Annex 3 – Exhibition Essay - Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

Annex 3 – Exhibition Essay
Wong Shih Yaw – In the beginning, there was (only) the word
“Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria
Moralis quid agas, quid speres anagogia”1
For thousands of years since man understood the possibilities of hermeneutic functions, the process
and flow of interpretation of text and symbolic form has remained vital and dynamic. Every society
and culture possesses a hermeneutic matrix, one that comes alive only through active use and
exchange. Art-making plays one role in this matrix, where visual imageries become a catalytic force in
meaning making that stands often, outside of time. The value and pleasure of apprehending visual art
finds its most progressive element in how stories are told by the visual artist. Allegory is perhaps one
of the most well-known, but often underrated forms that have punctuated the history of art for that
same thousand years as meaning making.
The artist Wong Shih Yaw was born in Singapore, and by his own admission led a reticent existence
as a child, even as surrounded by his elder brothers and cousins while growing up. An average
student, Wong learned some watercolour painting in mainstream secondary school, and later enrolled
full time at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied Western art (drawing, oil and
watercolour). As a student of art, he avidly enjoyed his training, seeking to technically improve his
work where possible.2 His range of work is wide and impressive: moving from academic still life works
in watercolour and sometimes oil, to draft line sketches, cartoon illustrations and comprehensive
drawings to completely resolved representational oil paintings, often with figural subject matter.
Today, Wong practices primarily in oil painting, quite completely, employing a richly honed figural
iconography. His main influences are a result of his conversion to Christianity in the 1990s. By his
own admission again, his work references his own reflections about the man he has become and the
messages he intends through the making of his artwork.
While he has maintained an even practice of his figurative painting since 2000 and the new
millennium, the decades before that when he first began his artistic journey articulate a more
compressed and perhaps, even, darker narrative. Like some of his well-known peers Vincent Leow,
Tang Mun Kit and Tang Da Wu, Wong Shih Yaw is often associated in text, with the formation of the
Artists Village in Singapore. Founded in 1988 by Tang Da Wu, the Artists Village (TAV) was both its
members and its spatial context, instigating new directions in art making through collaboration and
intervention, combining expressive work in conventional mediums, but also new dimensions with
performance and installation. By all accounts, Wong’s practice, like several of his peers (Tang Da Wu
and Vincent Leow) could be seen as “probing into iconology in modern pictorialism”. Wong’s work, in
respected art historian T.K. Sabapathy’s words, was vivid and expressive. “In paintings, especially by
Shih Yaw, brushmarks, pigment, surface, figure-ground relationship were laid bare, spartanly
“the letter teaches facts, the allegorical is what we are to believe, the moral is what we are to do, the anagogic is what we are
to hope for” medieval rhyme, as quoted, Joseph A. Fitzmyer (2008), The Interpretation of Scripture in Defense of the historicalcritical method, Paulist Press, New Jersey, p.94
Wong writes in his blog of noting the time table of his then watercolour teacher, Wee Shoo Leong’s classes, and even without
being formally part of the class, Wong would stand outside the classroom and observe, using his experience to influence his
own practice.
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although expressively charged. Forms settled tentatively and unwillingly, bearing signs of scarred,
violated passages.”3
This was but a brief two to three years in Wong’s fledgling career, when many of his paintings
featuring figural references, could be considered somewhat Cimmerian, evolving an ambiguous
iconography solely his own. Between 1991 and 1994 thereabouts, Wong stopped painting, due to the
divide he felt existed between his recently embraced Christian values and the work he had pursued
thus far, within the framework of TAV and outside of it. His return to art forged a new yet tenuous link
exploring his purpose as an artist but also the outcomes of his artistry. Crisis 1994 and Big Headed
Doll I 1996 are two drawings that provide a portal to his inner challenges, a mask of the human body
disproportionately unhinged by other ‘bodies’ (like the woman and the shark in a pool of the head).
The sheer physicality of these representations immediately references the concrete, earthly
dimension of who we are as humans. The inclusion of very real elements directly intervening into
these concrete bodies is somewhat fantastical, but is grammatically and visually direct, in conveying
to us the meaning of their juxtapositions. Wong’s drawings are completely rendered, well executed.
While not ‘realistic’ as representational, they are graphic icons falling somewhere in between the
imitation of life and any proposed caricature of life again. This ambivalence is intriguing as it observes
the message overriding the aesthetic function of what it means to draw. The drawing is deliberately
meaningful without airs. It opines the struggle, not a sensibility hidden away in line and shadow.
The drawings and darker paintings of the mid 90s gesture toward the struggles of Wong – Brain Out
1996 and Banana Woman 1996 are two examples that are self-effacing to some extent, pictorially
offering exactly what the title says. The technique is one of superimposition and layering; proposing
the initial image of something conventional, and then marking it over with another image, usually
incongruent to the first layer. This element of graphic designations draws our attention to both the
symbols (the winged, red brain in the clouds or the yellow banana over the black and white profile)
and the rupture in the surface of the work. These paintings recall Sabapathy’s observations on
Wong’s ‘laying bare’ the ‘figure-ground relationships’ in his early TAV work. In fact, Wong shares that
many of his works including the black and white compositions were inspired by old photographs and
the simplicity if you will, of life ‘way back when’. Inferring that life today is much more complex and a
little harder to work out, colour-wise and with a trace of nostalgia, black and white images bring us on
a journey toward the Thoreau-inspired simplicity, “So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the
necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.”4
Brain out, 1996
Banana Woman, 1996
Wong’s return to painting after a short hiatus during this period demonstrates his love anew, of his
practice, pursuing his academic styles through portraits and drawings as well as still life work. A
series of his fish paintings and fish inspired drawings stand out for their clarity and intensity. The End
T.K. Sabapathy (2008), ‘Regarding Exhibitions’, TAV 20 Years On, Singapore Art Museum and the Artists Village, p. 15
Thoreau to H.G.O. Blake, 27 March 1848, the Writings of Henry David Thoreau (1906), Boston, Houghton Mifflin
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of Love 1996, Story 37 2012 and various fish paintings in oil and watercolour are only a handful of his
fish work. In his blog, Wong chatted about a fish monger he knew in Toa Payoh when he was
younger, amazed as he was to have rediscovered his presence but that he had survived those many
years till the present time. Selling fish perhaps is not the conventional career anyone might consider
to have longevity – yet the reality has proven otherwise. A fish, Wong says, is dead yet so alive.5 The
‘posing’ of this fish is akin to having a live model to some extent, pictorially registering all the lucidity
and freshness of a fish out of water. Although the reference is not explicit, fish appear several times in
the bible. Several apostles were fishermen before they were called to service. And markedly, a great
fish (usually thought to be a whale which would in this case be a mammal) was appointed to swallow
Jonah, the unwilling Prophet who had disobeyed instructions from God. Poor Jonah stayed in the
belly of this great fish for three days before being spat up onto the beach – whereupon he repented
his disobedience.6
Untitled, 2003
Untitled, 2003
Fish Head, 2002
In some of his works, Wong is clearer and more categorical about his Christian references. Perhaps
toward the end of the first decade of 2000, his works began to touch on symbolic references, again,
using recognisable, physical elements. In 2004 and 2005, he revived his interest in the sky and
clouds, employing a powdery blue in layman’s terms sometimes regarded as ‘baby blue’. This blue
sky appears as part of several compositions, juxtaposed with figures. The sensation is one of
liberation rather than simply contemplative. Wong’s sky is an active sky that plays a role above us, not
simply creating a context for our ‘relaxation’ as such. This meaningfulness is further developed with
the use of the blue in a series of work including ‘Down’ and ‘High Ground’ both of 2008. The sky is
challenged with an architectural form that depicts three layers (usually a reference in Wong’s work to
the Trinity in Christianity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Wong is clear about his features: a staircase
implies man-made efforts; while a chair, implies the one who is seated (likely God in the Kingdom of
Heaven). Our reliance on man-made elements will ultimately lead us to short term gain and possibly
failure; while a trust in God, will bring us our true reward.
Down, 2008
High Ground, 2008
This theme repeats itself in several works, like Self Effort and Fruitful, both of 2007; and God’s effort,
Man’s effort and Trinity Flow, both of 2005. Wong revels in his symbolic gestures toward the
‘fruitfulness’ (as Christians receive the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness,
Jonah 1:17. The great fish referred to in Hebrew was ‘dag gadol’, sometimes though to be a sea monster rather than a whale
even. But this great fish to some extent, is simply the symbol for being lost, rather than being punished by any means, a
temporary space of existence not on earth or water even.
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goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control 7) employing references to growth and natural
yield, trees, from the sky and the good earth, from water and life flowing, like blood flowing in our
bodies as well as through the earth. “And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms
will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may
become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes.”8
Fruitful, 2007
Self-Effort, 2007
Trinity Flow, 2005
In 2009 and 2010, Wong’s practice developed a more precise graphic resonance, where it becomes
clear he is addressing his biographical reflections through the creation of his works in series. The first
definitive series is an illustration style similar to the tradition of woodcut, a graphic containment of
many elements without visible syntax. The woodcut itself is a tradition derived from Europe, Japan
and China riding the waves at the advent of printing. A literary style since its outcome would appear in
books and posters for proliferation, the woodcut is a single image narrative paradigm. Its impact is
singular and intense. Wong’s woodcut style illustrations are no different. He features himself as a
child and as an adult, with his inspirations and memories; disembodied heads, crowds of bodies,
words and declarations are composed onto the surface, jostling. The sensation is like a comic book
altercation, but also a form of advertisement catching our attention. On the one hand, it conveys the
easily shared and spread (as in distribution of the printed element) yet, on the other, it is locked into a
symbolic covertness that is reflected in the artist’s own ambivalence on addressing his past, his
present, his joys, his fears and his story by fragments and capsules. This series is titled ‘Story’ and
comes concurrent to his other notable series from 2011 onwards, of mechanical representational,
mechanical elements in a revisit of the ‘fantastical’ as first seen in the drawings of 1995/6. In this vein,
the ‘Story’ works take on different iconographies, of animal, automobile and sometimes human forma.
The primary form is described as a mechanical object, constructed from metal or ‘junkyard’ parts,
connected with hinges and screws. Some parts are pre-fabricated, if like the head of a ‘robot’ or a part
of a ship or a digger. Invariably, Wong appears (self-portrait) as the human inside these contraptions.
In a medley of these ‘Stories’, he discusses the man-made either ‘personality’ or situation; the manmade context in which we are living; while the darkened backgrounds hark back to the earth once
more, perhaps, from where we ‘came’, and to where we will ‘return’. This mortality is reflected in the
entropy suggested in the mechanical elements – that metal rusts and transforms or even degrades
through time; even if our mental and emotional states seek redress and confront our anxieties –
perhaps we should be looking for what outlasts these earthly deteriorations through time.
It would be impossible to talk about every single one of Wong’s works in the Story series, because
they are the stories themselves. What emerges is his talent for imbuing his characterisations with
sensation and warmth, such as the ostrich in Story 42 and the caterpillar train in Story 40. The ostrich
recalls a drawing of 1994, Ostrich Man, clearly of a man bent over with his head buried in the ground.
This ostrich however is standing erect against a background of freshly dug holes in the earth, perhaps
Galatians 5:22-24, Bible, New International Version
Ezekiel 47:9
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signifying his once burying behaviour now transformed. This background of holes in the earth is
repeated variously in works from the same series. The ostrich here however, wears the sky blue that
Wong enjoys, the eye regarding one with sentience. There is a mark of self-awareness in this ostrich,
who, in the painting, is the recipient of a telephone line from above him: presumably, from the
heavens, from God himself. The earthly ground on which the ostrich stands is a myriad of pitfalls,
while the suspended phone cord implies the everpresent if you will, ‘word’ from the Heavens. That
has no origin except from above us; while the ostrich itself contemplates where he is at present.
Ostrich Man, 1994
Story 42, 2013
Indeed, there is no time like the present, if it means to slow down and to reflect, time and again, on
what constitutes a narrative in artmaking which itself will send us toward the path of action and moral
conscience. The notion of the allegory for Wong is precisely this: a slowing down effect that allows us
to examine the work for what it is, and what it might be to us.
Sometime in the first decade of 2000, another distinctive icon consolidated its place in Wong’s
narrative: that of the bald headed baby. Perhaps since his baptism as a new Christian, the notion of
the child has slowly claimed centrestage in many of Wong’s more recent works. A father and child
series as well as references to child propose conventional ideas of innocence and purity; of how the
child-like state is what we embrace before our Heavenly Father (God) as Christians. But this has
another meaning as well for Wong, who became a father himself in those years, to a daughter who
carries much meaning for who Wong is today as a man, a husband and father.
More significantly, Wong’s work with children has become immersed in a richness of colours – but not
like the blue sky he intonated for the heavens. The palette here is wet and distinctive – like one who
has been dipped directly into the pigments and unfurled in a galaxy of deep rainbows. The wetness is
significant, for it implies the idea of an emotive state, of feelings and depth of feelings, an
unprecedented joy and intensity of realisation. “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that
by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”9
In the larger paintings of children, Wong’s scale has expanded simply to match the girth of his
feelings: in one painting babies are parachuted from the sky as gifts from the heavens; in another the
children sit above the crowd of normal adults making their way on earth. The sensation is figuratively
to assimilate the notion of being a child with adulthood, that we never forget guilelessness and
innocence with the charge of faith; while conveying that children are extension of the generation, part
of us, part of the past, the present and the future. The symbol of all continuity and hope.
1 Peter 2:2-3
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The Gifts, 2012
High Joys, 2013
Children have been depicted historically in many artistic representations for narrative and symbolic
reasons. In Chinese art, the theme of 100 children has appeared in various permutations, having
originated as early as the Zhou dynasty (1027 BCE). The numerous children signify blessings and
continuity of a family lineage, often featured alongside a medley of symbolic objects to convey
longevity, prosperity, filial piety and success. Various other representations of children may refer also
to moral stories, presenting narratives on children and their filial devotion to their parents as morally
correct and should therefore be adhered to. In some narratives, like children with oxen, there are also
interpretations to stories of the union between earthly and heavenly beings, reuniting at particular
times in a lunar calendar year.10 The permutations for Western art are a little different, where children
most often, in allegorical work, will most often reflect the fragility of youth and innocence, and the
impending break if you will, of that at the onset of adulthood. 11
With both these paradigms, Wong, in his own iconography of the child in his works, still references
and fuses the idea of the child as both a physical being holding great meaning to us as parents, but
also as that spiritual portal, a threshold we should never leave, to regain what Christians regard as
redemption in the Kingdom of Heaven. The artistic deployment of the child is universal to some
extent, and does not hold any grudge for adults or youth alike. In a lush embedding of colours and
lively eyes (like those found on his ostrich), Wong captivates the symbol of a child as precisely having
come from observations of the child-like himself.
When the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) was founded in 1938, Singapore was then a
fledgling port at the receiving end of different cultural influences. From the early Chinese immigrants
who came for business, settling down meant creating a community in which bonds might thrive, while
establishing a sense of belonging to each other but also to the local community indigenous to this
land. The Chinese literati and artists who found themselves in Malaya taught art in mainstream
schools while some taught full time in NAFA. They were themselves trained in both Western and
Chinese art, and sought to provide a strong foundation for aspiring artists in this region. Drawing,
painting in a variety of mediums including watercolour and oil were the staples for foundational
training. Still life and figure work also featured largely in the repertoire of the practicing artist whose
discovery of the local produce, domestic objects as well as local anatomy and local dress meant
honing his skills with a language of form indigenous to Malaya.
75 years on, the academy has trained over 8000 graduates across different disciplines. NAFA’s Fine
Art graduates particularly from the 50s and 60s have made their mark on the local landscape, shaping
visual arts through their own personalised iconographies including abstract and representational
Patricia B. Welch (2008) Chinese Art, Tuttle Publishing, p. 153-157
Particularly evident in the 18 century, for example, in the work of French painter Jean Baptiste Greuze (1725 – 1805). This
period is also associated with the beginning of the moral genres across Europe, sometimes satirical and other times
sentimental or sweet.
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works.12 While the landscape has dominated in the field in representation works such as the
watercolour medium, and even oil, figural work is few and far between. People are often difficult
subject matter, in all frankness, evident in the fine arts as much as the modern art of photography.
Many photographers like Americans Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine for instance, developed their
practice around a social documentary, capturing the tenor of the landscape itself in the faces and
physiognomy of actual people in their ‘habitat’ as it were. In the 19th century, the famed German
photographer August Sander could be said to have set one of the key examples of photography
where people were not simply portraits even if the outcomes resembled such or were intended as
such. The three way gaze had begun to develop within photographic imageries, connecting people
featured, the photographer (himself a ‘figure’) and the audience (also figures in the compositional
For the visual fine arts, figures, beyond the academic tradition of sketching form and posture;
acquiring the template of a first impressing and the moment of capture (much like the photograph
except in gestures and lines), have played a secondary role to some extent. Wong Shih Yaw’s focus
on developing his iconography around portraits and figures as well as people in his narrative is unique
and courageous. He plays with the genres (through illustrations woodcut, cartoon style or
photographic pictorials but never hyperreal) and is careful never to refine his work too much that it
loses the semblance of a message. His use of realistic representation is technical virtuosity to ensure
the message is direct and impactful (such as his parallel story works of mechanical icons); while his
focus on the babies most recently, reinforces his conviction for his style of narrative. Never has there
been an artist working in these genres both so certain of his choice but also uncertain of reception by
his audience. His artform is one that like many of his teachers intends to prevail, a classically worn
vest facing the modern and contemporary age.
Story 45, 2013
The graphic sensibility of his work recalls our present desensitised visual arena, through the impact of
mass media, television and even photography. The density of his compositions play on this element
as well, all the while reflecting the internal challenges he has faced as a man and as an artist; and the
challenges he continues to face as he moves forward in his career and his life. The Artists Village was
his contextual home, creating the opportunities for him to collaborate and invigorate the
expressiveness in his early practice. Art was his outlet for pent up feelings and thoughts. The gift of
collaboration and cross-influence was to engage with those of like mind and sensibility, and develop if
not the actual language with which new art might speak, then the methodology with which one artist
might reach new formations. This is critical for Wong. In his recent practice, certainly, the works have
become more dependably, concretely representational, albeit no less emotive in its undertones. He
Abstraction gained traction particularly in the 1970s, when many of the graduates of NAFA travelled to Europe and the US,
absorbing the abstract and expressionistic trends beckoning during that era. Abstraction, such as that found in Anthony Poon,
Thomas Yeo and Tay Chee Toh to name but a few icons in Singapore art, was a universal means of communication to wide
audiences while invoking the artistry and individual quality of the dedicated artist at work in honing his language. Artists like Tay
Chee Toh however, also produced works with figural iconographies, focusing on the native figure (such as Sarawak tribes and
their costume) relatively unknown and uncommon to a modernising Singapore city state.
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connects his feelings through the transitions of realistic to real; of light to dark and dark to light; of
textural sensation and articulation all founded on the virtuosity of his medium, whether pen, ink,
acrylic, watercolour or oil.
The Wages of Sin, 2004
Because his story has like all of us, some degree of confusion and chaos, Wong has through his
Christianity been able to reign in the sentiments and articulations once heavily vivid and energetic,
perhaps even angry and dense, into a more coherent, less argumentative vibe. Allegories are his way
of approaching the truth to mankind but also his truth. He uses his art as a foil for his own experiences
as well; they are as tried, as complex, as fantastical, as sometimes humorous, as joyful, as socially
concerned and as free or as restrained as he has felt. A glance through his blog the ‘Sealed Man’ will
help open the door to the reflections of Wong Shih Yaw the man and the artist. Side by side with his
practice as an artist honing his craft, he continues to design his figural iconography around the
allegories he wishes to remind himself, and us, of, time and again.
Singapore is a multicultural city state that has downplayed much of the ethnic and religious diversities
more as a means to effect a harmonious fluidity to our social connections as one nation. Built around
the economic forces that shore up the prosperity and livelihood of us as one people and one nation,
art itself may sometimes be forgotten; as much as the older belief systems whether from the West
(such as Christianity) or the East (such as Buddhism) that have nurtured values that many
communities have made their own. The significance of Wong’s practice in our contemporary society
serves to remind us of all those things we might have forgotten: the basic appreciation of art at its
most ‘artistic’ (as in to draw and to paint something mundane really well with all the technical skills
and then some); the basic appreciation of waking up to a blue sky and being able to live on this earth;
the basic appreciation of what it means to be human, to love, be loved, and to have hope. Wong’s
paintings are a testament that allegories seed renewal within us; in the beginning there was (only) the
word; and as time will tell, through this, an image forms to help us learn more about the word in this
world, and ourselves.
Dr Bridget Tracy Tan
Institute of Southeast Asian Arts & Art Galleries
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Page 15 of 15