Artists We Lost in 2019

loading One of the Terracotta Warriors works in Chinese brush painting that defined the career of Yong Chien Chin.

WORKS OF ART are invested with a certain immortality long after the creator dies. These are tangible and enduring, legacies imbued with the visions, manifestations and expressions of the love, strife and joy of artists, singly or as a coterie. They document, signpost and signify episodic moments, capturing the enthralment and the ennui, the panoramic and the particular, the scintillating colours and inner darkness.

In their honour, what follows are requiems for artists we lost in 2019.

Lim Tong Juan.

On the local front, the prolific Raphael Scott Ahbeng, best known for his highly imaginative abstract landscapes, especially of his Bau hometown in Sarawak, fought a valiant battle against a host of ailments including arthritis, before succumbing on November 28. Kuching-born Raphael would have been 80 on December 13. Trained at the Bath Art Academy, he excelled as a writer, cartoonist, radio commentator and programme director; but mostly as an artist, and a prolific one at that.

Self-taught Cheung Pooi Yip (b. 1936, Penang), a frame-maker by profession and who was accorded a Retrospective by the Penang State Art Gallery in 2014, died on August 11. His early dalliance showed an affinity to the Nanyang Style, and he later produced a semi-abstract bamboo-chick topography of bright colours. Galeri Seni Mutiara (Penang) gave him a posthumous memorial exhibition last December.

Lim Tong Juan (b. 1939), a founding member of the Thursday Art Group and the Penang Teachers Art Circle in the 1960s, spent his later years helping to establish and run museums, some 32 of them. He died on September 10.

Datuk Lee Choon (b. 1935 – d. August 29), who studied Engineering at the Taiwan Normal University, showed a lot of promise in his oil paintings of sceneries and native tribeswomen during his Taiwan student sojourn, but opted for a life in the construction industry.

Early work of Syed Salleh Mustaffa.

Artist-academic Lim Eng Hooi (b. 1939 – d. October 1) was largely inactive due to his health. His tutelage at Ruskin and Byam Shaw in London, apart from the School of the Visual Arts in New York, saw him teaching in various fine art schools, including Universiti Sains Malaysia, where he was head of department once. The mystical conundrum of I-Ching dominates his paintings.

Syed Salleh Mustaffa (b. 1945 – d. May 3), is best remembered as a stalwart of the Utara Group, taking part in its first show in 1988 and Utara’s 30 Years After grand exhibition. He became mobility-challenged after suffering a stroke 13 years ago, and had not painted since. Plantscapes dominated his early works, before he moved into the more decorative Jendela Maya and 2006 Pinggiran forms.

Mohd Sani Mohd Dom (b. 1944, Melaka), a watercolourist lodged in nostalgic kampung and rustic landscapes, was the first notable artist to leave in 2019, on January 5. He was a founding member of the Malaysian Watercolour Society, and was given a major solo exhibition at the National Art Gallery (NAG) in 2012. He won the HKSB Award in 1994, with his Hutan Bakau (1991).

Yong Chien Chin (b. 1952 – d. June 19) delved into the order and strife of the Confucian ideals with his Terracotta Warrior Series, with civilisational allusions of the Han Chinese. He studied for a post-diploma at the Malaysian Institute of Art in 1989, and also had brief tutelages under Anthony Sum, Chung Chen Sun, Yang Sing-sum and David Kwo.

The writer with M. Sani Mohd Dom at the Malaysian Watercolours in Sweden exhibition in Malmo in 1997.

The most sudden passing was of Roselisham “Ise” Ismail (b. 1972), a modern anthropology “outsider artist” known for his Super Fiction caricatures and food-based installations and performances. He died of kidney complications on July 23. Well-travelled, his major works included the Singapore Biennale (2011, six fridges stocked with different sets of groceries); the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) in Brisbane (2012); the Sunshower: Contemporary Art from South-east Asia (Tokyo, 2017); and the Sharjah Biennale (2019). Ise also co-founded the SentAp! art magazine, now defunct.

Requiems also to Professor Madya Dr. Ahmad Suhaimi Md Noor, dean of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris; Nyonya Affair artist Sherin Ng Lee Hua (b. 1952 – d. February 28); and cartoonist Kamaruddin Ismail (d. December 8) of “Kluang Man” and “Usop Santorian” fame.

Roselisham “Ise” Ismail.

Across the causeway, Singapore lost two giants in Choo Keng Kwang (b. 1931 – d. December 14) and the controversial Lee “Yellow Man” Wen (b. 1957 – d. March 3, at 3.30pm). Choo painted landscapes and animals (mainly doves, in the manner of Lee Man Fong) in oils, and was the principal of Sin Hua School and then head of department at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), where he previously completed his certificate course in 1953. Choo was awarded Singapore’s Public Service Medal in 1976 and the Long Service Award in 1986. He stopped painting in 2016 due to ill health, and is the father-in-law of Thai artist Rearnsak Boonyavanishkul.

Lee Wen (Watch vimeo.com370078363), who suffered from Parkinson’s, was a Singapore 2005 Cultural Medallion recipient and won the Joseph Balestier Award for Freedom of Art in 2018. He was invited to the APT in 1999, and staged his Secret Archipelago at the Palais de Tokyo in 2015. He obtained his bachelor and master’s degrees in Fine Art at the Singapore LASALLE College of the Arts,, where he also later taught. Lee Wen graduated from the London Polytechnic in 1990.

Another Cultural Medallion (2001) recipient, China-born Tan Kian Por (b. 1949) who settled in Singapore in 1962, died on August 26. He studied at NAFA from 1968-1970, and formed the Siaw Tao Chinese Seal-Engraving, Calligraphy and Painting Society in 1971, which he headed for 30 years.

Lee Wen reprising his Yellow Man performance art.

Professor Li Chi-Mao (b. 1925, Anhui – d. May 24, Taipei) has museums in his honour in China (Shandong), Taiwan and Malaysia (KL). He was given a Retrospective at Soka Gakkai, KL in 2008, and a solo at the NAG, KL in 2011. He was accorded the Grandmaster Tribute Pavilion to Living Legend Artist at the Art Expo Malaysia, while San Francisco proclaimed November 29 as “Li Chi-Mao Day”. Taiwan’s modernist master Lee Shi-Chi (b. 1938 – d. March 19), nicknamed the Bird of Artistic Variations, was part of the Ton Fan Group and a national policy adviser to the Taiwanese President in 2015.

Indonesia’s artist-poet Jeihan Sukmantoro (b. 1938), known as the “soul catcher” with his iconic portraits of hollow black eyes made famous with his 1965 Gadis, died in Bandung on November 29, aged 81. He explained his “hollow eyes” centrepiece to me in an interview in October 2011 in his Bandung abode: “We are all walking and working in darkness and mystery. We don’t know where we are going, what will happen tomorrow.”

Smith Sein Lynn (b. Yangon – d. May 6), who was selected to take part in the Rub’ A Paint: From Rubber Trees to Art Gallery at the NAG, KL, in June 2018, was a founding member of the seminal Golden Myanmar Artists. Trained in East Germany and based in Bangkok, Thailand, he was awarded The Artist League of Thailand’s Artist of the Year in 2002.

The writer with grandmaster Li Chi-Mao at an exhibition in Liaoning, China in July 2017.

Conceptual artist Huang Yong Ping (b. 1954, Xiamen – d. October 20, Paris) was a member of the Xiamen Dada (1986) and represented France in the 1999 Venice Biennale. He is known, among others things, for placing the books The History of Chinese Painting and The History of Western Art into a washing machine for two minutes (1987) and setting the resultant pulp atop a glass in a box.

Feminist performance cum body artist Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939 – d. March 6) and Arte Povera icon Marisa Merz (b. 1926, Turin – d. July 19) both won the coveted Venice Biennale Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2017 and 2013 respectively. Two sculptor-painters, Iranian Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (b. 1922 – d. April 20) and Lebanese Haguette Caland (b. 1931 – d. September 23) were pencilled in for the 1964 and 2017 Venice Biennale respectively. Caland’s father was Lebanon’s first post-Independence president Bechara El Khoury.

The writer with Jeihan Sukmantoro at his Bandung abode cum studio in October 2011.

British figurative painter Leon Kossoff (b. December 10, 1926 – d. July 4) represented Britain in the 1995 Venice Biennale, and was the subject of a Tate Retrospective in 1996. Nancy R. Kienholz (b. 1943 – d. August 7), who collaborated with her better-known husband Edward, created installations that railed against sexism, racism and child abuse.

Photography lost two greats, namely Robert Frank (b. 1924, Zurich – d. September 9, Nova Scotia) and Terry O’Neill (b. 1938 – d. November 16). Frank is best known for his book The Americans (1958, 1959); he later excelled in filmmaking with titles like Cocksucker Blues. O’Neill, formerly married to Faye Dunaway, had an impressive celebrity portfolio that includes Queen Elizabeth in her 1992 annus horribilis, in which he cracked a horse-riding joke to make her smile. Two other lensmen gone too soon are Megacities’ Michael Wolf (b. 1954, Munich – d. April 24) and Reuters’ Yanni Behrakis (b. 1960 – d. March 2), who covered the 2011 Egyptian uprising.

The writer with Smith Sein Lynn (far left) and his artist sons at his Top Art Studio in Palladium World Shopping Centre in Bangkok in 2018.

The animation-cartoon world lost Ron Smith (b. 1928) of Judge Dredd fame (1979-1994); Kazuhikio Kato a.k.a. Monkey Punch manga artist (b. 1937 – d. April 11), winner of Tokyo Inkpot 2015 Award; Chris Reccardi (d. May 2); Bruce Brickford (b. 1947 – d. April 28); and Kwi Koendoro (b. 1941 – d. August 22).

Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor (b. 1963 – d. March 15, Munich) was the first African-born director of the Venice Biennale (2015) in 210 years and the first non-European director of the Dokumenta (1998-2002).

In art letters, there were Picasso’s biographer John Richardson (b. 1924 – d. March 11) and Andrew Ranard (b. 1949 – d. February 1), who wrote the seminal A Linear and Lateral History of Burmese Painting, and who later set up the Benson Fine Arts Gallery in Singapore from 1992-1998.

Cesar Pelli and the Petronas Twin Towers.

The “Dead Artists Society” list includes: Venezuelan Kinetic-Op artist Carlos Cruz-Diez (b. 1923 – d. July 27); India’s artist of tribal art Haku Shah (b. 1934 – d. March 21); conceptual artist Ronald Jones (b. 1952 – d. August 12); wood-carver James David Esterly (b. 1944 - d. June 21); New York School Mary Abbott (b. 1921 – d. September 9); Mexican Zapotec sculptor-artist Francisco Toledo (b. 1940 – d. September 5, a Prince Claus Award winner in 2000); Australian “Fire Artist” Peter Gardiner (b. 1965, a 2016 Kilgour Prize winner); Macedonia’s Gjorgji “Gjoto” Culagkowski (b. 1947); American Shaped Canvas artist Ed Clark (b. 1926 – d. October 18); Serbian Vladimir Velickovic (b. 1935 – d. August 29); and hobbyist Dan Robbins (b. 1925 – d. April 1), who started the fad of painting by numbers.

Two towering American architects, China-born I.M. Pei (b. 1917 – d. May 16) and Argentine-born Cesar Pelli (b. 1926 – d. July 19) also left. I.M. Pei was best known for his glass-and-steel pyramid for the Louvre Museum in Paris, besides the Bank of China in Hong Kong and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha; his awards included the Pritzker Prize and Praemium Imperiale. Cesar Pelli was the architect of the Petronas Twin Towers and the World Financial Centre in New York.

Indonesian property tycoon-philanthropist Ciputra (b. 1931 – d. November 27) was known in art circles for his massive collection of Hendra Gunawan.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend..

Related Articles