For the average viewer, archival photographs mostly serve as a means to understand the past—occasionally fascinating in uncovering unknown events, but mostly passed over for more exciting, vibrant images.
Not so for Singaporean artist May Oon, whose fifth solo exhibition TIME/OUT opens at Goshen Art Gallery in its new Millenia Walk premises. Relying on archival photographs of Chinese coolies, Oon rendered her version of these photographs using oil and charcoal, presenting 14 new works that pay tribute to the unnamed immigrants who helped build Singapore. Not wanting her works to look photo-realistic, Oon also cropped or removed characters from some photographs to give emphasis, sometimes leaving the background in a blurred wash. Apart from the laborious use of charcoal to achieve her large drawings measuring over a metre each, Oon utilised the humble sackcloth as a canvas for her oil paintings. Also known as the jute, she had to stitch pieces of the cloth together before ironing and treating them—a behind-the-scenes effort that resonates with her subjects’ labour upon labour.
The artist May Oon, in front of her work. Photo by Julien Koh Photography for ArtHop.
Exhibition view of TIME/OUT. Photo by Julien Koh Photography for ArtHop.
“I love working with charcoal. It’s very tactile. The drawing process is rudimentary, but once you do the outline, you start working with your fingers and the eraser to create the intensity of the black and to take away for the whites, creating the contrast. It’s a medium I love a lot,” enthuses Oon.
TIME/OUT is a continuation from her previous exhibition OVER/TIME, which was held in 2015. Similarly, it featured early immigrant workers, with one of the works now in the collection of the Indian Heritage Centre. Partly, the inspiration for these series of works came from her research. Tracing her ancestry to Tan Teng Poh, the father of Tan Kheam Hock, a well-known towkay¸ his 1922 obituary stated that he contracted with the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company to supply coolie labour from 1901 till the time of his death, with as many as 5,000 coolies earning their living under him.
May Oon, The Rickshaw Man. Charcoal, 130x155cm. Image courtesy of Goshen Art Gallery.
May Oon, Our Rice Bowls. Oil on Canvas, 165x130cm. Image courtesy of Goshen Art Gallery.
May Oon, Rest & Relax. Oil on Canvas. 98x150 cm. Image courtesy of Goshen Art Gallery.
“This is a tribute to the little people, the ones who basically built Singapore. All the pioneers have tributes and roads named after them, whereas the little people have none. I also wanted to remind Singaporeans of their roots, that’s where their forefathers came from. And perhaps to be a little bit more sympathetic to the migrant workers today, to respect them for what they do—building roads, HDBs… That was my thinking process,” says Oon.
In fact, people remain the main muse in Oon’s artistic oeuvre. Her first solo exhibition showcased paintings with a Peranakan theme at the Arts House in 2007, which led to a commission for the Peranakan Museum’s permanent collection. Oon’s second solo show in 2010 Tea with Mr. Lee was well-received as well, and saw the artist depicting the late MM Lee during the ’60s and ’70s in oil and charcoal over a three-year period. Following that, she explored issues of history and memory through digitally recorded footage based on the events of 9/11. The images spoke to her, and she shares of a particular example where a Japanese man talks about how his son was one of the victims. His son’s last words were “I cannot breathe”, and the man had his hands around his face as a gesture. Oon saved this image among others from the videos, creating works that culminated in the show Deliverance.
“I was so fixated on watching all these documentaries, over again and again. Many people asked me why I was doing this, but it was something that I wanted to do. It’s not all the time about selling, but about what you feel in the moment. The images spoke to me somehow, and I had to do it,” she recalls.
Perhaps her love for depicting people is carried forward from her professional experience as a journalist with Times Publications in Singapore and Hong Kong. Turning 62 this year, Oon only started painting at 40 when she quit her job to commit full-time to raising her daughter. She sees herself painting into her old age, citing her passion as meditative and never causing her to tire even though she might stand for hours; the charcoal soot hardly a deterrence either.
May Oon, Man's Best Friend. Oil on Canvas, 100x100cm. Image courtesy of Goshen Art Gallery.
May Oon, Church at the End of the Street. Charcoal, 145x123 cm. Image courtesy of Goshen Art Gallery.
May Oon, Mother's Helpers.Charcoal, 130x130 cm. Image courtesy of Goshen Art Gallery.
While she enthuses for her love of monochrome and hard-edged figures, as well as her fondness in exploring her medium, it is clear that Oon’s subjects remain close to her heart. During the tour of her exhibition, she pauses at each painting to highlight the very actions taking place—be it simple acts of working, resting, or playing. One painting of majies stood out:
“I love these ladies, they took care of me. In my time, there were no helpers from countries such as the Philippines or Indonesia. But there were the majies, who were like our second mothers. In my house, there was Xiong Jie, and she would be the one to take me to the dentist, among other things. They were very loyal, they stayed for years and eventually returned to China when they were in their seventies and couldn’t work anymore. This is a tribute to them too.”
TIME/OUT is on show till 7 May 2017 at Goshen Art Gallery, 9 Raffles Boulevard, #02-19/20, Millenia Walk, Singapore 039596. Opening hours are 11am - 9pm daily. Click here for more information.