Tea With Mr. Lee

There is yet another art exhibition on Lee Kuan Yew. On its opening night on Thursday, almost all the paintings were sold. The painter, May Oon was a journalist in Singapore and Hong Kong. This is her second solo show. Her first solo exhibition was at the Arts House in 2007, on paintings with a Peranakan theme. She was subsequently commissioned by the Asian Civilisations Museum to work on a painting for the Peranakan Museum. This painting is now a part of the permanent collection at the museum.

She started painting at 40 when she became a mother. Her works on Lee Kuan Yew were mostly painted in 2008 and 2009. For May this is a nostalgic trip – looking at life in Singapore in the 60s and 70s. Those were critical years for Lee, when issues were about the survival of a country. May confessed many times she was stricken with both fear and fascination when it comes to Lee. This ‘fear’ is not unlike an ‘awe’ and ‘reverence’ to one’s own strict parents, in this case, the founding father of Singapore.

‘Tea With Mr Lee’ is an interpretation of the significant moments when Lee was governing Singapore as its first and longest-serving Prime Minister. In both oil and charcoal, the exhibition throws a light on the man in a spectrum of emotions and situations. The black and white executions reflect the severity of the subject and the laughter in some of the paintings does not lighten the tone as all the moments are political in nature. Yet the exhibition is not all serious and this balance is both engaging and refreshing. Looking at the paintings, one gets a further peek into the world of Lee Kuan Yew. Although these are public moments, we can now have a subjective experience with each moment.

This exhibition confirms a growing fascination the art world has with Lee Kuan Yew. May is pleasantly surprised at how fast the paintings were sold. Whether Lee Kuan Yew will be the next Mao in contemporary art is left to be seen. But more and more artists will no doubt use Lee Kuan Yew as a subject for their work. We can only hope each one of them has something meaningful and significant to say about the man and his legacy.

Tea With Mr. Lee
19 -28 November 2010
48 Niven Road Singapore 228396


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