CHOO KENG KWANG
The love for art, education and philanthropy has made Singapore’s first generation artist, Choo Keng Kwang an iconic figure in the scene.
Born in 1931 in Singapore, Choo Keng Kwang is known as one of the country’s eminent and beloved first generation artists. Choo’s traditional oil paintings of landscape, animals and nature are contributors to his outstanding reputation. Choo was the son of a Teochew diamond trader, Choo Kim Kye, and his interest in fine art stemmed from his favourite comics and printed cartoons. He was a student at the Catholic High School and received criticism and disapproval from the teachers when he enrolled for art courses at NAFA.
Dedicated to both his regular studies and art classes, his hard work paid off in 1953 when he graduated with two certificates, one from the Catholic High School and one from NAFA. Despite his early interest in art, Choo didn’t delve in it after he graduated. He chose to be an educator and started teaching, which eventually led to Choo being the principal of Sin Hua School.
During his early years as an artist, Choo had good friends within the art circle that included Lee Man Fong, Georgette Chen, Liu Kang and Cheong Soo Pieng. “Liu Kang visited me at least once a month and we get together at my home. As for Lee Man Fong, we saw each other quite frequently when Lee was alive,” said Choo. Despite their close friendship, their styles varied from each other. For instance, his good friend Lee was the first artist to paint pigeons. While Lee’s pigeons perch on big brown stones, Choo’s stand on pine and bougainvillea trees in his paintings. Choo’s pigeon artworks combined two different styles, western and eastern, while Lee used the Linan style. “One can tell the difference between a Choo Keng Kwang pigeon and a Lee Man Fong one without looking at the signature of the artist based on these differences,” Choo explained.
The dedicated academician
Aside from his artistic achievements, Choo was an academician known for his involvement as a former teacher who later promoted as the school principal of Sin Hua School and he was also Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA)’s head of the Art Education Department until his retirement. “During my years as a lecturer at NAFA, I was actually instructed by the Minister of Education, the late Dr Tay Eng Soon to teach the Singapore art teachers doing the diploma course. In other words, all Singapore art teachers who received their diplomas from the Ministry of Education were my students,” said Choo.
And to top it all off, this public-spirited artist is a philanthropist and has been getting recognition with the numerous awards he has received for his contribution to education and art since the 1950s.
As one of Singapore’s first generations artists, Choo’s status as an icon led to his artworks being commissioned by royalty, dignitaries and governments. The Singapore government had commissioned his paintings as state gifts to foreign dignitaries and had also been presented to the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and China’s chairman Mao Tse-Tung. Choo has also had the privilege to hold and participate in a vast number of solo and group art exhibitions in Singapore and beyond. In November 1990, Choo became the first Singaporean artist to participate in a cultural exchange exhibition in Jakarta and in July 1993, he was invited to exhibit his paintings in Brunei to commemorate the Sultan of Brunei’s 47th birthday.
Choo’s masterpieces have been sold at notable auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In 1989, his artwork was featured on the first day cover postage stamps for the Singapore Telecommunications Authority. The four original oil paintings of Chinatown were eventually donated to the Singapore National Museum for its permanent collection. Choo was conferred with the Public Service Medal (PBM) in 1976 and the Long Service Award (PBS) in 1986.
In 2008, the prolific artist received homage and acknowledgement from the Organising Committee for the Olympic Fine Art 2008, which was a joint effort with the IOC, the Ministry of Culture, China and the Organising Committee of the XXIX Olympiad at the China International Exhibition Centre. He received the recognition for his success in art and influence in the art circle. In 2012, Choo received an honorary certificate for his contribution to the Creative Cities Collection – Fine Art Exhibition in London that was held in August at the Barbican Centre. His World Peace artwork was selected for the exhibition. The China International Culture Association, China Society for the Promotion of Culture and Art Development and the Beijing Association for the Promotion of Olympics-related Culture organised the exhibition.
The philanthropic painter
The charitable artist has also used his paintings for the greater good of the community. Choo’s paintings have been sold to raise funds for charitable causes and organisations. One example was when all the sales proceeds of his paintings were donated to St. Andrew’s Mission Hospital and Touch Community Services. He also successfully raised S$160, 000 for charity when he participated in the President’s Charity Art Exhibition – Choo Keng Kwang: An Artistic Path of His Own, and in 1997, he donated oil paintings to the President’s Star Charity Show. In addition, the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) has reproduced Choo’s artwork on phone cards for fund-raising campaigns.
The legacy continues
In March 2013, Choo held a solo exhibition at the Malaysia Brand Outlet at the Vertex in Singapore. The most expensive work to be shown at that solo exhibition was World Peace1, a 100cm by 200cm painting of doves that was priced that was at $280,000. The rest of the artworks were tagged at $28, 000 and above. This was definitely a far cry from what he earned 50 years ago. His paintings back then were sold for just $150 each at the night markets.
While now his larger canvases can easily command six figure sums, prices aren’t important to the artist. Choo’s struggles during the earlier years makes him humble and appreciative of the value of hard work. As a contemporary of the late Liu Kang and Georgette Chen, Choo is still a favourite amongst avid art collectors for his technique of combining Western impressionism and rules of perspective with traditional Chinese brushwork.
The Cock Fight, an early painting from 1967
Choo’s 1967 masterpiece, The Cock Fight, depicting two cocks fighting, took two months to complete. A painting that is still vivid in his memory. The inspiration behind the masterpiece goes back to the olden days, where entertainment was limited in the villages. This encouraged most of the village people to rear cocks of different breeds and during their free time like on weekends or after a bountiful harvest, the villagers would get together and watch cockfight shows. On the foreground of the artwork is the guy who owns the cock and the villagers are seen sitting in a row watching the show. Choo applied the impressionist style, which highlights the brush strokes of the cockerels, which look almost realistic. This masterpiece by the artist will be auctioned soon at the KLAS Modern and Contemporary Art Auction 2014 in Kuala Lumpur.