Ng Eng Teng: The Grandfather of Singapore Sculpture

The house and studio of the late Ng Eng Teng has been slated for demolition. On 29 November 2012, visitors streamed into Ng’s house, tools in hand, ready to salvage windows, wood and even plants before the demolition could take place.

According to a report by The Straits Times, some visitors “knew little about the Cultural Medallion recipient”. The article further suggests that these visitors were there as curious onlookers or profiteers hoping to make a quick buck by selling whatever they managed to salvage.

Ng has done much to push the boundaries of art in Singapore. It is a tragedy that so few Singaporeans know who he is. It is akin to the people of Italy not knowing who Leonardo Da Vinci is! This ignorance of our very own pioneer in sculptures is also prevalent in NUS. Very few people recognise the sculptures outside Arts building AS7 or in the University Hall as being Ng’s masterpieces.

So who is Ng Eng Teng?

Ng has been hailed as the Grandfather of Singapore Sculpture. He has received a Cultural Medallion from the Government of Singapore. He has been conferred an Honorary Doctor of Letters by NUS. He has won many visual arts prizes and awards. But Ng is more than the sum of these achievements.

He is a sculptor who delves into the human condition to come up with beautiful works – works that are playful, works that comment critically and, ultimately, works that speak to us.

Ng's Home

Ng’s art speaks to us for it centers on the human figure.
“I want to express humanist theme in my work and what better way than through the human figure… The human figure best expresses feelings and ideas because it is closest to us, it is what we can relate to best.”
The Mother and Child

la pieta
Michelangelo's La Pieta. Source credit: The Daily Norm
Many artists have delved into the bonds between a mother and her children to come up with startling works. Michelangelo’s La Pieta, for example, is a hyper-realistic marble work of Mother Mary and Jesus.

Unlike Michelangelo, Ng did not create very realistic sculptures. He simplifies the human body to capture the essence of existence. His sculptures are recognizably human despite alteration and abstraction.
Freedom Child depicts a spherical baby with stretched limbs. The baby, with its chubby cheeks and pouting lips, is soaring through the sky. It seems very happy and I can’t help but smile at it.
Freedom Child
The Playfully Sensual Sculptures

Take a look at the photos below. Do they bear uncanny resemblances to the human reproductive organs?

Ng has a mischievously fertile imagination. The series of artworks below were created in the 1990s. I wonder if his sculptures had caused controversy back when they were first produced and exhibited. Did they cause as much stir as “Sex. Violence. Family Values.” has caused in 2012?

It is interesting to note that Ng produced some of these sexually explicit sculptures when he was in his late fifties. This goes to show that age is no limit when it comes to creating such sensual works.


The Human Condition

Some of Ng’s sculptures demonstrate his wit and humour. Others reveal his contemplative nature.
The below sculpture shows a man contorting with existential angst. His hands are bound and legs, tightly crossed. He reclines in a fetal position, quietly desperate and helpless.

Another sculpture conveys the same sense of desolation but in a different manner. The earthy-brown figure below cowers in a ball of anxiety, insecurity and fear.

Concluding Thoughts

Outside NUS Museum, I saw Wealth, a gargantuan sculpture by the same artist who I have just admired. Wealth is a sculpture that many NUS students take photos with during their Commencement ceremonies. How many recognise that this artwork is by our pioneer?

Source credit:
As we march boldly into a new year and an uncertain future, we ought to remember and respect our past. Ng Eng Teng is an important character in our history. He has made great contributions to our local arts scenes. Hopefully, a day would come when we all know Ng Eng Teng as well as we know Leonardo Da Vinci or Vincent Van Gogh or Pablo Picasso.

His art is on permanent display at the NUS Museum. Do visit the museum and view the works by him, by Mr Ng Eng Teng, our Grandfather of Singapore Sculpture.