I distinctively recall when asked to copy a piece of work by one of the pioneer artists, I had chosen Cheong’s Bali Girls.
As a secondary school student in the Art Elective Programme, I remember being introduced to, looking at and somewhat involuntarily made to study what is now termed as the Nanyang Art Style and the works of our pioneering artists such as Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang, Georgette Chen, Chen Chong Swee and of course Cheong Soo Pieng. Back then, as the girly sort who loved patterns, textures and designs, I was captivated by the long-limbed, sinewy and elongated forms of Cheong’s Bali Girls. Lines dominated the image, creating shapes and form through pattern.
Facing Children 1968, the archetypal figures of Cheong now seem almost wooden, carved in an image of stillness, like a sculpture in a painting. In an exhibition of Cheong’s curated by TK Sabapathy, Ahmad Mashadi and Karen Lim at the NUS Cultural centre, many of the works displayed are ones which I had not seen before, even in print form. I invariably turn to other works.
In Untitled 1957, Cheong depicts a group of 3 labourers taking a break, seated in a tight-knitted triangle, they seem engaged in quiet activity, a game or letter reading perhaps, as suggested by the sheaf of papers and stack of books in the foreground. Their attention wholly on what is laid out in their centre, hidden to the viewer and the young boy who looks on from the left of the painting, included and yet distanced.
Whilst the composition seems to have been adapted a western schema of representation, seemingly like those in the paintings of Kirchner and Picasso. Aside from a focus on the exploration of oil painting there appears to be a distinctive South-East Asian subject matter. A tropical sensibility. Is there anything new about what I am saying? Nothing much, though when closely observed, we notice in the painting evidence of the layering and tacking of paint (almost to impasto) on the clothes of the figures, strokes of oil paint that demonstrate tone on the sleeves of the women, the scratches creating textures of the hats and basket, illuminating their form. The attempt by an artist to create a language of painting, within a new context of nation and home and place within his world. In the simplified gestures of rest we see the implication of the notion of work, of construction, of (nation) building. We cannot take away the realisation that these paintings were made during a not-too-long-ago time when samsui women did exist, when there were cows, sampans, kelongs, goats and chickens on the shores of our now developed nation. That these were part of life makes us aware of the landscape (literal, social and artistic) that has transformed rapidly over the course of less than 2 generations.
By writing this I am not waxing nostalgic about a time that once existed. Rather, by positing my present as the point of departure, Cheong Soo Pieng’s works thus become a sort of lesson in Singapore’s visual history, offering impasto glimpses of a palimpsestic place I have become unsure of; of a country I find difficult to understand; of a home (of my parents and grandparents) that is no longer here (for me to perceive).
Ironically, I suspect if it were not for the inclusion of these artists (and others) within the Ministry Of Education art syllabuses, it is perfectly possible that interest, knowledge and subsequently future understanding of Cheong’s works amongst future generations would fade in time to come. Just recently on Facebook I was smiling to myself, amused at the posts of some former students, excitedly planning a class reunion by going to see this exhibition at NUS Cultural Centre. It makes me wonder, just how many other young people have access, if modest, to these small and colourful pockets of history.
I do not want to forget.
The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
Encountering Cheong Soo Pieng
Southeast Asian Gallery & NX Gallery, NUS Museum
5 March 2010 – 31 July 2010
 As I had not the opportunity to see many of his paintings except in books, catalogues and magazines, this show proved all the more enlightening in understanding/learning more on what I had once ‘studied’, read, and even discussed about with my own art students regarding his work. It is a pity though, that his works (as well as that of other important local artists) are not readily available to viewing and study at our museums, perhaps due to the lack of space. Hopefully the presence of the new National Art Gallery will change that.
 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera