February 02, 2018
Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) at the Launch of NAFA’s 80th Anniversary Celebrations & The Opening Ceremony of NAFA's Campus 1 Tower Block
Ms Low Sin Leng, Chairman, NAFA;
Mr Chia Mia Chiang, President, NAFA;
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;
The National Gallery
1. We are here to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Singapore’s pioneer arts institution, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, or NAFA.
2. But first I would like to start by taking all of us back even further in history, to nine years before NAFA’s founding. In 1929, back when Singapore was a thriving trading outpost for the British, the British colonial government constructed the Municipal Building opposite the Padang, to house the Municipal Council. That building has stood for almost 90 years and has been the site of many important moments of our history. It is the site where the British accepted the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, and, as the City Hall, where Mr Lee Kuan Yew was sworn in as Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959.
3. Today, that former Municipal Building, together with the former Supreme Court building, has been transformed into Singapore’s National Gallery. It houses important works of art and historical relics that tell Singapore’s history and story to more than 1.5 million visitors annually. The history of Singapore is now embedded in art. And within Singapore’s story is the story of NAFA.
The Story of NAFA
4. The story of NAFA is told through many of the art pieces that are exhibited in the Gallery. “The Painting Class”, which was completed in 1957, shows some of NAFA’s early students deep in concentration, focused on their paintings. The oil painting is by Mr Lim Yew Kuan, who is with us here today.
5. You can also find the woodblock print, titled “Seascape”, at the Gallery. It shows fishermen with their nets and boats by the sea, echoing scenes from the kampong days of old Singapore. Mr Lim collaborated with five of his NAFA classmates to create this print for the first woodblock print exhibition in Singapore in 1966. If you look closely, you can see their signatures carved in the areas where they had worked on. There was tremendous pride in their craft.
6. In the permanent collection of the National Gallery, you will also find the works of Georgette Chen, Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee, and Cheong Soo Pieng, who were all teachers at NAFA. They shaped what we have come to know as the Nanyang style, which intertwined Eastern and Western artistic traditions and depicted the Southern Seas of their time. This is no mere artistic endeavour, but like all artistic evolution, it was a search for a distinct Nanyang identity of that time. In that process, the pioneer artists helped to lay the foundations of Singaporean art, and groomed the future generations of artists at NAFA in the Nanyang tradition.
The Evolution of Singaporean Art
7. Art has always been deeply tied to the lived experience of the artist. And as Ms Low Sin Leng said, it is a social commentary. As a result, art evolves in response to changes in society, trends and historical events.
8. For example, the Renaissance saw the confluence of science and art. From there emerged the Baroque movement, which shunned the rigidity of classical art, reflecting the mood of the times. Later, neoclassicism revived the forms of the classical period, which the Impressionists broke away from. So just by appreciating art, we can imagine the see-saw of social sentiments and historical trends.
9. An interesting development of the late 19th Century was the advent of Japonism, as post-Meiji Restoration, Japanese artistic techniques came to influence Western paintings. Japonism inspired artists halfway across the world, in particular Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, who incorporated some of the Japanese visual techniques in his work. So from East to West, around the world and back, art brings multiple cultures together, to tell the story of their time.
10. Art continues to mark our point in history. Today, young artists reflect on Singapore’s unique position in the world in the creation of their works. The works of NAFA alumni such as Hong Sek Chern are inspired by day-to-day life in our globalised city. Daily news stories and Singapore’s changing urban landscape inspired Hong Sek Chern to create Chinese ink paintings that combine multiple perspectives of architecture in a single space, and with a contemporary feel.
11. I believe this is part of the evolution of Nanyang Art and Singapore art form, as just like our pioneer artists, today’s artists too are expressing their identities in cosmopolitan Singapore.
Bringing the Arts to All
12. The arts is vital in every community. It is not an exclusive pursuit meant for a few. As the English artist and textile designer William Morris, of the Arts and Crafts Movement, said “I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few”.
13. With the help of the generous donors who have contributed to NAFA, as well as MOE’s support, the arts has become accessible to many students, young and old. The many teachers at NAFA have groomed generations of artists, performers, designers and creative professionals, who have gone on to create paintings, music and designs that inspire us. And today, the students are not just painting; we see them doing theatre, design, music, dance and many versatile art forms. NAFA’s “cradle-to-grave” approach to the arts is one that shares William Morris’ sentiments, as Singaporeans of all ages and walks of life have been able to enjoy the arts in this campus.
14. We encourage more Singaporeans to immerse themselves in the arts, and through it, gain insights into our history, culture and our humanity. The arts helps us to see with fresh eyes and recognise the beauty in the everyday. There will always be a place for the arts in our broad-based education system, and MOE will provide support for it.
15. The value of the arts cannot be measured solely in terms of its contribution to economic gains, GDP or jobs in the industry. The arts is an integral part of our nation’s holistic development. It helps Singapore, as a nation, evolve our soul and cultivate our individual and collective identities.
16. As our society evolves, so will the arts. What are the defining qualities of the art of the period we are living in now? Perhaps someone in the future can identify the common threads to define the movement of the current arts scene, in retrospect. But for now, I do not know. What I do know is that where the story of Singapore goes, art will continue to be part of it. And where the story of Singaporean art goes, NAFA will be a part of it. At 80, NAFA has stood the test of time and I believe that it will continue to contribute to our society through the arts.
17. Congratulations to NAFA on your 80th birthday! Thank you.