Wong, her late grandfather Huang Yao just happened to be someone who painted.
But thanks to the family's efforts, Singapore has the chance to view works
of an artist considered ahead of his time--PARVATHI NAYAR gets first-hand
Carolyn Wong, bond portfolio manager with Fisher Francis Trees &Watts, is busy with the organization of her grandfather's exhibition. The quick detail, of course, is that granddad happens to be rather famous and the exhibition, a major retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum(SAM). On a personal level, the Huang Yao Retrospective is the culmination of a long road of discovery for Ms Wong and her family. For the larger community, says Kwok Kian Chow, director of SAM, it's a chance to see the works of a truly innovative Chinese artist.
The retrospective draws from the family collection of the late artist. But at its core is the 110 paintings the family has donated to SAM, because, "Carolyn lives here, it's nice for her to be close to the paintings and we felt his works would be appreciated in Singapore," says Dr. Tan May Ling, Ms. Wong's mother and wife of Hunag Yao's only son. The donation represents an excellent cross-section of works across the late artist's varying oeuvres; in numerical terms it's the largest donation given to SAM.
The retrospective, elaborates curator Patricia Ong, will show Huang Yao's paintings and cartoons from the 1950s to 1980s, grouped together on the basis of styles and category, such as Nanyang-influenced subject matter, innovative calligraphy, investigations into Chinese characters resulting in seemingly abstract forms, and landscape paintings.
The exhibition opening is co-sponsored by Ms Wong's firm as a client event, and she says her involvement couldn't have worked without their support. "Fisher Francis supports the arts in New York," says Ms Wong, "and are excited about this show as a way of contributing to the community here. They support their employee's interests outside of work and have been very understanding that this is part of my life. They recognize this was something I had to do, and were generous in allowing me the time and flexibility."
Huang Yao (1917-1987) was born into the literati tradition in Shanghai and grew up learning the art of calligraphy and brush painting. Interestingly, he then chose a career in journalism. Comments Mr. Kwok, "This is a really early example of an interface between the traditional literati tradition and modern media, and we found this exciting." As for Huang Yao himself, he found fame as a cartoonist.. His popular 30s cartoon character 'Niu Bi Zi' became his vehicle to offer socio-political commentary in a humorous vein.
Huang Yao worked as a war journalist but left China because he didn't like the war, says Dr. Tan. The late artist worked in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Thailand. In Vietnam his house was bombed, destroying his paintings; only his works between 1947 and 1986 survived today.
En route to Malaysia--where he would settled permanently in 1956--Huang Yao visited Singapore. Here he had an exhibition at the British Council, and sold some cartoons for charity. In Malaysia Huang Yao found the peace and stability he craved, and settled into a simple life. He was deeply involved in education, research into the histories of the overseas Chinese diaspora, and in furthering his artistic practices. But he wouldn't do socio-political cartoons. "Since he wasn't a citizen of Malaysia," says Dr. Tan, "he felt it would offend the Malaysians if he did cartoons about them."
"He was a very simple person with no airs about him, and easy to talk to. He was very generous, willing to help where he could and give paintings away. He painted best when fully relaxed, in a sarong. He'd covered his work table with newspapers, used ordinary bowls and plates from the kitchen as his inkpots but was very particular about washing up at the end of the day."
THE PROCESS OF DISCOVERY
While the family knew that Huang Yao painted, it was only two years ago they they decided to finally go through all his things. The incentive was a request from China, wanting to republish Huang Yao's cartoons of the 30s.
" I promised my children that I'd give them two months of my time--as a gift--to sort out the legacy of their grandfather's paintings," smiles Dr Tan. Two years on, she is still cataloguing, for they found over four thousand paintings and sketches. The work has become part of her life, while "it's the best gift she could have given us", says Ms. Wong with affection.
As they went through the works, there were some special discoveries. Such as a set of paintings of goats for Ms Wong's fifth birthday that fell in the year of the Goat. This she has taken away and framed, otherwise the collection has been left largely intact.
Talks of the paintings brought back memories. "My grandfather used to say that as a baby, his stomach was my favorite pillow," reminisces Ms. Wong. "He played with us, sorted out our fights, took us on long walks and drew cartoons for me to paint. When you're young your grandfather is just that, your grandfather. We assumed everyone's grandfather painted."
HUANG YAO"S LEGACY
But this grandfather's paintings are rather special. Research has shown, says Mr. Kwok, that Huang Yao was an artist ahead of his time in the creation of calligraphy paintings called wenzi hua. "You could call him a designer," says Mr. Kwok, because his works are a graphic manifestation of his research into Chinese pictographs, Chinese literature and more modern interests.
Mr. Kwok has a personal interest in philology and explains how Chinese characters are a unique blend of pictographs (representing objects), ideographs (representing ideas) and phonetics. In the images he created, Huang Yao played with all these possibilities of phonetics and semantics, combined words in new ways, created compounded characters, researched the origins of words.
Ever an innovator, Huang Yao also branched off into almost abstract forms, using the calligraphic lines, form and colour. Calligraphy as an expression of abstraction, even installation, is all the rage now, but in Huang Yao's time his experiments in calligraphy were quite unique. A few Japanese artists were working along these lines but mainland Chinese artists started such experiments only in the 1980s, explains curator Ms. Ong.
Another interesting aspect of the late artist's work is his upside-down writing. "Huang Yao was very good in calligraphy," says Dr Tan, "but wanted the words that accompany his cartoons to be childlike. To approximate a style of writing close to that of children, he decided to write upside down."
As they talked, Dr Tan and Ms Wong brought out their carefully notated, photocopied files of Huang Yao's work, and we went through his fascinating research into Chinese characters. There's what they call the Dictionary set, which traces the evolution of some five hundred characters. While the Diary set deals less with meanings, more with words as image sources for paintings.
Of their own volition and at Mr. Kwok's suggestion, the family has decided not to sell any of the works for at least five years. It represents "a unique complete collection of Huang Yao's legacy in one place", says Ms Wong. "This facilitates further research into my grandfather's art."
An art that comprises essentially happy paintings, with touches of droll humor lurking in many. They are reflective, says Ms. Wong, of his own even-tempered personality. The granddaughter reckons he'd be very happy with the show and what's being done with his paintings. For in a real sense, Huang Yao's legacy stays alive in them.
Article in Executive Arts, The Business Times, Singapore, Saturday July 07, 2001.
Niu Bi Zi and his Art Xie Bing Ying (in Chinese)
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>> Memory of Huang Yao Chen Ji Ying (in Chinese)
>> A Family Legacy Parvathi Nayar
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