ONG KIM SENG
SCENES OF SINGAPORE
By Hiranmayii Awli Mohanan
The abundantly awarded watercolourist, Ong Kim Seng has spent over 30 years capturing Singapore’s vibrant city on canvas, spanning its river and quaint town — Chinatown to be specific. The artist, whose paintings include Singapore River, Heritage Shophouses, Chinatown and more, regularly grace the walls of KL Lifestyle Art Space and featured in its auctions, are much sought after by art connoisseurs. His “naturalistic impressionist” style has been important in capturing Singapore’s old spirit, as Kim Seng believes in painting scenes that require little re-composition in order to maintain factual accuracy, so that he can ultimately focus on the details that people may soon forget.
TERENGGANU STREET, CHINATOWN
Ong Kim Seng was barely 17 when he started his Sunday plein air painting sessions with some of Singapore’s pioneer artists in 1962. They included the late Lim Cheng Hoe, Chen Chong Swee and Ong Chye Cho. They usually spent the day painting in the city area, including on the banks of the old Singapore River, where landmarks such as Raffles City, Marina Bay Sands and Shenton Way’s business district had yet to exist. This perhaps explains the artist’s fascination with the scenes in Singapore. Trengganu Street was described as “the Piccadilly of Chinese Singapore” in the past. In Hokkien, the street is called “the cross street of Kreta Ayer”. Kreta Ayer is a reference to the Chinatown area and the crossing of streets refers to Smith Street and Sago Street. Later, the Chinese referred to Trengganu Street in Cantonese as “theatre side street”, a reference to the well-known Chinese theatre, Hei Yuen Kai or Lai Chun Yuen, on Smith Street. Today, Trengganu Street has been converted into a pedestrian mall and is part of the bustling festive bazaar in Chinatown.
According to Kim Seng, Trengganu Street, where he ate Wantan noodles, was the same place that he would whip out his brush and canvas to paint. “The girl manning the stall there would always clear a place for me to paint,” said the artist. “Trengganu Street even till today is the centre of Chinatown Centre. This is the busiest street in the whole of Chinatown. For a plein air painter like me, there is always a difference at any time of day, be it colour or composition. Each time the atmosphere is different. Even till today when all the rustic stalls are gone I still like to stroll around the place in search of an angle to paint.” Pairing Kim Seng’s artistic prowess and his niche of manipulating light in his works, viewers are brought back to the simple days of yesteryear, evoking nostalgia and memories for Singaporeans who have been to the place. Having grown up in Singapore, the artist has witnessed the changing Singapore cityscape as the country develops and prospers by painting the scenes in the city continually for the past few decades.
The Singaporean artist came from humble beginnings, a kampung in Tiong Bahru, Singapore and has been a full- time artist since 1985. He has participated in both group and solo exhibitions in Singapore and around the world including, the United States, China, United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Belgium, Germany, France, the Middle East, Taiwan, Hong Kong and ASEAN countries.
This watercolourist studied at Radin Mas Primary School in 1959 and later at Pasir Panjang Secondary School. Ong had an innate interest in art since he was young, but his mother had envisioned him having an office job, being either a clerk or teacher as it was a ludicrous thought for her son to become an artist. Not paying heed to his mother’s dissatisfaction with his interest, Ong began experimenting with painting, beginning with pastels and oil and moving onto watercolour painting earnestly in 1960. It was during this period that he became a regular participant in a painting group at the Singapore River led by artist, writer and lecturer, Chia Wai Hon.
In 1962, Ong left school to join an advertising agency where he worked as a bill collector. He left the agency after four years and found his next job as a policeman at the British Naval Base in Sembawang. He lost his job in 1971 when the British withdrew their troops from Singapore. He subsequently worked as a welder at Pulau Bukom, a line technician at an electronics firm, National Semiconductor, and then as an audio-visual/ graphic technician at the Colombo Plan Staff College for Technician Education.
This talented artist has garnered many accolades, including being the first and only Singaporean to have won six awards from the prestigious 138-year-old American Watercolor Society (AWS), of which he was conferred membership in 1992. He is also the only Asian artist outside the US to be admitted into AWS. Ong’s collectors include Queen Elizabeth II of England, Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China, Secretary- General of the United Nations, President of the Republic of Korea, Prime Minister of Thailand, President of the Philippines; Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister of India; the Governor of Hokkaido, Singapore Arts Museum Singapore, Maritime Museum, Agung Rai Museum and Neka Museum in Bali, Indonesia, and Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, foreign missions and embassies.
ONG’S ARTISTIC STYLE
Ong Kim Seng’s style is described as being naturalist-cum- impressionistic and a combination of post-impressionist colour and outlook of the American realist masters. He paints en plein air and has stated that in order for him to paint a place, he has to feel it first. “I believe that inspiration comes naturally when there’s a link between the artist and his subject,” said Ong. The subjects of his works revolve around inanimate objects, architectural forms, masonry, foliage and landscapes. He seems to have a way of materialising exactly what he sees on canvas, capturing the complexities and minute details of the buildings and the realistic play of light and shadow. Ong’s exemplary use of watercolour and the balance between subject and space truly make his work a gem.
DATO SHARIFAH FATIMAH
VIBRANT AND VIVACIOUS
There’s much exuberance and vibrance emitted by Datuk Sharifah Fatimah’s works. Born in Alor Setar in 1948, Sharifah Fatimah is an important second-generation artist alongside Latiff Mohidin, Datuk Ibrahim Hussein, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal and Dr Choong Kam Kow. Her love affair with nature started at the tender age of five, which became a revolving theme in most of her artworks.
Armed with a tolerance for mud, dirt and mosquitoes, the young Sharifah Fatimah, allured by flora and fauna, climbed trees and collected flowers from a hill close to her home. The intricate patterns of leaves intrigued her as much as the formation of pretty rocks chiselled by the rapid waters of the river. Heeding the call of nature, the artist preferred pressing freshly-picked flowers as a bookmark while other children were engrossed in batu seremban and congkak. That was her idea of fun.
Sharifah Fatimah pursued an education in fine arts at the Mara Institute of Technology (now UiTM), under the tutelage of Dr Jolly Koh and Dr Choong Kam Kow. Thereafter, she continued her education for the Bachelor of Fine Arts at Reading University in England from 1973 to 1976, followed by a master’s degree in Fine Arts at Pratt Institute in New York from 1976 to 1978, under the John D. Rockefeller III Fund fellowship. She became a full-time artist in 1973 and continued to collect a string of achievements.
Besides the wondrous and continuous muse that is nature, Sharifah Fatimah also found inspiration through many artists that she met throughout her career, such as National Art Laureate Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal and her closest peer, German fine graphic artist Ilse Noor. Her travels and the serendipitous encounter with things off the beaten track and new experiences invigorated the artist. She has always sought out the quiet romance of Europe and revelled in its vibrant energy which she would translate onto canvas.
Sharifah’s favourite city in Europe is undoubtedly Paris because she appreciated its way of life and the lack of segregation there. Then there is the fact that European art is constantly improving because artists there have a great attitude towards art. Meanwhile, her favourite foreign artists include romanticist landscape expert Joseph Mallord, William Turner and Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Through travel and visits to Sharifah Fatimah’s ancestral home and Islamic countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Indonesia, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the earlier 2000’s, it birthed the bold ‘Garden of the Heart’ exhibition — an awe-striking departure from her usual niche expressions — featuring readymade textiles, embroidery, gold foil transfers and appliqué techniques.
Sharifah Fatimah has numerous awards under her belt, including the Minor Award in the Malaysian Landscape competition (1972), Major Award in the Young Contemporary Artists (1981), Major Award in the Salon Malaysia (1979), and 3rd Prize in the Islamic World Biennial in Tehran, Iran (2003). She was conferred Datukship by the Sultan of Kedah in 2006 — the first woman to be awarded for her contributions to visual arts and received the Women of Excellence Award Malaysia for outstanding achievements in Arts, Culture and Entertainment in 2014. Sharifah Fatimah’s first official solo exhibition was at Singapore’s Alpha Gallery in 1972, while her last major exhibition, ‘Song of Eucalyptus’ was at the Sugars Art Centre in Kuala Lumpur, from Sept 5 to Oct 31, 2017.
HER ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER AND EXPERIENCE
The artist took on a museum management course at the University of London in 1987 to diversify her skills. Sharifah Fatimah forayed into this realm while holding the position of curator-coordinator at the National Art Gallery Kuala Lumpur (National Visual Arts Gallery now) from 1982 to 1990. During her stint at the gallery, she curated Ibrahim Hussein’s exhibition, ‘A Retrospective’. This however, diverted her from her destiny — art. She followed her passion, bid adieu to the office profession to become a full-time artist and art consultant. She went on to become a writer, delegate, judge, external examiner and curator in numerous high-profile exhibitions at home and abroad.
The paintings of Sharifah Fatimah and her stature were formidably established when the pieces were hung on the hallowed walls of renowned institutions and museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Jordan National Art Gallery of Fine Arts; Museum of Contemporary Art, Croatia; Sharjah Art Museum, United Arab Emirates; and Singapore Art Museum. The artist’s fervour for the craft and hard work was given due recognition in 2013 when the National Art Gallery held an exhibition in her honour entitled, ‘Pancawarna Karya Pilihan 1990-2012 Selected Artworks’, illustrating 100 works from five of her main series, namely Touch the Earth (1992-1996), Mindscape (1991-1993), Joy is the Theme (1997-2003), Garden of the Heart (2005-2011) and Celebration (2010-2012).
Sharifah Fatimah’s early works are masterpieces in their own right, displaying her artistic prowess early on. Her mastery of the craft is evident in works like ‘Untitled 24 x 21cm, created circa 1975 and ‘Greenscape’, produced in 1987. These early works are coveted by aficionados and are rather rare. As aforementioned, Sharifah Fatimah, who has always marched to the beat of her own her drum was very clear of her path in life. After graduating from UiTM, she enrolled in a course in fine arts at Reading University in England in 1973 and graduated with first class honours. It was during this period when Sharifah Fatimah produced the above-mentioned works. It served as an art exchange between herself and German artist and her lecturer, Peter Kalkhoff. The ‘Greenscape’ was executed in the her usual loud-on-loud with contrasting colours, featuring daring streaks. It resonates vibrancy, liveliness and vivacity. The artist was prolifically producing paintings during her studies abroad and her talent was recognised when Sharifah Fatimah’s etching was donated to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) by the then president of the Museum, Mrs Blanchette Rockefeller lll. As a young adult, she was actively involved in international art exchanges, organising art exhibitions of Malaysian artworks abroad in her capacity as a curator at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur (1982 to 1989) and later as an art consultant.
Sharifah Fatimah’s works exhibit contagious energy. As she relishes in various inspirations, she brilliantly puts it across her paintings. She exhibits the true matters of the heart, mind and soul, how the thought processes are never muted and never silent, always showing their garish colours deep within. As an artist that frequently uses her thoughts, emotions and feelings as substance for her abstract work, her artworks usually turn out to be a motley of aesthetic mayhem. Such as the matters of the heart and mind, it is never clear, rarely uncluttered and most definitely not immaculate. “We live our true lives in the depths of our hearts, not in the superficial masks of personality which we show to the world,” said Sharifah Fatimah.
Each piece concocted by the artist varies in terms of aesthetics, but shares a similar foundation that resonates vibrancy, liveliness and vivacity. It is executed in her typical exaggerated, loud and contrasting colours, featuring daring streaks, blocks and lines to beautifully frame the bold-coloured fragments and shapes. The differing elements and hues in her pieces are discourses between man and nature, representing the elements that make up flora and fauna, her eternal muse. Not one to shy away from colours, the artist’s works are often described as lyrically symbolic featuring a myriad of colours.