Visitors to the newly-refurbished NUS Central Library would have chanced upon a brand new art exhibition, brightly installed at the entrance foyer. Launched virtually on 22 Feb, the visual display comprised 60 smaller art pieces, depicting people and scenes from everyday life in NUS, and presenting a microcosm of the vibrant and extensive NUS community.
Painted by artist and NUS alumnus Mr Yeo Tze Yang, the art pieces took around two years to complete, in light of COVID-19 challenges. The Southeast Asian Studies graduate from the Class of 2019 at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences was selected to work on this commissioned collection.
Gathering a diverse yet collegial community
Baby steps towards putting together this exhibition started in 2020, as the NUS community banded together during the early days of the pandemic. A series of virtual get-togethers called “NUS OK’ or ‘NUS, Our Kampung” was organised for the community to stay in touch. “We Are NUS: The People and Everyday Life of a University” built on this to celebrate the treasured bonding and shared experience.
In the spirit of capturing the zeitgeist of the NUS community, staff, students and contractors were selected through an open call, along with iconic scenes from various corners of the campuses.
Said Tze Yang, “I painted a diverse range of people from different backgrounds, faculties and offices. Some have spent only a couple of years in NUS. Some have spent almost half a century. Everyone's story is unique – for some, an NUS education was a first in their family. For others, NUS was a workplace where they found friendship and meaning. Everyone's experience of the University is different.
“The project kickstarted with a vision in mind, to fill three walls with small paintings of the people, places and things that make up NUS. The University is a large institution, with so many facets, corners and nitty-gritty that called for such a display format.”
In order to bring out the essence of the people he painted, Tze Yang said he adopted the approach of painting them in a setting where he engaged them in direct conversation, citing two Asian artists, Thailand’s Navin Rawanchaikul and China’s Liu Xiaodong, who are known for this approach.
A sensitive and perceptive eye
Tze Yang’s talent extends beyond the artistic – he has the ability to connect with others to help them relax, feel comfortable and draw out their stories, bringing out different sides of people hitherto unseen.
“We had a really intense conversation on weighty subjects such as politics, privilege and purpose during the portraiture session,” said Associate Professor Daniel Goh, NUS Associate Provost (Undergraduate Education).
“That was how he painted me, wisened and wizened, with the severe frown that I often carry on my face when I am alone with my thoughts of the issues I wrestle and memories of the good fight I tried to fight. Tze Yang peeked into my inner struggles and painted it.”
This sentiment was also echoed by Ms Daphne Chua who works at NUS Business School. “We chatted over various topics, such as art versus design, family backgrounds, personalities, personal setbacks, and mental health, which I have never openly shared with anyone throughout my two years of work in NUS. It was rare to connect with someone as understanding as Tze Yang, who held space to embrace my thoughts and vulnerability without judgment,” said Daphne who has a background in visual arts.
Daphne also recounted how Tze Yang’s patience and discipline resonated with her, sharing an interesting snippet. Tze Yang had painted her portrait twice because he was not satisfied with the first iteration. However, she loved both portraits because they represented his own time, effort and unique perspective.
“This experience made me feel incredibly seen and appreciated as a person, rather than what I can simply produce,” she added.
Also part of the exhibition is a familiar face to those who frequent the canteen at Faculty of Science – Uncle Wong, who mans the drinks stall at Frontier. To Uncle Wong, who has been a steadfast presence in NUS since 1996, the University represents a place where he has met many people and developed close friendships with them. He described the painting process as “relaxing”, where he was able to chat with Tze Yang and answer his questions. It is Uncle Wong’s hope that “current students or alumni will reminisce about their time in NUS, when they see the painting of my likeness”.
Celebrating a community
Associate Professor Erle Lim, NUS Vice Provost (Teaching Innovation & Quality), a member of the committee involved in spearheading this project, shared, “I am very proud to see the project come to fruition. We hope that this exhibition can convey how special NUS is, that we are more than a place of study for the community – we are a family.”
For Tze Yang, as an alumnus and the artist behind this project, the collection of paintings represents his hope that it will “serve as a reminder of what makes a University special, beyond the newspaper headlines and trophies. These tiny moments and stories of people are what make this institution matter so much to many of us over its many decades of existence”.
Even as one steps away from the exhibition, the NUS story continues. The visual tapestry of NUS will evolve and transform, as new experiences are lived, and exciting discovery moments celebrated in the years to come.
Take a virtual tour of the art gallery here or visit the gallery and take wefies or selfies with the paintings at the photo booth.
You can also catch a short video on what Tze Yang and his subjects said about their experience here.
This story first appeared on NUSNews on 22 February 2022.