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Nanyang art style: What it is and where to find outstanding examples in Singapore

Here's our guide to understanding this uniquely Southeast Asian art form. Written by Tanya Singh

Simran Panaech
Edited by
Simran Panaech
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Did you know that our island, along with Katong laksa and milo dinosaur, is also the birthplace of a uniquely Southeast Asian art movement? One of the most distinctive art forms in the history of our region, the Nanyang art style was developed in the early 20th century on these very lands, then known as British Malaya. Characterized by vibrant colour palettes and depictions of local scenery and objects, Nanyang art is an important part of our cultural history and continues to inform art development in the region even today. 

There are great examples of Nanyang art here in Singapore that should be regarded, especially if you’re interested in Southeast Asian art history or just curious to see what some of the first artists on the island created. Here’s a guide to the Nanyang art style and where to find some examples in Singapore.

RECOMMENDED: Singapore's best art exhibitions and The best contemporary art galleries and spaces in Singapore

All you need to know about Nanyang art style

History

The term “Nanyang” literally translates to “South Ocean” and was then used by Chinese maritime traders to describe the Southeast Asian region. Some of the Chinese migrants that arrived on the shores of modern-day Malaysia and Singapore in the 1920s and 1930s were young artists and writers in search of their artistic voice. They hoped to infuse their new surroundings and reflect on the notion of identity in their works. 

The term “Nanyang” became a symbol of this aspiration, first among writers and then among visual artists. However, the official term “Nanyang art style” was only properly established as an art movement in 1979 by art historians, T.K. Sabapathy and Redza Piyadasa, who organised a survey exhibition of Nanyang art at the Muzium Seni Negara Malaysia.

Pioneering artists

The next milestone in the history of Nanyang art came with the founding of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1938 by pioneering artist, Lim Hak Tai. The academy played a crucial role in advocating art that had a sense of localness to it. The pioneering Nanyang artists, namely Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee, and Georgette Chen, were all associated with the academy in one way or another.

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Paving the way forward

Any conversation about Nanyang art is incomplete without the mention of the famous trip to Bali in 1952 that had a transformational effect on the art of the participating artists – Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, and Chen Chong Swee. Their works were exhibited a year later and the exhibition marked the beginning of a new, more fluid path for the movement. 

The Nanyang art style was a unique blend of different art forms, amalgamating the fluidity of Chinese ink painting and motifs of batik with Western artistic styles, like post-Impressionism and Cubism. At its core, the Nanyang art style sought to express the artists' deep connection to the region and their desire to create a distinct Southeast Asian identity. The artists drew inspiration from the lush tropical environment, the diverse communities, and the fusion of traditions in the Nanyang region. Until the 1970s, the Nanyang art movement showcased an organic development of art with the artists not adhering to any one particular medium, style, or subject matter. The goal was always to represent their impressions of the landscape and culture surrounding them.

Why it’s significant

The Nanyang artists played a crucial role in shaping the modern art scene in Singapore and Malaysia. The movement encouraged second and third generation artists to break away from traditional Chinese art conventions and embrace a more experimental and expressive approach. The movement’s rich legacy can be seen in the works of contemporary artists who carry forward the spirit of the movement, incorporating new mediums and perspectives. The Nanyang art style remains a powerful representation of the region's cultural heritage and an enduring symbol of artistic innovation and creativity in Southeast Asia.

Where to find Nanyang art in Singapore

  • Art
  • City Hall

One of the largest collections of Nanyang art open to the public is currently housed in the DBS Singapore Gallery of the National Gallery Singapore. The gallery takes you on a journey from the beginnings of the art movement through the famous Bali trip to its eventual evolution into the current art landscape of Singapore. 

The National Gallery Singapore is free for Singaporeans, PRs, and students and is open daily from 10am-7pm. You may also sign up for a guided tour for a deeper dive into the world of Nanyang and beyond. The tour runs every Thursday-Sunday at 1pm in English and on Saturday and Sunday at noon in Mandarin.

  • Art
  • Raffles Place

The gallery, founded in 2009, has a number of masterpieces by Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi in its collection. They have also organised a number of retrospective exhibitions of the artists’ works in the past and have one coming up for Cheong Soo Pieng in September 2023. 

Artcommune Gallery is also a great place to visit if you want to experience how the Nanyang style impacted the development of art in Singapore from the 1970s onwards. The gallery is currently showing a group exhibition of new works by Singapore’s leading and most senior contemporary painters namely Boo Sze Yang, Milenko Prvački and Wong Keen.

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The Ngee Ann Kongsi Galleries 1 & 2
  • Art
  • Rochor

An important site for the Nanyang art movement, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts has a large collection of artworks by the pioneering artists and those that came after them. Although they have their annual graduates exhibition on view at the moment, they regularly bring out works from their permanent collection to exhibit them, especially at the Ngee Ann Kong Si Art Galleries 1 & 2.

More to explore

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