T. K. Sabapathy on Michael Sullivan

Last night eminent local art historian/teacher/curator/writer T. K. Sabapathy delivered the NUS Museum Anniversary Lecture “About Michael Sullivan” at the University Cultural Centre. Although the title of the lecture is ostensibly about Michael Sullivan, the founding curator of the University of Malaya Art Museum (the predecessor of the current NUS Museum), the lecture addressed much larger themes that oscillates between the personal and the institutional, the biographical and the disciplinary, memory and knowledge, teacher and student, past and present. Rather than put forward a feeble attempt to summarise the lecture in its entirety, I will just jot down a few points in this blog post on what struck me and lingers in my memory.

1-20150430_125609425_iOST. K. Sabapathy speaking, with a slide showing him and Sullivan meeting in 2008, at a conference in Singapore, fifty years after they first met as student and teacher (source: author’s photograph).

The lecture started with Sabapathy’s reminiscences about his time as Sullivan’s student at the University of Malaya in the late 1950s. Sullivan was the sole lecturer in Art History at the University of Malaya at that time and Sabapathy who enrolled in the Art History course (as his minor, or what was called “subsidiary” at that time) was among Sullivan’s first batches of students. Sabapathy talked about the course structure, the lecture format and the spaces they studied in, especially the Art Museum at the Bukit Timah Campus of the University of Malaya.


Aerial view of Bukit Timah Campus, the University of Malaya, c. 1950s. Today this is a part of the National University of Singapore (NUS) (Source: Fifty years of Medical Education in Malaya, 1905-1955). 


What resonated with me particularly was Sabapathy’s recollection of Sullivan’s breadth of knowledge and his eloquence, particularly his vivid description during lecture that “circled” the images projected on the screen and “enlivened” them. I did not have the privilege to meet or hear Sullivan but the sense of images of painting or sculpture coming to life in a dimmed lecture hall as they were masterfully narrated by a knowledgeable and passionate voice was exactly what I remember about Sabapathy’s lectures on the History of Art that I experienced as a first year architecture undergraduate at NUS during the 1990s.

After starting with his own personal encounter with Sullivan, Sabapathy went on to provide us with a few biographical details about Sullivan, such as his educational background, particularly his training as an architect at Cambridge, his involvement with archaeology and modern Chinese art during his years at Chengdu, China, his close personal and professional relationships with his wife Khoan Sullivan, his teaching and research activities during his years in Malaya, his subsequent eminence as a leading expert of Chinese art in the West, etc. Much of these biographical details of Sullivan are probably well-recorded given his eminence (see, for example, this obituary) but Sabapathy paid special attention to what is probably only a footnote in most biographical account of Sullivan’s life and career – his activities during his tenure at the University of Malaya from 1954 to 1960.

Sabapathy used his detailed discussion of Sullivan’s interests in Malayan art, both historical  (see Sullivan’s essay on the Kendi in Southeast Asia) and modern (especially Sullivan’s admiration for Cheong Soo Pieng), despite him being a specialist in Chinese Art to foreground two key issues for discussion towards the end of the lecture:

  1. Why did Sullivan use Malayan instead of Singapore, Nanyang or other geopolitical designations to describe the contemporary art he saw what is known as Singapore and Malaysia today? Among other reasons, Sabapathy argued that the geopolitical designation Malayan was of its time, i.e. the 1950s, and it was used to mark a rupture from the colonial past and signify a new independent collective that many among the educated class at that time desired.*
  2. Why didn’t Sullivan formally teach modern Asian art during his academic career despite his obvious interest and expertise in modern Asian art? Sabapathy mentioned two reasons that would familiar to historians of modern Asian architecture: one, historians of Asian art would not admit the modern as they saw the modern as antithetical to the traditional Asian art they were interested in; two,  historians of modern art saw Asian modern art as derivative and thus unworthy of study. Aren’t these reasons for sidelining modern Asian art related to what Sibel Bozdogan describes as the double marginization of the history of modern Asian architecture in her seminal book Modernism and Nation Building? Bozdogan’s double marginalization refers to the marginalization by both area studies scholars who were only interested in the “grand traditions” of the area, and scholars of modern architecture who were preoccupied with the modern masters in Europe and North America.

Anyway, these are the few snippets of last night’s lecture that I have gathered. It is obviously not a serious reflection that Sabapathy’s important lecture deserves. That is a task that I have to leave to a more qualified person than a amateur architectural historian like myself.  And I am sure a more thoughtful study of Sabapathy’s lecture will be forthcoming, especially since NUS Museum will be publishing his lecture soon.

* Sabapathy also noted that Malayan art referred to not just an art produced by a “delimited and bounded place” but an art that was “universal” – in that one needs not understand any of the local languages or dialects to appreciate the art – but “of its time and place.” I didn’t record this portion of the lecture properly and my notes have important details missing. As Sabapathy’s lecture will be published by NUS Museum, any misreading on my part will be rectified by consulting the original lecture.


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