The watercolor shows a gaming table with three playing cards, each depicting a different portrait of Lee Kuan Yew. Small figures kneel at the corners pleading, ‘Papa, can you help me not be frightened?’ and ‘Papa, don’t you know I have no choice?’ These are lyrics from the song ‘Papa, Can You Hear Me?’ in Yentl, the Barbra Streisand film. This painting uses, the much debated opening of the two casinos earlier this year which Lee officiated, as a setting. And this painting by the New York based Singaporean artist Jimmy Ong is one of many featuring Lee Kuan Yew that are gathering buzz and a following.
Some months back, I asked in my post if Lee Kuan Yew was the next Mao in the world of Contemporary Art. This week there is a Newsweek article on recent art exhibitions using Lee as a subject. The styles and concepts are bold and innovative. There is reverence. Along with some subtext that may have been seen as taboo in the past. Here, the art of the message is the focus and the breakthrough.
That Lee is openly contemplating mortality has captured the attention of the general public, including the people in creative pursuits. With Mrs Lee’s passing, the idea of capturing this statesman in his present reflective state while reflecting on his legacy seems to be a preoccupation for many. In fact in the recent exhibition ‘Beyond LKY’, artists reflected on a Singapore without Lee Kuan Yew.
Lee’s image has the power to evoke strong reactions. Mao’s image has long been embraced by legions of Chinese artists. Yet until now, many Singaporean artists assumed Lee Kuan Yew to be too sensitive a subject matter to deal with. But strict censorship of the arts in Singapore in this instance may be more artistic perception than reality. “I can only speculate that it is self-censorship at work,” says Ong. “Even in my artwork I am self-censoring, like using Yentl’s lyrics in place of my own voice.” Ong’s new exhibition at STPI will open next week and again, it features Lee’s image. This time his messages are more subtle and implicit.
Other artists have used Lee’s image to explore the notion of nationhood. “Re-evaluations are part of anyone’s legacy, but to do so while someone is still in office colors the effort with all the anxiety of politics,” says Jason Wee, a Singaporean artist also based in New York. “Mao is no longer in office, and Lee still is.” Wee has been working on a series of portraits of Lee, using shampoo bottle caps arranged to create a pixellated effect. Titled ‘No More Tears’, the portraits are a reference to Lee’s most documented emotional moment in 1965, when he cried on television announcing the separation of Singapore from Malaysia. Wee has also gone from mere image representation to examining the pervasive influence of the aging statesman on the people of Singapore.
With time, more insightful and captivating artworks using Lee’s image will no doubt emerge. Among the artists portraying him, one or two will be known for featuring Lee Kuan Yew in certain iconic ways that will capture the imagination of both the art world and the public at large. Not unlike Andy Warhol with Marilyn and JFK, Shepard Fairey with Obama, and Li Shan and Yu Youhan with Mao.