It is creation of harmony of colours and variation in tones which are my main objects in painting. I paint when I am in the mood, but I would stay at one subject for days, if necessary, to complete the expression of the idea in my mind - Cheong Soo Pieng
Upon his arrival in 1946, Cheong Soo Pieng was fascinated by the unique features of cosmopolitan Singapore. Cheong left China as part of the wave of Chinese migration into Southeast Asia, or what was termed Nanyang, the South Seas. Having come from a largely homogenous society with a singular narrative of social and political history, the coexistence and overlapping of different cultures in Singapore was to be a continuous source of fascination and inspiration for the artist.
Distanced from the prescriptive rules of traditional Chinese painting that had been his main artistic foundation, Cheong found himself able to experiment with alternative modes of art production, and turned his attention to painting on oil and canvas – the Western medium that until then he had not felt free enough to explore. Cheong along with his artistic contemporaries and fellow migrant such as Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang, and Chen Chong Swee, began to develop what is now widely referred to as the Nanyang school of painting. So-called due to the association of these early pioneers with the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art where they were educators, the term also referenced the emergence of a regionally specific artistic style that saw the assimilation of Western painting techniques with Eastern sensibilities in the rendering of uniquely Southeast Asian subjects.
Executed mainly between the early to mid-1970s, these mixed media works represent a turning point in Cheong's career. Following a brief, but enormously energetic and creative period of experimentation with abstraction that was begun during his time spent in Europe from 1961-1963, the 1970s saw Cheong in search for a radically different means of expression that went beyond the canvas. Composed of materials ranging from plastic and wood, to all manner of scrap metals, the works from this period are imbued with a refreshing sense of materiality as they emerge from the pictorial plane into three-dimensional space. Kampong Spirit (Lot 2513) is a work replete with brilliant tactile details, and coming from this distinctive period of Cheong's artistic practice in the 1970s. Chinatown Scene (1970) and Singapore Scenery (1970) and Kampong Spirit form a series comprised of only three unique works – each celebrating the cultural diversity and unique features of the key cultural groups in Singapore.
Kampong Spirit is an ode to interconnected fabric of cultural life in Singapore. Cheong brings together an intricate collection of vignettes and characters that immediately place the work within a visual language of Southeast Asia: the food vendor with his cart and the selling of fresh tropical produce in the lower left, chattering groups of women interspersed with free-roaming farm animals in the right foreground, domestic activities of hanging laundry and pounding rice in the upper right background, and the immediately distinctive scene of fishermen drying their nets along the shore in the upper left background. Making its way towards us down the centre of the composition is a festive Malay procession marked by the festive bunga manggar (decorative props unique to Southeast Asia) the distinctive black songkok caps worn by the men and the flowing baju kurung of the women – together a testament to Cheong's deep understanding of the material signifiers of the culture.
Cheong also had a defined understanding of the architectural landscape of Singapore as seen from the uneven peaks of buildings that make up the skyline in the composition. Moving from the attap roofs of the kampong huts in the left to the glittering spires of the mosque and the ordered colonial structures in the right, Cheong perfectly captures the key physical landmarks that continue to define Singapore – a sensitivity seen also in the paper work Landmarks of Singapore (1968). Indeed, the depiction and celebration of Malay culture as well is a theme Cheong had been drawn to since his early days in Singapore. The resplendent mural-sized work Malayan Scenery (1955) commissioned by his patron Dato' Loke Wan Tho under Cathay Organisation can be said to be an earlier iteration of the scene, with the present work Kampong Sprit being a reimagining of a beloved theme within a new medium – bringing familiar characters and scenes into a new perspective.
Having fully embraced his identity as a Southeast Asian artist based in Singapore, Cheong retained until the end of his life, a dedication to the search for the best means through which to capture the peoples and landscapes of the region through his art. An exceptionally rare and important work in Cheong's diverse oeuvre, Kampong Spirit, can be understood as a culmination of Cheong's immense respect and understanding of the rich cultural milieu in Southeast Asia.