Amateur artists rarely remember their first paintings.
If you’ve kept yours, chances you’re probably too embarrassed to show it to anyone. My first few watercolour paintings actually turned out alright, but certainly not because of my talent. On the contrary, they turned out really well because of the miraculous finishing touches and corrections that my watercolour teacher was able to conjure out of works that seemed to be beyond salvation.
I first met Seah Kam Chuan in 2015 after being waitlisted for a few months for his popular Saturday afternoon painting class. Fondly known as Mr Seah amongst the students, he has nurtured many watercolour enthusiasts and professionals, including artists like Zhu Hong and Alan Louis Ramachandran, and has also served as the president of the Singapore Watercolour Society from 2000 to 2006. For students like me who have experienced (and benefitted) from Mr Seah’s mastery of the medium, it was certainly a surprise to realise that the exhibition Reminiscing the Singapore Landscape – The Art of Watercolour was to be his first solo show at the age of 55.
Reminiscing the Singapore Landscape showcases more than 40 works from Seah’s entire career. From the title, one would expect many works featuring the Singapore River. The local watercolour fraternity visits the Singapore River every Sunday for plein-air painting, a practice which dates back from the Lim Cheng Hoe era. Till this day, the tradition continues. Indeed, any serious watercolourist in Singapore will have at least a few Singapore River works under his or her belt. (I don’t, so I guess that puts me firmly in the amateur camp!)
Fortunately for those who have overdosed on Singapore River scenes, this exhibition presents more than the usual bucolic landscapes typically associated with local watercolourists.
My favourite works in this exhibition are from the Kopitiam series created during the late 1990s to 2000. Seah’s depictions of coffee shop scenes are so realistic that I found it hard to believe these were actually watercolour works. These scenes are perfect illustrations of Seah’s mastery of draughtsmanship, composition, colours and light.
Looking at the stained coffee pots, ceramic urns and the reflection of light on the stainless steel mugs, I could almost smell the fragrance of coffee brewing:
These works made me feel like ordering a kaya toast set meal in an old-school coffee shop. They also made me wonder about how many more years of instruction I’d require from Mr Seah, in order to accomplish work like this!
Journeying from Punggol to the Botanic Gardens to Little India through the eyes of this post-independence artist, it is heart-warming to see beautiful memories of Singapore preserved for posterity.
This simple depiction of Rochor Centre is particularly nostalgic as I would pass it weekly, on my way to Mr Seah’s painting class. In so doing, I’ve had a ringside seat to the slow demolition of the iconic building over the last year:
On the day of the opening, the exhibition venue was bursting at its seams as artists, students and friends gathered to celebrate the launch of the show:
It was clear that Mr Seah is greatly respected and loved by the watercolour community.
Visibly touched, Mr Seah also shared this lovely sentiment with us,
“I want to thank my wife. She also paints, but she gave up her artist life so that I can have an artist life.”
Reminiscing the Singapore Landscape showcases romanticised scenes of everyday Singapore, past and present. These picturesque works invite us to enjoy the narrative formed by our personal nostalgia without too many prescriptive labels or attempts at over-intellectualising the experience. In 2019, we expect to see a whirlwind of Singapore Bicentennial activities attempting to trigger a reconsideration of our pre and post-colonial past.
However, history can be addressed in many ways. Sometimes, a pleasant walk down memory lane on a lazy Sunday afternoon can be infinitely more enjoyable and no less meaningful.
Reminiscing the Singapore Landscape – The Art of Watercolour by Seah Kam Chuan will be held at Orchard Rendezvous Hotel Level 2 from 13 to 25 January 2019, 10 am to 8 pm daily.