Penang State Art Gallery Gets a Windfall of Masterpieces

loading Abdullah Ariff, Tanjung Bungah Village, 1954, Watercolour on paper.

ANOTHER LARGESSE of artworks, 330 in all, has been donated by Datuk Dr. Tan Chee Khuan to the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG). The magnanimous collection is valued at an estimated RM1.3mil.

With this latest tranche donated from 2012 until 2020, Dr. Tan, who is a collector-gallerist-artist and deputy chairman of the PSAG, has donated a total of 432 works over the years, though this time it’s partly a family affair as a few belonged to his children, Chien Li and Ee-Lene.

The centrepieces are two watercolours by pioneer Abdullah Ariff, namely Limestone Hills and Tanjung Bungah Village; and oil on canvas by the father-and-son Indonesian masters Abdullah Suriosubroto (1878-1941) and A. Sudjono (1911-1991).

Cheah Ewe Hoon, Kek Lok Si Temple, 1950, Watercolour on paper.

Suriosubroto’s is a mountain landscape (44cm x 59cm) while Sudjono’s is a large work entitled Harvest (126cm x 200cm). There is also a watercolour, Endau Rompin 2, 1991, by “Renaissance Man” Yeoh Jin Leng (born 1929).

Prominent, too, is an 1860 sketch entitled Leaving Penang by Englishman George Lewis, though little is known of him. As Dr. Tan single-handedly wrote the template of Malaysian pioneers and is the biggest single collector, the main menu is from eight designated pioneers according to his raft of criteria, namely Abdullah Ariff (1904-1960), Datuk Chuah Thean Teng a.k.a. Teng (1912-2008), Khaw Sia (1913-1984), Kuo Ju Ping nee Khor Seng Chye (1908-1962), Lee Cheng Yong (1913-1974), Datuk Hoessein Enas (1924-1995), Datuk Tay Hooi Keat (1910-1989), and Yong Mun Sen (1896-1962). All in all, his donations of pioneer works total 105.

Dr. Cheng Haw Chien, Two Swallows, 1948.

Among the donated works are several by gilt-edged artists. These are mostly on low-brow paper, but nevertheless still significant. Most of the pioneer works, 45 of them are by Ju Ping; followed by Khaw Sia with 38, and Cheng Yong with 17.

Five Ju Ping are oil, including a self-portrait, and one that is believed to be his only known extant Chinese brush painting, Tiger (86cm x 32.5cm). There are 26 watercolours, including one on the artist and his wife. Four pastels, two mixed media, four sketches and three ink drawings complete the dossier.

Of the Khaw Sia, there are two oil portraits with the rest being watercolours save for three sketches. Cheng Yong, arguably the most versatile among the pioneers, is represented by a wooden sculpture too.

There seems to be a plethora of orchid pictures, with even Mun Sen having a go in Chinese brush scroll, while Hooi Keat has an ink sketch of an Australian scenery, and Teng an ink on paper and a woodcut.

From Dr. Tan’s overall donations to the PSAG, some are complete sets: Abdullah Ariff (2), Khaw Sia (39), Ju Ping (45), Cheng Yong (20), Lim Khoon Hock a.k.a Toya (3), Lee Kah Yeow (3), Zakaria Noor (2), Zulkifli Yusoff (10), Dr. Jolly Koh (3), Dr. Zakaria Ali (5), Heng Eow Lin (6), Chew Teng Beng (5), Askandar Unglerht (10) and Ng Hon Loong (10).

Of the post-pioneer deceased artists, the biggest names are Datuk Ibrahim Hussein (1936-2009), John Lee Joo For (1929-2017), Tan Choon Ghee (1930-2010), “Toya” (1943-2017) and artist-philanthropist Lee Kah Yeow (1901-1995).

Lee Cheng Yong, Lady, Wooden sculpture.

The iconic Ib, as Ibrahim Hussein is popularly known, is represented by a 24cm x 20cm drawing (To Your Paradise), while Toya, dubbed the Seurat of Malaysian Batiks, has a rare nude sketch done during his 1971 solo in Australia and another ink drawing. The six Joo For works comprise two impressive self-portraits among the four oil/enamel on canvas and two mixed media. Joo For was also a brilliant playwright, and like Ib, boasted RCA (Royal College of Art) pedigree. Of the Lee Kah Yeow, two are Chinese brush paintings and one calligraphy.

Dr. Tan has donated four Choon Ghee. In September 2017, Choon Ghee’s widow Kam Hye Sin donated 124 works (1958-2000) to the PSAG valued at about RM1mil. The PSAG also has 35 volumes of the artist’s lifetime sketches (bought in 2013).

Two oil portraits mark Rome-trained Ho Khay Beng (1934-1986)’s additions while his brother, Hee Khim (1948-2005) has three batiks. Other names include Zakaria Noor (1924-1999), Wong Nai Chin (1943-2000), Chia Tick Chiam (1946-2014), Raphael Scott Ahbeng (1939-2019), T. Selvaratnam (1920-2008), Fung Yow Chork (1918-2013), Ong Soo Keat (1944-2017), Lim Kung Chooi (1944-2002) and A.B. Ibrahim (1925-1977).

Also in the donation are works by three artists accorded PSAG retrospectives, namely Datuk Tay Mo Leong (Langkawi watercolour), Khoo Sui-hoe (an oil on canvas beach scene) and Syed Thajudeen (“Waiting for Lover” series).

World-class humanist photographer Eric Peris (born 1939) joins the collection with two Penang-linked works, Statue of Capt Francis Light and the Sri Rambai Cannon, both 2011. Of other 30-something-borns, Chew Teng Beng is represented by the iconic 1985 Siew Siew watercolour on handmade paper, and there is a post-Bosnia ethnic cleansing work by Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri.

Of the 40-something-borns, Dr. Jolly Koh has a watercolour, an oil on paper and a sketch; Heng Eow Lin’s two oil works including one oil-collage, Seated Nude; while Chuah Siew Teng, the eldest Teng scion, is represented by a batik, a watercolour and woodcut print.

John Lee Joo For, Self-Portrait 2, Oil and enamel on canvas.

Dr. Jolly Koh’s wife, Liu Jing, is also represented with two works.

Chang Fee Ming, arguably the most expensive watercolourist in Southeast Asia, has a 12.5cm x 20cm watercolour of a Thai woman (carrying basket) and four sketches.

In the Chinese brush painting department, Penang-born artist-academic Dr. Cheng Haw Chien’s work of swallows enters the PSAG portals, as do Nanyang AFA-trained Rosalynn Teoh Phaik Eng, Japan-trained Yap “Sparrow King” Hong Ngee and of course, Kah Yeow.

There is a big slew of watercolours including those by the evergreen and versatile Paris-trained Long Thien Shih, Penang’s standard-bearers Khoo Cheang Jin, Ch’ng Kiah Kiean, bird artists Ong Beng Teong and Ong Soo Keat (1941-2017), and veteran “Orchid King” Teh Siew Joo (born 1930).

Dr. Tan, who also paints, even donated one of his oil on canvas on the Nigerian internet scam of 2008.

Author-academic-artist Dr. Zakaria Ali has two oil on canvas, including one on the 1973 Mid-East War. Zulkifli Yusoff has four 1999 oil from the time of his Reformasi Series. The once wanderlust Shamrul Bahari Abdul Mutalib, finally has his day in the sun with four works, including an oil and a monoprint.

The younger set is not forgotten, with award-winning Tan Kai Sheuan, 36, and Renny Chen, both Taiwan-trained.

Dr. Zakaria Ali, Sungai Lembing, 1995-96, Oil on canvas.

Three other Malaysian-borns in the US – Lim Chan Hong (born 1939), Foo Hong Tat (born 1940) and Lee Long Looi (born 1942) – have had three, three and five works respectively. The foreign sidewinder has works of artists from Australia, Austria, China, Egypt, Holland, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Italy, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Russia, the UK and the US.

Peter Harris (1923-2009), the first superintendent of art in Malaya and the founder of the Wednesday Art Group, is classified under the UK. There are 10 works, mostly drawings, a watercolour and a woodcut.

Singapore is headed by Indonesian-born Goh Beng Kwan (born 1937) with two inimitable collages, with Tan Kay Nguan, Penang-born Khor Ean Ghee and Wan Soon Kam also represented. Rearngsak Boonyavanishkul (born 1961), the Hyper-Realist Thai-born with Singapore PR, is represented by a lithograph (2/30).

China-born American David Kwo (1919-2003) departs from his Kim The Black Cat “mascot” to paint a nursing sow. (A Singapore PR in 1992, David Kwo had donated works valued at USD625,000 to the Lee Kong Chian Museum).

The Australians include works by Evelyn Dillon (1945- 2012), once domiciled in KL, and six aboriginal artists, the better known being Kevin Namatjira (1958), from the famous Namatjira clan, and two Papunya dot artists (Janie Karla and Sydney Daniels).

From left: Yeoh Soon Hin (State Exco for Tourism and Creative Economy), Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow and wife, Lee Khai (Chairman of PSAG) and Datuk Dr. Tan Chee Khuan (Deputy Chairman of PSAG).

Bali sojourners Austrian Roland Strasser (1885/1895-1974) and Rudolf Bonnet (Holland, 1895-1978) are represented by an oil on board and two drawings respectively. China’s artists include Zhou Pingguang, who was the first from

China to exhibit in the then Soviet Union in 1989; Bai Dhen (born 1928), a teacher of Tan Changrong; and Singapore-based Zhou Yiying (born 1942).

Dr. Tan’s donations are commemorated with a 210-page monograph and an exhibition at the PSAG (3rd floor gallery) officiated by Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow on November 8. During the launch, Chow announced that the Penang Art District project envisaged on a 9-acre site near Gat Lebuh Macallum will begin next year.

Note: The Penang State Museum and Art Gallery has been closed (at least from November 9 to December 6) during the Conditional Movement Control Order.

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.

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