Workers in a Canteen
Malay Fisherman at Changi Beach & Samsui Women
Epic Poem of Malaya
Self-Portrait
National Language Class
Vanishing Scene of Boat Quay
Singapore – A Growing Nation
I chose realist art, art that would reflect real life in frorm and content. Chua Mia Tee.jpg
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Singapore’s most acclaimed artistic forerunner in realism

The National Museum Singapore describes Chua Mia Tee paintings’ as “painted documentaries” for, like documentary films, they make a claim on reality but are nonetheless subjective representations of the world. The solo exhibit Directing the Real details how he developed as an artist during a momentous period in Singapore’s history, and his works bear witness to its burgeoning nationalism after World War II, followed by independence and subsequent rapid economic progress. His art from the 1950s to the 1980s captures this history, and his realist approach reflects Singapore as he saw it, portraying its aspirations and transformations.

Malayan & Singapore working class

Chua was primarily concerned with depicting the masses, especially the working class, using his work to draw attention to the harsh realities of daily life at the time. He was strongly influenced by the writings of Wang Chaowen, a Chinese leftist art theorist, who advocated for artists to become “the voice of the people and serve the people”. Chua himself championed the need for artists to draw from personal experiences and depict familiar aspects of Malayan society to create meaningful works that resonated with the public.

Chua’s paintings express reality through the lens of his personal experiences and, just as importantly, his principles. He believed art must be realistic, virtuous, and beautiful.

British colonial rule of Singapore

His approach emerged during the post-World War II period in Singapore. As communities in Singapore and Malaya sought to heal from the traumatic experiences of the Japanese Occupation, they began to question the legitimacy of British colonial rule and hold hopes for a new, independent nation. Artists came together to develop a new Malayan art that could act as the antidote to society’s ills and bolster the spirit of nation-building. The rallying cries of the day were for independence and morally upright values. A cultural movement emerged, one that advocated these values and took a particularly strong stance against pornography. To these artists, morality was inseparable from culture and society and the nation they desired.

Real Singapore Society

Chua paintings portray the likenesses of people, daily life and landscapes with a realism that is more than factual accuracy. In his heart is a deep belief that the artist has a responsibility to uncover the truths, virtues and beauty of life, which extend beyond what we can see. It is only by doing so that Chua believes he can paint the “real”, which he regards as the intangible realities of life.

Text National Gallery Singapore & Martin Wray / Photos Martin Wray