Published - Back Out of Singapore's Shadows

During the 1960s and ’70s, the Singaporean artist Yeh Chi Wei created highly distinctive oil paintings, drawing inspiration from a wide range of cultural and historical Asian sources while also incorporating Chinese ink calligraphy techniques. As the leader of the Ten Men Art Group, a loosely-knit group of art teachers and artists that would morph in 1970 into the seminal Southeast Asian Art Association, he played a key role in developing the Singapore art scene. Yet, his name fell into near obscurity after he moved, seemingly at the peak of his career, into a village in Malaysia.  “The Story of Yeh Chi Wei,” a major retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum running until Sept. 12, sheds new light on the artist’s achievements and his importance as one of the country’s pioneer artists.

Yeh was born in a village near Fuzhou, China, in 1913. He studied at the Xinhua Art Academy in Shanghai despite his father’s objection, but with his mother’s financial support, and graduated in 1936 with a specialty in Western painting. At the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War the following year, he fled to Singapore then settled in nearby Malaysia — then known as Malaya — after marrying his first wife. In 1952, he was invited to teach at a high school in Singapore and he returned there, where he remained until the late 1970s. Though he participated in many shows as part of the Ten Men Art Group, Yeh’s only solo exhibition was in 1969. He passed away in 1981 at the age of 68, just as he was preparing his second solo show with 100 paintings.

The Ten Men Group — a misnomer as three women were members — was not initiated by Yeh but he took on a leadership role as the organizer of many tours around the region. These artist trips would be instrumental in shaping his practice, radically changing his style. In the catalog of his solo show, he wrote, “In 1961, I went on a painting trip to the east coast of Malaya with ten fellow painters. It was then that I began to shake off whatever remained of my realistic tendencies.”  What resulted was a breaking down of his forms into planes or blocks. Inspired by Javanese batik, he began to cover the canvas with flat colors, using simple color tones and patterns like lines. To read the full IHT story.