Foo Hong Tatt's Poetry in Paint

By Eugene Quah

September 2023 FOR ART'S SAKE
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Mountain Streams, 1987, 88 x 118 cm, Acrylic on rice paper. This painting is a fine example of Foo’s fusion of Eastern and Western ideas and techniques. It uses rice paper and brush techniques typical in Chinese landscape paintings but uses acrylic and Western linear perspective to achieve depth. “A realistic landscape painting rendered in traditional Chinese style,” Chew Teng Beng puts in his essay, “The Paintings of Foo Hong Tatt”.

FOO HONG TATT was born on 9 April 1940, several months before World War II descended upon Malaya. He recalls hiding with his family at their estate in the hills of Sungai Ara. They also sheltered, with some peril to themselves, two journalists wanted by the Japanese authorities.

Foo hails from a prominent family of landowners in Bayan Lepas who were also involved in the animal feed industry. His grandfather founded the Chung Shan Primary School at Bayan Lepas.

After the war, he started his education at St. George’s in Balik Pulau. Later, he commuted daily by bus to his father’s shop in George Town, and then cycled to St. Xavier’s Institution, where he attended secondary school.

At St. Xavier’s, Foo’s art teachers were Chee Wee Sun and Bro. Joseph McNally. The latter was a sculptor and artist of some renown who dedicated 37 years of his life to teaching art in Malaysia and Singapore. He was also the founder of the LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore. After finishing secondary school with a distinction in art, Foo tried unsuccessfully for an architecture scholarship. He then applied for and received a scholarship from the Institute of International Education to study art, first at Lincoln College, and later at the University of Illinois. “[Bro. Joseph] played a big part in getting me the scholarship to the US,” says Foo. Bro. Joseph would also recommend him for a job in Malaysia and Singapore after he graduated.

Baboon Cliff, 1995, 152 x 100 cm, Acrylic on canvas. Inspired by the landscape of East Africa. He was appointed Head of the Creative Arts Faculty at the International School of Tanganyika, Tanzania in 1995. Chew Teng Beng.

Poet Painter

“Does the artist dominate or does nature control the poet?” asked Bro. McNally rhetorically, almost half a century ago in the pamphlet for Foo’s “Poetry in Paint” solo exhibition in Singapore. “For Foo Hong Tatt,” he explained, “the answer is clear. He is the instrument of nature. He has set his soul at one with the universe in the best Taoist sense. Thus the artist, controlled by nature, himself dominates his canvas.”

Foo says his unique painting style came gradually, and he did not notice it until 1967. Edward Betts of the University of Illinois recalled, “Hong Tatt Foo, when I first knew him a number of years ago, was influenced by the American abstract-expressionist style of painting. That was a logical place for him to develop his own painterly language.” Betts considered his former student “truly a poet-painter”.

Dolores D. Wharton also noticed the spiritual elements in Foo’s art. In her book, Contemporary Artists of Malaysia: A Biographic Survey, which was the first academic survey ever written on Malaysian art, she wrote, “Much of Foo’s inspiration is derived from his religious beliefs (Bahá’í Faith). He injects these feelings in his art. He paints as though the sky opened and brought forth rich beautiful colours.” She added, “His forms are expressively free and unrestrained yet skilfully controlled by an accomplished craftsman.”

Foo, by the time he was working in Singapore, had become a member of the Bahá’í faith. He was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the faith, serving alongside the notable female rights activist, Shirin Fozdar. It was also during his two-year teaching stint there that he had the opportunity to study with Chinese painting master, Chen Wen Shi.

Mystery of the Wild, 2015, 24 x 30 inches, Acrylic on canvas. This piece, exhibited and put up for sale during the exhibition at St. Xavier’s Institution, is typical of his abstract landscapes, with hidden elements such as human faces and birds. His signature, written in Chinese characters, incorporates the year written in Arabic numerals.

Spiritual Amalgamation of East and West

“I do not think about what to paint before getting started,” Foo told Choon Kwee Kim of The Star, during one of his regular visits to Penang back in 1997. “The subconscious is 10 times more intelligent than the conscious,” he believes. He tells me he never does any studies or sketches. He begins a new work by looking at the blank canvas and getting into a kind of meditative state of mind.

His daughter, Shu Shu, recalls, “My father used to paint in the room next to mine. How many late nights have I tiptoed in to see these fantastical works spring to life from his mind’s eye? How many times have I wondered at the look of reverence, of prayerful concentration as he sought to convey his inner soul?” She says the American press once described her father’s work as “a Sung [Dynasty] landscape painted by abstractionist Paul Jenkins”.

Similar to Chinese painting techniques such as xiěyì (写意), which emphasises uninterrupted flow, he usually completes his paintings in one continuous session. “Sometimes I complete a large painting in one day,” he says. He uses a “wet on wet” technique where he would spray or pour water on the canvas and splash colour. Using his fingers, he would guide the flow of the wet paint to create swirls and textures, led by his subconscious. Most of his works are acrylic on canvas.

Valley of Joy and Delight, 1999, 120 x 180 cm, Acrylic on canvas. This painting was used on the cover of the book, Foo Hong Tatt—Paradise Regained, featuring his life’s work. The name of this work was probably inspired by the book, The Seven Valleys, by Baháʼu’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í faith.

An Artist's Artist

Tan Chee Kuan, the author of the seminal book, Penang Artists 1920-1990, recalls, “I first knew of Foo Hong Tatt in 1990 when he submitted three images of his works for my book.” Choo Beng Teong, one of Southeast Asia’s finest wildlife artists, who is also his nephew, passed the images for the book to Tan on his uncle’s behalf, and later arranged for them to meet. “I was very impressed by his artworks,” said Tan, “as well as his artist’s statement—‘I combine the Eastern philosophy, the Baha’i teachings, and the Oriental and Western aesthetics and techniques to bring about a harmony of the elements... glorifying peace, love, joy and contentment, through painting the landscapes of my mind.’”

Syed Ahmad Jamal, a fellow American-trained Malaysian artist, who was once the Director of the National Art Gallery of Malaysia, said his works “are blends of western and oriental aesthetics which at times transcend to the spiritual realm”. Foo’s early works—64 of them—were once exhibited at Balai Ampang of the AIA building in 1966, which was graced by Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman. Some of these early works are now in the National Art Gallery and in Lim Chong Keat’s private collection.

In 1999, at New York, Foo told Chew Teng Beng, who established the Fine Arts Department at Universiti Sains Malaysia, that while many had described him as a poet-painter and his work as poetry in paint, “I personally feel that my paintings are the results of meditations on the harmonies in Nature. To me, they’re like prayers. They’re food for the soul.”

  • [1] “Pameran Lukisan-Lukisan, Encik Foo Hong Tatt, Perasmian Oleh Menteri Hal Ehwal Dalam Negeri, Kuala Lumpur; 27.6.1966”, Ref. No.: 2001/0030733W, Arkib Negara
  • [2] Alpha Gallery (1971), “Exhibitions of Alpha Gallery: collection of ephemera materials, 1971-2012. Poetry in paint by Foo Hong Tatt, Alpha Gallery”, Donated by Lim Chong Keat to the National Library Board of Singapore
  • [3] Choong Kwee Kim (1997), “Spiritual meaning in works of abstract art”, The Star. Published 18 July 1997.
  • [4] Foo Hong Tatt (1999). Interview. Conducted by Dr. Chew Teng Beng, 3 October 1999. New York, US.
  • [5] Foo Hong Tatt (2023). Interview. Conducted by Eugene Quah Ter-Neng. 5 January 2023. Tanjung Tokong, Penang
  • [6] Foo Hong Tatt (2023). Speech at St. Xavier’s Institution, 6 January 2023.
  • [7] Shu Shu Costa (1999). “Art as Worship”, The American Bahá'í, pg. 20-21. Published April 9 1999
  • [8] St. Xavier’s Institution (December 2022), “Welcome Home & Special Thanks–Foo Hong Tatt”, Commemorative book given to guests.
  • [9] Tan Chee Khuan (1990), “Penang Artists 1920-1990”
  • [10] Tan Chee Khuan (2000), “Foo Hong Tatt–Paradise Regained”
Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher and writer who is working on a book tentatively called “Illustrated Guide to the North Coast of Penang”. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad.