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Liu Kang


Born in 1911 in Yongchun, China, a six-year-old Liu Kang moved with his family to Muar, Malaya where his father purchased a rubber plantation. Liu attended Chung Hwa School and then Chinese High School in Singapore, and was sent to China to continue his secondary school education in Jinan University Middle School in Shanghai.


During the school holidays, Liu attended a two-month long art course at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts. Recognising his talent for art, Liu was allowed to enrol in the academy, starting his formal art education in the second year of the art programme. At the academy, he learnt much under the mentorship of his principal Liu Haisu. During this time, he would also come to know the sister of his fellow artist Chen Jen Hao, Chen Jen Ping, who would become his wife ten years later.


Graduating from the academy in 1928 together with Chen Jen Hao, Liu travelled to Paris, France to further his art education at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière from 1929 to 1933. In this new artistically rich environment, he found great inspiration in the works of Gauguin, van Gogh, Matisse and Cézanne.


Completing his course at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Liu returned to Shanghai and joined the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts as its youngest professor, teaching Western Painting. In 1937, shortly after marrying Chen Jen Ping, Shanghai fell to the Japanese Invasion and the couple moved to Malaya. For five years, Liu taught at the Nan Chiau Teachers’ Training College and Chung Cheng High School in Singapore. When the Japanese army eventually reached Singapore in 1942, Liu, his wife and Chen Jen Hao immediately moved to Muar where he opened a coffeeshop with his brother-in-law. In their haste to avoid the war, Liu left behind many of his paintings in Singapore. To escape Japanese prosecution of the intelligentsia in Muar, he moved alone to Singapore soon after to work as a commercial sign painter.

During his time in Malaya, Liu witnessed war atrocities committed by the Japanese army against Chinese men, women and children. The memories of what he had seen haunted him and in 1946, when he moved with his family to Singapore after the Japanese Occupation was over, he published Chop Suey, a multi-volume book of illustrations depicting in sometimes graphic detail the horrors that the Japanese army had inflicted on people in Malaya.


Back in Singapore, Liu began serving as the president of the Society of Chinese Artists, which had a far-reaching membership and influence in Southeast Asia. He reconnected with old Shanghai Academy schoolmates and fellow artists from the society such as Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and Cheng Chong Swee. In 1952, the four of them went on their historic excursion to Bali where they stayed for a few months and were greatly rejuvenated and inspired by the sights, sounds, rhythms and colours of Bali, resulting in the birth of the Nanyang style of art.


In 1957, Liu held his first solo exhibition at the Victoria Theatre Hall. The works showed the artist in a new phase of maturity, which saw him seeking to represent the experience of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. The depiction of local people laboring or engrossed in ordinary activity was the dominant theme of his paintings in the ’50s such as Building Site/Samsui Women (1951), Offerings (1957) and Durian Vendors (1957). His earlier paintings had shown influences of Post-Impressionism and Fauvism in their expressiveness, intense colours and form, as well as possible influences of Chinese painting with their composition and brush strokes. Now, they exhibited indigenous Southeast Asian influences with their brighter hues, flatter forms and bold outlines of white.


During this time, Liu Kang also took up teaching positions at various schools including Nanyang Girls’ High, Chinese High School and Dunman High School, of which the principal was his brother-in-law and old friend Chen Jen Hao. Together with Chen, he designed the Dunman High School school crest.


He also travelled for inspiration, visiting Nepal and India. He also wrote many critical essays on art, expressing his thoughts on art education in Singapore, art criticism and development. In 1968, he became a founding member of the Singapore Art Society, and served as its president for 11 years until 1979.


Liu became a respected individual known for his efforts in promoting art in the community. He contributed his services as chairman of both the National Day Art Exhibition Committee and the Visual Arts Advisory Committee for the Ministry of Culture.


An instrumental figure in the development of the Singapore art scene, Liu Kang was recognised for his many contributions to art in Singapore. He received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 1970 and the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in 1996 for his contributions to art in Singapore.


In 2003, Liu Kang donated what remained of his life’s work, comprising over 1,000 paintings and sketches, to the Singapore Art Museum. The following year, he passed away at the age of 93 in Singapore.


In 2011, his artistic achievements were celebrated with a retrospective exhibition Liu Kang: A Centennial Celebration, organised by the National Art Gallery, Singapore, supported by the National Heritage Board, and held at the Singapore Art Museum. The 100 works, sketches, essays and artefacts on display took audiences through Liu Kang’s artistic journey from young migrant artist to venerated artist-educator and national treasure. 





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