Learning > Inspiration

Senior artists prove age is no barrier to pursuing passion

Malavika Menon on 18 Feb 2020

The Straits Times


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Visual artist Kartika Affandi, 85, began her love affair with art as a young child, painting live subjects under the watchful eye of her father, Indonesia's modern art pioneer Affandi.


Once at a market, father and daughter painted a cow, but while Affandi's cow was untethered and wild, Kartika's was gentle and docile.


''Papa told me, 'You have brought your femininity, your personality into your work. Never lose that essence,''' Kartika said.


Eight decades later, she is still putting paint to canvas, building on her father's legacy. She recently visited Singapore's Ion Art Gallery, where she took part in an exhibition titled, If Walls Could Speak, organised by online curated art platform Mayinart.


Her latest work, Japanese Temple, is available on Mayinart's website (mayinart.com), along with more than 1,300 works by 105 artists.


After a troubled marriage came to an end when she was in her 30s, Kartika took care of her eight children and found less time to commit to her art.


''I told myself I must not stop. I imagined myself in a mental race with the male artists around me.''


She pushed ahead with her artistic career, joining a painting exhibition in Yogyakarta in 1957, which showcased works by women artists for the first time.


Through her foray into the Western art community, she brought exposure and recognition to female artists in South-east Asia. In her 40s, Kartika returned to the role of an art student, taking up mechanical preservation and restoration of art objects at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria.


As an administrator of Affandi Museum in Yogyakarta, she oversees the galleries exhibiting her family's work and looks forward to passing on her legacy to the next generation. ''


When I began painting without my father's influence, I began to recognise my artistic brand. It was at this point that my father said I was ready to go on without his guidance,'' she said.




Perseverance and patience go hand in hand for Chinese calligraphy master Tan Siah Kwee, 71.


As a young student in 1950s Singapore, he was hand-picked to pursue Chinese calligraphy as an extra-curricular activity in school.


He credits his peer, the late artist Pan Shou who died in 1999, as one of the positive influences in his calligraphy.


Tan, who founded the Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore in 1968, has seen the art form through its lean times in Singapore.


Originally started as a small interest group by Tan and his peers, the society grew to become a premier institute for the art form in Singapore. Riffling through newspaper clippings of the society at its current location in Waterloo Street, Tan pointed to an article questioning if Chinese calligraphy was a dying art.


In the 1980s, as English-medium education came to the fore, interest in Chinese calligraphy waned.


''It was a difficult time for us. Thrice, I planned to dissolve the society, but pulled back at the last minute.''


As the society's membership dropped to 12, Tan and his colleagues adopted innovative methods to maintain the society's relevance.


''We carried out fundraising activities and conducted exhibitions to attract people back to the art form,'' he said.


As they moved to the arts housing belt in Waterloo Street, he juggled the society's venue expenses with his modest earnings as a teacher. He has taught at a number of schools, including Tampines Junior College, where he was the head of department for languages.


He added that his family's encouragement was instrumental to his success.


Today, the society boasts a steady intake of students - including politicians, senior citizens and nonChinese students - and has more than 600 members.


But Tan, who estimates he has taught about 10,000 students over the last few decades, still calls himself a ''cultural beggar''.


''I am happy to ask for funding and outreach for the sake of the art form,'' he adds.


He received the Cultural Medallion for his contribution to the visual arts in 2000.


He believes the values instilled in him through the art form in his early years have shaped his identity.


He says: ''This art form can change your character, it teaches you humility and patience.


''Art is not meant for profiteering, it is a treasure to be shared.''




Born in colonial Singapore in 1940, Robert Yeo witnessed the birth of the nation in 1965 and its growing pains through the early years.


His love of literature was sparked at an early age and, with it, an appreciation for local writers.


A stint in London in the 1960s to pursue his post-graduate studies impressed upon him the role of local writers in building an artistic tradition true to Singapore.


"The only way for us to create a Singapore tradition in theatre was by writing our own plays," said Yeo.


Six years after his return from the United Kingdom, he staged his first play, Are You There, Singapore? (1974), which explored the emotions of Singaporean students living abroad while the country was in its infancy as an independent state.


Now regarded as a local classic, Are You There, Singapore? will see another possible revival by The Stage Club this year.


"I think the choice of the play is relevant because in this play, this group of young Singaporeans are trying to control their lives in an open society.


"I hope Singaporean audiences today will be able to engage with that and raise questions of identity and change," said Yeo.


Looking forward, he is hopeful about the future of national literature and theatre, commending the works of playwright Alfian Sa'at and theatre company Wild Rice for their original and boundary-defying works.


He advised artists to step out of their comfort zones and chase new content to present.


Yeo actively wrote and published works throughout his career as a literature teacher and was also adjunct professor of creative writing at Singapore Management University.


Now 80, he has redirected his creativity in a new direction: opera.


"I used to think I would never touch opera, but I suddenly realised that cliched situations can give you the opportunity to explore raw emotions," he said.


He wrote his first libretto, Fences, in 2006.


The love story between a Malay woman and a Chinese man struggling to reunite during the tumultuous 1960s is a reflection of the multicultural stories and complex characters Yeo brings to life through his writing.


This year, he will revisit the tale through Fences Of The Heart, a vocal showcase that will be performed at the Esplanade concourse on Saturday.




With a career spanning healthcare, volunteer work and arts administration, Dr Uma Rajan, 79, redefined the role of a contributor in Singapore's performing arts community.


At the tender age of nine, she left home and family behind in Singapore to pursue an education in Indian classical dance in Chennai, India, as the fledgling dance form had yet to gain traction in Singapore.


"I never saw dance as a profession, but a part of my personal identity. It was part and parcel of my life," said Dr Uma.


She juggled her dance aspirations with a blossoming career in healthcare, studying medicine at the University of Malaya (now National University of Singapore) and serving as director of eldercare and school health services at the Ministry of Health.


Taking part in numerous fundraisers and charity events as a dancer, she gained acclaim in the local arts scene, until her aspirations as a performer were cut short at age 26 due to poor health.


Venturing into new territory, she embraced her new role as an arts administrator and adviser.


"I channelled my interests in art in a different way, learning from new experiences and researching new methods of arts administration," she said.


She advised artists on production matters and took a keen interest in promoting performing groups through funding and exposure opportunities, staying connected to the arts community through her involvement.


As the first Indian charter member in the first committee of the National Arts Council, Dr Uma found herself in a unique position to support and promote traditional artists.


"Singapore's arts scene is vibrant and artists have begun adopting unconventional approaches to their performances," she said.


Sitting on numerous panels, including the National Arts Council's (NAC) Cultural Medallion and NAC Arts Resource Panel, as well as the Joo Chiat Community Arts and Culture Club of the People's Association, she continues to find purpose in arts and culture management.


She chaired the NAC's inaugural Festival of Asian Performing Arts, which debuted in 1993, and two more editions of the festival in later years.


"Chairing the festivals was a milestone in my career. It allowed me to bring traditional artists to the fore and put Singapore on the map in the global arts community."


Age, she said, has served her well, broadening her experience and network within the arts community and deepening her understanding of different art forms.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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