Liu Kang has long been considered a pioneer of Nanyang art. Alongside fellow Chinese emigrés who would all call Singapore home, Liu painted the tropics in a vibrant blend of Eastern and Western artistic styles.
His paintings depict Southeast Asia as a rustic paradise. Bright colours and simple, elegant forms fill his canvases—from verdant palm trees in Life by the River (1975), to luscious and succulent fruits in his numerous still lifes. But Liu’s idyllic realm is predominantly populated by women, who often appear as bare-breasted, willing objects of the artist’s watchful gaze.
Visions of Bali
To be female in Liu’s works is to be passive and submissive to a powerful and privileged man. A photograph from the artist’s archive shows a middle-aged Liu clutching the shoulder of a topless girl during a trip to Sabah in 1969, the caption (translated into English) reading “My Girl Friend at the ‘Long House’”.
Here, Liu appears to exert control over a girl whose youth, gender, race, and possibly socio-economic status potentially renders her powerless to resist. The assertion that she is his girlfriend further assumes that his attention is mutually reciprocated, even though the numerous imbalances between them may suggest otherwise.
In his paintings, Liu gains complete control over the scenes he creates. The already-uncomfortable dynamics in the photograph are magnified tenfold and considering race only worsens this gendered power imbalance. As a Chinese artist who painted indigenous Balinese women, Liu’s paintings present foreign cultures in a way that implies their exotic and supposedly primitive nature.
For example, artist Ho Tzu Nyen noted that Liu’s Masks (Bali) (1953) depicts two women surrounded by traditional Balinese masks hung on a wall, with the masks decontextualized from their purpose. His focus on the formal elements of the masks centres Liu’s fascination with their stylisations while disregarding their sacred cultural contexts.
Instead, Liu echoes the masks’ stylisations in painting the women in the composition. His artistic style reflects the perspective of a foreigner appropriating a culture for his own intentions. Not to mention that the two women are overtly sexualised; Liu’s framing places their nudity at the centre of the composition.
These issues in Liu’s practice are unsettling. At the same time, Liu has undeniably influenced the trajectory of Singaporean art. He pioneered a distinct style that helped form a unique national visual culture in the post-independence era.
It would ignore the fact that many of Liu’s subjects could not reject being photographed or painted, or that some of Liu’s compositions represent intrusions into local practices meant to be kept private, as depicted by his 1997 painting Bathers. So how can we better understand and confront Liu’s depictions of female submission and passivity?
What’s in a gaze?
It must be said that this paint-embedded misogyny is not unique to Liu. The theory of the male gaze applies to hundreds of films, paintings, and photographs across history. Liu’s work is one example of how systemic gender inequalities manifest in art.
For the male artist, the woman he depicts is an empty vessel for him to fill with his emotions and ideals. In most cases, she has little to no significance beyond what the man imposes on her.
Further, the artist creates this woman in his art solely for a male audience. The spectator becomes a stand-in for the artist himself, who takes pleasure in looking at the female artistic object that the artist has painted. Or as put another way by the critic John Berger, “Men act and women appear.”
This relationship between the male voyeur and the female object leads to even more insidious effects. When art reflects sexist worldviews, women inevitably internalise such sexism. The woman comes to see herself through the lens of a man. Her predicament is not only socially imposed but also becomes self-perpetuated and thus difficult to escape. Her view of herself—something she ostensibly has autonomy over—becomes something she does not even realise has been ceded to the man’s perspective.
Between depicting and spectating
Let’s return to Liu. His positioning of women as objects of the male gaze is obvious. Over and over, he paints anonymous Balinese women with downcast eyes. The turned-away gaze suggests humility and submission, inviting the male viewer to look at her body.
Liu often deliberately paints women’s chests in a direct frontal view, sometimes even unnaturally in order to accentuate the fullness of their curves. His depictions of women objectify their bodies, meaning that they have no agency to look upon the viewer as an equal.
Where is Liu in all of this? As the artist, he is the ultimate authority over his subjects and his painting. To make his power all the more obvious, Liu frequently depicted scenes of male artistic creation. These self-conscious artworks emphasise his total creative control. In the view of Singaporean art historian T. K. Sabapathy, the female model in the artwork is now the object of three men: the artist in the painting, the male spectator, and Liu himself.
Nowhere is this dynamic more obvious than in the painting, Artist and Model (1954), in which Liu paints his fellow artist Chen Wen Hsi sketching a Balinese girl. The contrast between the artist and the model is apparent. The male artist is fully clothed in Western-style clothing, while his model dons a cultural dress, with a red flower in her hair.
He acts while she sits passively with her eyes turned towards the earth. Even the chairs they sit on indicate a subtle hierarchy. Throughout, Liu remains the master of the entire scene, the one who crystallises this gendered hierarchy in his painting.
However, paintings like Liu’s reflect how a man’s freedom might come at the expense of a woman’s, reflecting how broader patriarchal social structures might entrench a woman’s submission. As feminist scholar Manon Garcia has analysed, female submission, throughout history, has been an expected norm; a result of the social structures that prevent women from exerting freedom in the same way a man can.
But the way Liu paints women obscures this fact. In his paintings, submission seems to be an essential condition of the Balinese woman, rather than the result of men’s domination. In reality, their submission is one that is enforced onto them by social norms. For a woman living in a tourism-dependent community such as Bali, both the social and monetary costs of freedom from these norms can be incredibly high.
In looking at Liu’s works, we must engage with these power dynamics embedded within his canvases. If not, we would accept submission as an unchallengeable truth of a woman’s experience. We would condone a narrative of Singaporean art that celebrates female submission as something to be gawked at on gallery walls.
Our active critique lets us appreciate the mastery of Liu’s practice while being aware of its inherent injustices, offering a nuanced understanding of the idyllic beauty captured in his works. I return to film theorist Laura Mulvey, the woman who conceptualised the theory of the male gaze in the first place: “It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it.”
Check out Liu Kang’s work for yourself over at National Gallery Singapore’s DBS Singapore Gallery.