Nestled in the heart of the Nassim enclave of black-and-white colonial bungalows in Singapore is CapitaLand’s The Nassim, a premium residential development with modern apartments that capture the essence and privacy of these bungalows. The artworks at the lobbies, too, pick up the theme. Among them are eight charcoal drawings in a series titled “Remembrance of Trees Past, Nassim Hill Atelier” by Singapore artist Jimmy Ong. These black-and-white drawings are quite unlike many of the artworks that CapitaLand has acquired.
CapitaLand has its own artwork acquisition criteria, one of them being that the pieces must be cheerful. Since black- and-white pieces may come across as dull or even gloomy, they are generally avoided. But on the contrary, Ong’s charcoal drawings are neither. Furthermore, as he has lived and set up an atelier - a French word for workshop or studio – in Nassim Hill, and his works for The Nassim are particularly meaningful. It was fitting that Ong was commissioned to produce the series.
A Winning Formula
Born in 1964 in Singapore, Ong studied art at Studio Art Center International in Florence, Italy and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, USA. It was while studying in America that he discovered Chinese literati paintings. He emulated the elements of brushwork in the medium of charcoal on paper he was using for practising figurative drawings then. Ong had a few successful shows in the 1990s in Singapore, and, charcoal on paper has become his signature medium.
“Charcoal is not only very sensitive to the artist’s handling, it is also a very stable natural material,” shares Ong, “it is very forgiving in that one can smudge off a mistake, but in emulating the literati, I made it my challenge to not ‘erase’ any initial markings.”
The literati in the world of Chinese paintings are gentlemen scholars who painted with ink and brush - often just in black and white - the essence of bamboos, trees, lakes, and mountains more as a form of personal expression than as a literal representation of their surface beauty. These scholars also composed poems that they would write on the paintings in skillful calligraphy. Their works are spontaneous and not laboured, and they fascinate the viewers in spite of, or perhaps because of, their lack of rich colours.
A Winner’s Mindset
Ong’s charcoal drawings are quite different from such Chinese paintings. The medium itself and his technique are all western (he has never been trained in Chinese painting), and his writings on them are all in English. What they have in common with some of the literati paintings might be the same freedom and expressiveness of strokes to suggest the forms – a result of many years of practice, and even though Ong has not written any poetry on his drawings, there is at least one strong literary link in the series – its title and a play of words in the names of the individual pieces.
Ong gets inspiration for Remembrance of Trees Past from French novelist Marcel Proust‘s monumental work Remembrance of Things Past . “Proust’s book is a personal reference to a few close friends of mine during my stay at the Nassim Hill studio in 1993-94. They were my literati circle of friends whom I have now lost touch with,” he relates.
Ong started drawing botanical subjects in the Nassim Hill studio. He made several drawings of banana trees in the backyards, exhibited them at the studio and sold them subsequently. This led to other botanical studies in Singapore and later in the USA. He has since come full circle having opened a studio in Indonesia in 2013 and, inspired by the kampong (or village) setting there, has resumed the drawing of tropical plants.
I particularly like one work in the Remembrance of Trees Past, Nassim Atelier series. It features a colony of plants including the Staghorn fern thriving on a tree, titled “Staghorn & Company”. To me, this drawing perhaps reflects Ong’s own philosophy of life, for in answer to the question what is your winning formula (theme of this issue), he shares, “I am not into competition, at least that’s not my agenda for making art or any creative endeavor. But winning can be perceived as how we can work together. I am inclined to let others win, riding on the synergy of working together: you win, we win."
This article is contributed by CapitaLand Chief of Art Management, Francis Wong Hooe Wai