What is an artist to do? Go to art school to perfect his craft, or to a university to enhance his substance? Graduating NUS Southeast Asian Studies student Yeo Tze Yang chose the latter. After spending six years of his education in the Art Elective Programme, honing his skills in photography, videography, digital illustration and fine arts, Tze Yang chose to continue his education at NUS Arts and Social Science to find more fodder for his soul.
“It’s not just about art, but it’s about the kind of things I’m interested in as a person, of which art is a big majority. Out of 100, maybe art is 60 or 70; but there’s also this important 30 to 40 per cent that I feel is very crucial. So when I did the Introduction to Southeast Asian Studies module, I found we were looking at things very close to home and very close to my heart,” he said.
Tze Yang’s interest in art began at a young age. He remembers a childhood filled with pencils, crayons and paper, and observing his illustrator father do drawings for his job in the advertising industry. This interest eventually led him to join the Art Elective Programme in secondary school, where he was able to explore new mediums of art and nurture his talent. It was his exposure to fine art and art history in junior college that got him into painting.
“When I first entered junior college, I was not confident at all. I was struggling. A lot of my classmates entered the programme being quite technically trained in painting and drawing, whereas I was doing design and digital media previously. So I was making all these really messy and experimental paintings, but my teachers didn’t take issue with it,” he recalled.
While art was his favourite subject at school, having a very good history teacher in secondary school piqued Tze Yang’s interest in that subject as well. Studying history taught him critical-thinking skills that are important not just for him as an artist, but as a person, he said.
Tze Yang began participating in various exhibitions and art fairs in 2013, after he graduated from junior college. His figurative, representational and realistic paintings of familiar scenes in the life of a Singaporean were well received, and are part of private collections in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, the UK and the USA. In 2016, he was awarded the UOB Painting of the Year Silver Prize for Ah Ma’s Kitchen, a depiction of his grandmother’s kitchen that encapsulates her and her way of life.
When the time came for him to choose the next step of his education journey, Tze Yang chose to further his studies at NUS Arts and Social Sciences, trying out a number of introductory modules of various majors before deciding on one.
“During my first year I spent a lot of my modular credits doing things I didn’t like, until I did Southeast Asian Studies — the introductory module. I found it so relevant… We had assignments where we had to go to various parts of Singapore to do observational work, interview people and converse with strangers. I felt like there was a very nice human touch to these kinds of things, which were encouraged by the professors. Now that I’m done with my degree, I feel like this was the main takeaway,” he said.
Tze Yang focused on the relationship between Singapore and Malaysia for his degree, which put him on the Malay language track. He said learning the language influenced the way he understood things around him, and provided context for understanding the politics and history behind the two countries. His academic interest in Malaysia also brought unexpected benefits for his art — the opportunity to exhibit his works in Kuala Lumpur — twice.
Southeast Asian Studies also gave Tze Yang the opportunity to travel within the region to places like Johor, Perak and Penang in Malaysia and Pattani in Thailand. These journeys not only allowed him to gain knowledge, but also helped broaden his perspectives in relation to his art.
“One of the adjectives people use to describe my work is ‘local, very Singaporean’. I think in my few years at NUS I tried to break free of and expand those definitions. When I travel to places nearby like Malaysia, and I see how everything is connected and similar culturally and historically, it makes me feel like I’m in a familiar place even though it’s not Singapore… For me this was the major contribution of Southeast Asian Studies. I started disregarding all these limitations of locality and tried to expand what is ‘familiar’ that I can paint with all my heart,” explained Tze Yang.
Now that his time at NUS is over, Tze Yang is taking those lessons with him into the next phase of his life: his career as an artist. But his passion for learning about people and cultures will continue and he hopes to further his studies in art and anthropology in the future.