubiquitous portrait of President Yusof Ishak on our dollar notes — awards have never been a motivation; even as he admitted he was “thrilled” at the honour. “To receive this now reaffirms the work that I am still doing as well as acknowledges the timelessness of realist art,” said the artist, whose home in Bukit Timah also houses his studio.

The China-born Chua, who moved to Singapore during the Sino-Japanese War, had studied under the likes of Lim Hak Tai and Cheong Soo Pieng at the Nanyang Academy Of Fine Arts. But while his output as an artist is important, equally relevant was his involvement in the seminal artists group Equator Art Society, which would champion social realist art trends in the 1950s and 1960s.

Cultural Medallion recipient Chua Mia Tee. — TODAY pic
Cultural Medallion recipient Chua Mia Tee. — TODAY pic

Its progressive leanings had often resulted in clashes with other artists, in particular the Modern Art Society, but the lasting impact of Chua’s paintings — which will also be up at the National Gallery Singapore when it opens next month — can be seen as a validation of the group’s vision.

“It was started to give importance to realist art at a time when there was a great divide, and history will always recognise each individual element that was of significance,” he said. “There has never been an era in time where realist art has not featured. Contemporary art and forms may come and go, but often it is realist art that will stand the test of time.”

These days, as one might expect, Chua takes it easy. He starts his mornings with a walk at the Botanic Gardens with his wife, who is also a painter. The couple regularly meet up with their daughter, who is a doctor (she also exhibits Chinese calligraphy works in Beijing). Their son works as a dean in Hong Kong.

But that doesn’t mean Chua has stopped painting. “I have painted for about 65 years now and I just paint when I feel inspired. I can paint for hours and forget the time! I am still finding new techniques to bring my subjects to life,” said Chua, who revealed his most recent work was a large painting of koi.

Chua’s works have been given as state gifts or were commissions, and many are in various private and government collections. When asked what works he was most proud of, he cited his portraits of all past presidents and prime ministers. “To have met them and sat down with them, to get to know them before painting them, were huge privileges,” he said. “I have as distinguished a career as I could possibly have dreamt of as a child. There are many milestones to be proud of.”

The toy pianist

Meanwhile, Margaret Leng Tan cheekily describes getting the Cultural Medallion as a “good housekeeping seal of approval”. “It’s very nice to be recognised finally in your home country, but I don’t need the award to legitimise me because I know myself and what I’m capable of doing and what I can’t do,” she recently said over the phone from New York.

Young Artist Award recipient Chun Kai Feng. — TODAY pic
Young Artist Award recipient Chun Kai Feng. — TODAY pic

The musician moved to Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighbourhood during the 1970s, when the now-gentrified area was still “pretty rough”. She now lives there with “three Steinways, 20 to 30 toy pianos and four dogs”.

Known as much for her use of toy pianos (among other unusual toy instruments) as well as for being a mentee of the late composer John Cage, Tan attended the prestigious Juilliard School at 16. With the Big Apple as her base, she immersed herself in the avant-garde scene (she met Cage in 1971 and was friends with him until his death in 1992). She would also become the first Singaporean to perform at the main stage of Carnegie Hall in 2002. Tan has been featured in two documentaries, Tan Pin Pin’s documentary Singapore Gaga and Evans Chan’s Sorceress of The New Piano.

But there has been a catch to Tan’s international fame. “There’s a whole generation (in Singapore) that has heard of me but has never seen me perform,” she admitted.

She regularly returns home to visit her 95-year-old mother, but apart from her Cabinet Of Curiosities concert and some student talks at this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (and last year’s performances at the SIFA’s The OPEN pre-festival event), Tan hadn’t performed a major concert here since 2002.

That show was a Cage tribute, and featured a performance of 4’ 33”, the infamous silent piece that encouraged the audience to focus on the incidental ambient sounds. However, the audience started to become creative with their handphone ringtones instead. “It became a symphony of ring tones,” she recalled.

Her recent performances and awards (including last year’s Singapore Women’s Hall Of Fame recognition as well) would hopefully reintroduce an artiste who is, unfortunately, more known overseas than in Singapore. “I certainly hope it won’t be another decade before I perform again (in Singapore),” she quipped.

But performing is one thing, getting people to understand those performances is another. During Cabinet of Curiosities, she jokingly complained how, despite the whimsical nature of the pieces and instruments used, one night’s audience remained pretty serious. “After the show on the second night, people I knew told me they loved it. I told them, ‘But why didn’t you laugh?’” she said, adding that performing, for her, is like being a stand-up comic. “If people don’t laugh, my God...”

Perhaps it’s just a matter of Singapore getting used to Margaret Leng Tan again — and a national award could be a step towards that.

“It was very brave of them to give it to someone who plays with toys,” she deadpanned.

Young Artist Award recipient Chun Kai Qun. — TODAY pic
Young Artist Award recipient Chun Kai Qun. — TODAY pic

The twins

When it comes to newly minted Young Artist Award twins Chun Kai Feng and Chun Kai Qun, 33, some people may still have a hard time distinguishing who’s who. And sometimes that confusion extends to their works as well.

“People do get confused, mistaking my work for his and vice versa. But it is getting better now; people who make an effort to follow us are rewarded very differently by our individual works,” said Kai Feng, who is older than his brother by three minutes.

Indeed, it’s very much night and day, actually: Kai Feng’s sleek sculptural takes on Singapore architecture are in stark contrast to his brother Kai Qun’s wild, more organic dioramas.

Or as Kai Feng described it: “My work is cerebral, his is emotional. My works are hard-edged and I have a finish fetish but Kai Qun strives on spontaneity and risk.”

While they were pleased at being nominated, he admitted they were both initially worried that only one of them would receive the award.

“Our family is very proud of us. As sons, we have been selfish, single-mindedly pursuing artistic excellence, and not financially contributing to our family’s burden,” he said, adding that they’re dedicating both triumphs to their family’s “quiet support”.

Their respective career trajectories have, as one probably might expect, been rather similar — they even had their I-want-to-be-an-artist eureka moment at roughly the same time.

“Kai Qun quit university the day after he turned 21, I followed suit a week later,” said Kai Feng.

Both went on to study at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and later took their Master of Fine Art in Glasgow. But being brothers has other benefits — they share a studio at Goodman Arts Centre (with fellow artist Joo Chun Lin) and share the financial burden.

“Art-making is tough. The two of us can split the (costs) of operating a studio. We are each other’s most trusted art assistant and we help each other make work. The transition from art graduate to artist is less difficult because we have each other. We have been discussing and making art every day for the last 10 years,” said Kai Feng.

It’s tempting to imagine them working together, much like the Chapman Brothers, but according to Kai Qun, it hasn’t seriously crossed their minds. “We have not considered this before because we can function quite well individually. I guess we will work together if there is indeed a necessity to do so, and for the greater good to help other artists, but I do not think we will go down the road to brand ourselves as such,” he said.

That said, they have been collaborating (with other artists) on LATENT SPACES, an ongoing project that turns idle spaces into art spaces. For example, they have used Haw Par Villa as an art exhibition and performance space. (Kai Qun zoomed in on the place when he was looking for a place to exhibit, and roped in his brother, who came up with the LATENT SPACES name.)

But, at the same time, brothers will always be brothers. When asked if there was any rivalry between them, Kai Feng said: “We are very critical of each other’s work. We are not easily impressed by each other.” — TODAY

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