Alvin Ong: Reviving a Tradition

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I met Singaporean artist Alvin Ong in April last year when he gave a talk at the NUS Baba House on his artistic practice. I’ve always been an admirer of his portrait work. Since he was in London for the week, I invited him to speak to my MA Art History students on his portrait commissions. Together with short videos of the sitters, he talked about the processes involved in painting portraits for people and also provided an insight into the people he painted through video interviews he conducted with his patrons during various sittings. What were the stories behind the people he painted? How did they feel being immortalized on canvas? I was enlightened when he gave his interpretation of some of the portraits in the collection of the NUS museum which are currently on display. I was enlightening to see the portraits from the perspective of the artist and the patron.

Alvin has been commissioned by several prominent Singapore Peranakans to paint their portraits, reviving the old tradition of Peranakan portraiture in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Peter Wee, the president of the Peranakan Association Singapore and one of Alvin’s prominent patrons also commissioned Alvin to paint a portraits in memory of his mother, the Josephine Tan, granddaughter of the late Tan Keong Saik (1850-1909), and his grandfather, the late Tan Cheng Kee (1882-1939).

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On posthumous commissions…

Alvin: From photos to private letters and diaries, I combed through hispersonal effects to bring him to life. Honored with the title Justice of the Peace in his lifetime, his private diaries were window to a thoroughly “modern” man who read extensively from Orwell to Sir Walter Scott. He had little sentimentality for the traditions of the past. Many of his writings transcended the great distances of his time, as an artist from his future attempted to paint him.

Tan Cheng Kee, 2013 30 x 50cm (without frame) Acrylic on wood

Tan Cheng Kee, 2013
30 x 50cm (without frame)
Acrylic on wood

Excerpt from the late Tan Cheng Kee’s diary:

“We may think that we use our wills to choose and act, but in reality there is no such thing. From all eternity it was determined that at this moment we should do this thing we are now doing, and no power or wisdom of ours can change this fixed plan.”
(Tan Cheng Kee, September 1935)

Alvin has also painted Norman Cho, who has also contributed some photographs to this site! I had the pleasure of seeing his portrait in flesh and it is indeed stunning, commanding quite a presence! Norman also requested to include a deer kerosang into the portrait because of its sentimental value.

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Interestingly, the members of the emperor’s court in China’s Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911) used to sew cloth symbols to their robes to signify rank. Symbols would confer status and power accordingly. A deer it is homophonous with a character meaning “wealth” and “official promotion, the symbol of Luxing, the God of Rank and Remuneration. Perhaps this adds a new dimension to the portrait?

Would you get your portrait painted? What style would it be like? What would you wear? What would you not wear? Where would you display it?

Johanna Tan & Anne Lee, 2012 80 x 140cm Acrylic on canvas

Johanna Tan & Anne Lee, 2012
80 x 140cm
Acrylic on canvas

This portrait is probably my favourite, the portrait of the twins in traditional Nyonya attire. According to Alvin, during the sitting for the portrait, they recalled how their father used to constantly take photos of them together. Alvin decided to include in the portrait, an old photograph of the twins when they were kids, also dressed in sarong kebayas. Notice the attention to detail of the batik and embroidery on the kebayas! I’m not sure if its harder to stitch or paint the ketok lobang on the kebayas.

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Alvin is also the youngest winner of the UOB Painting of the Year Competition in 2005. Visit Alvin’s website here

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