Chen Cheng Mei (1927–2020)
February 27th, 2021
CHEN CHENG MEI, who died last December at the age of ninety-three, will be most remembered as the woman behind the Ten Men Art Group. This loose collective of Singapore-based artists made work inspired by their travels around Southeast Asia in the 1960s, and China and India during the 1970s, marking a decisive turn toward a distinctly regional sensibility in Southeast Asian artistic practice and exploring affinities shared across diverse cultures and geographies. This attitude and approach remain crucial in defining the region’s art and curating today. In 1960, Chen initiated a trip to peninsular Malaysia with three fellow artists, which led to a journey a year later with ten participants, headed this time by artist Yeh Chi Wei, whom Chen had proposed lead in her stead. A flurry of excursions followed—to Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Borneo, and beyond. The group met key artists in many places, as well as sketching and photographing in temples and villages, in cities and in the countryside. Exhibitions sharing the resulting works upon the group’s return to Singapore prefigured today’s frequent display of projects arising from Southeast Asian contemporary artists’ residencies throughout the region. Chen’s role in the Ten Men Art Group has often been eclipsed by Yeh’s, and her paintings from this period have enjoyed less prominence than those of her male compatriots, due in part to her reluctance to exhibit during much of her long career. But Chen alone maintained a tireless interest in using her art to find her place in the world, making dozens of research trips through Africa, Asia, the Americas, and elsewhere from the ’70s until the 2000s. “My travels and works attempt to reveal the myriad colors and lives in those countries visited,” she later recalled.
If Chen’s early role in the Ten Men Art Group is less well-known than those of her male counterparts, then her later period of solo journeys is even more underappreciated: She was one of only a small number of Southeast Asian artists whose work engaged with Africa and South Asia during the decades following decolonization. Kenyan Chieftains, 1991, typifies the artist’s whimsical and willfully childlike style, which belied her solid training in both Western and Chinese aesthetics and techniques. The bright hues gleefully rendering swathes of fabric and the simplified crosshatching evoking the appearance of thatched dwellings recur in Chen’s depictions of people and places from across several continents. The Kenyan huts as suggested in the painting are strikingly similar to the attap houses Chen frequently portrayed in works inspired by her travels in Southeast Asia. Rather than pretending to disclose any totalizing ethnographic understanding of foreign cultures, her art expresses a spirit of globally shared humanity, and dramatizes the artist’s joy in its encounter, again and again. Her vivid attention to textiles, scenes of markets and hawkers, as well as plants, birds, and natural environments is equally evident in works picturing locations from Nairobi to New Delhi, Sabah to the Sahara.
Also consistent in her oeuvre is a playful approach to color, often extended across interlocking, semitransparent planes of blue, umber, emerald, and red. From the 1950s onwards, her mostly figurative output was accompanied by sojourns in abstraction, sometimes (as in High Hope, 1971) incorporating latex and other unconventional materials. Beginning in the late ’60s, after a period studying etching and lithography in Paris at Atelier 17 with Stanley William Hayter, Chen’s experiments with the juxtaposition of often not-quite-complementary tones unfolded on canvas and in her printmaking. She insisted that in both mediums, “depth and dimensions have little significance in and of themselves; rather than being cold abstractions of reality, they should aim to be symbolic of larger truths.” Chen would later donate a printing press to Singapore’s Lasalle College of the Arts, having herself studied at another local institution, the prestigious Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, back in 1949. Although she never taught, her employment as a French translator for a Singapore bank and her adventurous, outgoing nature set an unusual example for women in the still male-dominated art worlds of the region. She spoke often of the elation she derived from making art, explaining in a 2008 interview with the National Archives of Singapore, “I’m trying to transfer this happiness, and put it up through the lines and the colors, to the viewer . . . That’s my success.”
Chen Cheng Mei first found this success in painting the orchids cultivated by her horticulturalist father, near her childhood home in one of the city’s leafiest districts. Nature remained an important subject throughout the artist’s six decades of work, as did Singapore itself: She captured the rapid transformation of the small island nation during its decades of postcolonial stability, prosperity, and urbanization, in Trading Room, 1974, even offering a rare and irreverent view of the mundane mechanisms of financial speculation. But Chen’s most significant and lasting contribution is her curious, outward-looking gaze. Her work insistently makes manifest Singapore’s emplacement within Southeast Asia, and also the region’s interconnection with the world.
Roger Nelson is an art historian and a curator at National Gallery Singapore.