Arts & Culture

Uncovering the Ink Journey of Cheong Soo Pieng

Curator Tan Yong Jun talks about a comprehensive exhibition of ink works by Cheong Soo Pieng.

Words by
b-side staff

Hero Image: Cheong Soo Pieng, Kampong Life, 1979, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 68 x 123.5 cm, private collection. Image courtesy of Artcommune Gallery

Text by Hera

Cheong Soo Pieng has been lauded as a pioneering artist in his depiction of local Southeast Asian themes through a variety of pictorial styles that recall the conventions of cubism, impressionism and Chinese ink painting. As early as the 1950s Cheong’s work became celebrated for articulating the notion of the “Nanyang” as a localisation of Chinese aesthetic sensibilities and as a Malayan artistic expression. In attempting to grasp and depict the reality of the “southern seas” (a direct translation of Nanyang 南洋), Cheong experimented with a wide range of pictorial styles and artistic mediums whilst working closely within the formal scheme of the easel painting and the scroll painting traditions.

Curator Tan Yong Jun and artworks shown with the exhibition Tonalities: The Ink Works of Cheong Soo Pieng. Image courtesy of Tan Yong Jun

Amidst Singapore’s Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) Covid-19 measures, Artcommune Gallery presents an exhibition that focuses on Cheong Soo Pieng’s ink works, showing exclusively works from private collections. B-side speaks to Tan Yong Jun, curator of the exhibition Tonalities: The Ink Works of Cheong Soo Pieng, and the accompanying publication which is an in-depth study of the development of Cheong’s ink works from the late 1940s to the 1980s. 

Cheong Soo Pieng is known for his virtuosity in a remarkable range of art mediums, why does this exhibition focus on his ink works?

It is true that Soo Pieng’s oeuvre featured an astounding range of media, forms, and styles. However, to construct a narrative of his artistic development from this wide-angled lens (as numerous earlier studies had admirably done so) can obfuscate certain aspects of his practice. By focusing on a single theme, as I have done here with the ink medium, we get to keep a closer eye over the development of that aspect of Soo Pieng’s work and get more clarity and nuance in our overall understanding.

In this exhibition, for example, I have found that ink was an important way in which Soo Pieng expressed his tensions, questions, and anxieties regarding his identity. This was probably due to the cultural baggage of Chineseness that the medium carries. By looking at the development of his ink paintings from the 1950s to 1983, we see an artist constantly grappling with how to authentically and organically paint in a way that made sense with his cosmopolitanism and diasporic experiences.

A more practical reason lies in the increased visibility of Soo Pieng’s ink works, many of which has just left the family’s collection. These paintings, especially the late works, causes us to revise what we previously knew about Soo Pieng’s practice and impels us to posit a new narrative.

View of the exhibition showing the Nanyang Scrolls. Image courtesy of Wong Jing Wei

What were some of the challenges in organising and curating this exhibition?

The largest challenge any researcher will have regarding Soo Pieng’s practice is the near-total lack of any primary sources that tell us about Soo Pieng’s aesthetic ideas. We are thus left mainly to interrogate the paintings themselves, and to situate them within the carefully constructed cultural context in which Soo Pieng was painting. Of course, we have contemporary newspaper commentaries and short essays written by his friends and students, but they often are unable to bring us deep into Soo Pieng’s painterly psyche. It has therefore been a significant challenge in bringing meaning to the entire stretch of Soo Pieng’s ink practice.

Regarding the exhibition mounting itself, the space at Helutrans is blessed with huge stretches of walls, but it is a big challenge to fill them up with Soo Pieng’s relatively small-sized ink paintings in a way that does not clutter. Moreover, we were unable to really create a sense of flow in the exhibition space with partitions, so it was yet another challenge to ensure that the paintings made sense thematically and when looked upon as a generic whole. With the help of some much more experienced colleagues, I hope I was able to resolve some of these challenges.

This exhibition is mounted exclusively with artworks from personal collections, showcasing works that are rarely seen on display together, as well as highlighting the importance of collecting practices. How does this exhibition, as an accumulation of personal collections, present alternative narratives compared to the National Collection’s selection of Cheong’s works?

I think that the National Collection has amassed an admirable array of Soo Pieng’s paintings, giving us a good, broad view of his oeuvre. However, because the National Gallery understandably cannot constantly put Soo Pieng’s paintings on show as a whole narrative, the select works on display in the permanent exhibitions only show Singaporeans a narrow view of what Soo Pieng’s practice was like. Private collections are important here in appending and broadening the scope of the National Collection, allowing institutional imperatives and individual ideas to converge. The National Gallery have to be commended here for being open to borrowing from private collectors in the various exhibitions they have shown.

Another point is to be made here on the importance of private cultural spaces. It is understandable that the National Gallery (and other institutions) cannot hope to give equal emphasis on the various artists, movements, and aesthetic expressions that so enrich our cultural tapestry. Private cultural spaces are crucial in giving space to these narratives. I am optimistic that, in the near future, we will see more and more private spaces of a large enough scale that can stage shows that are on par with our cultural institutions.

View of exhibition showing a display of Cheong Soo Pieng’s late ink works recalling the composition and format of Chinese album leaf paintings. Left: Corner of a Garden, c. 1980, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 92 x 94 cm, collection of Roy Low. Above: Still Life, 1980, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 59.5 x 114.5 cm, private collection. Below from left to right: Squirrel II, 1980, Chinese ink on silk, 42 cm dia., private collection. Garlics, c. 1974-81, Chinese ink on paper, 24 x 26 cm, private collection. Still Life with Gourd, c. 1974-81, Chinese ink and colour on paper, 36 x 44 cm, private Collection. Image courtesy of Hera.

The exhibition included some interesting gestures such as displaying contextual historical information near the displayed artworks (eg. information on The Great Smog of London shown near his abstract drawings created during his travel to Europe). As a curator, what are some of the goals or curatorial intentions in mounting this exhibition?

I am a historian by training and to me, the best way to ameliorate the challenges that the scarcity of primary sources Soo Pieng leaves us with is to use contemporary sources to contextualise his practice. This was the idea behind the display of sources in the room exploring Soo Pieng’s Europe period, where image and text are brought into the conversation. Ultimately, I hope to explore ways in which we can elucidate more on the aesthetic ideas of artists by treating them as historical figures, of a specific place and time, and reconstructing the context in which they worked. This allows us to not only fill in the gaps where the artists are silent, but also explore facets of their experiences that they perhaps took in subconsciously.

I chose this period in particular because Europe was a turning point for Soo Pieng, and has been almost mythologised by those following Soo Pieng’s art. There are many attempts to explain what happened in Europe, but I did not find any explanation or account particularly satisfactory. (Nor, perhaps, should we hope to find resolution in that). Therefore, I pieced together some contextual sources that would allow us to understand the varied experiences and inspirations Soo Pieng came across in Europe, and to place his European shift at a point of confluence – a result of a whole range of stimuli, rather than an easily explainable process.

Soon after entering the exhibition venue, the visitors are greeted by a display of ink works featuring charming everyday subject matters such as house plants, still life of vegetables or a squirrel. Why are these classicist ink works created in his later career rarely shown in public? 

These paintings were completed around 1980 and were inspired by the pictorial ideas of Western still lifes and Chinese album leaf miniatures. Again, we were previously unable to identify them as a period of development because many of these works only surfaced recently. Being paintings outside the broad portrait or landscape genres also contributed to their relative neglect in Soo Pieng’s oeuvre.

Perhaps the increased classicist ink techniques and forms that Soo Pieng used during this period also required a different form of expertise than that required for a study of his canvas works. From the feedback to the exhibition so far, I believe that this series still lies somewhat outside the comfort zone for many of Soo Pieng’s admirers. I am optimistic, however, that the classicist paintings would eventually come to be acknowledge as some of Soo Pieng’s most conceptually deep paintings, where he studied and repudiated classical forms and, in so doing, reified for himself and his audiences his identity as a Southeast Asian painter.

View of exhibition showing a text panel describing the Great Smog of London, and Studies in Abstract Composition by Cheong Soo Pieng 1962, Ink on paper, 23.5 x 16 cm, as four pieces within one frame. Image credit: Hera.

You have nominated the Nanyang Scrolls as a high point in Cheong’s localisation of the Chinese literati tradition, can you tell us more about this? What do you think about the choice of using Balinese cultural symbols, could this be seen as an instance of cultural appropriation?

The Nanyang Scrolls, created in the last two years of Soo Pieng’s life for a planned retrospective in China, are exemplary works in which Soo Pieng brings his art beyond the pictorial plane and into conceptual fields. Using ink on a variety of materials (rattan, jute, rough cloth, silk) that alternately signals towards Chinese or Southeast Asian applied arts, these paintings of Southeast Asian scenes are mounted in the form of a literati scroll. It at once presents us with the cultural icon of an ink scroll, almost a pastiche at this point, but subverts it on a variety of levels. Intended for the Chinese audience, fresh from the Cultural Revolution, Soo Pieng stakes his claim in the heart of the Sinophone world for the diasporic experience.

To fully unravel the complexities regarding power and the politics of representation in this series, we have to delve into the psyche of the artist at this point in time. We are fortunate in that an article published in 1980 survives, where Soo Pieng calls for a greater degree of interaction with art forms native to Southeast Asia (He expounds on the example of Southeast Asian boat making), implicitly calling for a broadening of the fine arts category to include aesthetic traditions outside Western and East Asian ideas of pictorial arts. This is exemplary for the time, and remains critically important today, where these forms of art still do not have a space in our art historical narrative.

For sure, Soo Pieng’s works are problematic with regards to cultural appropriation, but I think it is important to locate this in his experience of cosmopolitanism and modernity – where cultural appropriation was (and is) endemic. Some of the cultural systems he portrayed are inaccurate/essentialising, while others seem staged for a Chinese eye.

An example can be found in one of the scrolls – God Bless – where the Chinese inscription ‘qiu shen bao you 求神保佑’ captions his image of a Balinese religious scene. The tradition of interacting with divinity as evoked by the caption is Sinitic, at odds with the Balinese relationship with divinity. Evidently, there is some distance between Soo Pieng’s aspirations in producing more authentic forms of syncretic Southeast Asian art and his ability to bring that concept through.

Cheong Soo Pieng, God Bless, 1982, Chinese ink and colour on rattan mounted on cloth, 94 x 53.5 cm. Private Collection. Image courtesy of Artcommune Gallery

Therefore, I think that we should place Soo Pieng squarely in his time and place. As much as Soo Pieng’s art does demonstrate a degree of cultural appropriation, I believe that he was self-conscious about it (his 1980 article calls for a concerted effort by all artists to create ‘true’ Nanyang art) and did attempt to abate this as much as he could. This effort could perhaps also be detected in his Dayak paintings, whose cultural systems are painted in a way that was much more precise and nuanced than his Balinese paintings.

Ultimately, Soo Pieng was a man of his time, and was perhaps visionary enough only to detect the unsatisfactory elements within the politics of representation but without the full range of language and ideas to really resolve the tension. 

What are some of your current preoccupations? Are there any plans for an upcoming exhibition or artistic project?

I am broadly interested in cultural history and genealogies of identities, and especially fascinated by ancient and archaic Chinese scripts. I am currently working on a project regarding the residence of another pioneer artist, so do look out for that!

View of the main hall. The artworks are displayed over three spaces, a front reception area, the main hall and a smaller room displaying works from Cheong Soo Pieng’s Europe travel. Image courtesy of Wong Jing Wei

Tonalities: The Ink Works of Cheong Soo Pieng is open till 13 June 2021. Enhanced Safety Management Measures applies, please visit Artcommune Gallery’s website for more details.

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