“Scenes of This World” is an exhibition that offers a glimpse into the world of 20th-century artists associated with Singapore and Vietnam. It is an interesting pairing. Apart from their geographical proximity, the two countries share a history as former European colonies. Another theme that ties together the 11 artists featured in the show is migration – many of them were caught up in tumultuous events that rocked the last century. The 30-plus paintings on show at LGDR & Wei gallery in Hong Kong were curated by Karin Oen, a Singapore-based scholar and head of the department of art history at Nanyang Technological University. Singapore’s art scene is making a big comeback. But is it really changing? “It makes sense not to show all of modern Southeast Asia together. We want to go deeper, so focusing on Singapore and Vietnam creates an interesting dialogue,” she says. “We start with a generation of artists who came of age in the 1930s and look at the trajectories – various tumultuous situations such as the two world wars, multiple revolutions – that caused people to migrate. The resulting visual vocabularies give form to unsettled questions of modernity Karin Oen, curator “The School of Paris was another convenor of these artists from around the world who either studied in France or were affected by styles such as fauvism, post-Impressionism and cubism.” Some of the paintings by the Chinese émigrés who settled in Singapore (then part of British Malaya) reflect their transnational experience and cosmopolitanism. The 1950s “Nanyang style” paintings by Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang that depict the people, culture and landscape of their new homeland reflect an awareness of the European legacy of primitivism and fauvism’s use of complementary colours. Malay Life (1957) by Cheong bursts with red and ochre. It captures the intensity of local markets, with the hawkers, livestock and carts outlined in thick, black lines and the cheek-by-jowl experience expressed through a tightly composed horizontal strip reminiscent of a traditional Chinese scroll (or the view out of a tram window). The same artist is responsible for Two Balinese Girls (1957), painted during a trip to Indonesia with other artists that became a turning point in the development of their unique visual language. Here, Cheong experimented with the depiction of the two topless women through a fanciful choice of colours and abstracted representation of their physical features (such as the geometric and asymmetrical pair of nipples). However, the surrounding frangipanis and the patterns of the batik cloth wrapped around their waists are faithfully reproduced. It makes for an interesting comparison with the realistic portrayal of a young woman by the French artist Alix Aymé, who lived and taught in Indochina for many years. Her Portrait of a Girl (1935) shows an androgynous teenager who sits moodily against a background of Orientalist wallpaper. There are echoes of French artist Paul Gauguin’s depictions of Tahitian women, but her work also allows for the imagining of a region where national identities were emerging towards the end of French colonial rule. Other highlights in the exhibition includes the late Georgette Chen’s festive Mooncakes and Lanterns (circa 1960s). Chen, the subject of a large-scale survey exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore in 2020, has enjoyed growing recognition for her artistic accomplishments. Last August, her Boats and Shophouses (1963-65) fetched S$2 million (US$1.45 million) in Sotheby’s first live auction in Singapore in 15 years, a new auction record for the artist. Paintings from different periods of artists’ working lives offer insight into how styles and media changed with time. For example, Vietnamese artist Le Pho’s ink-on-silk works can be compared with his oil paintings on canvas, while a trio of paintings by Chen Wen Hsi trace his development from realism to abstraction. The exhibition, which takes its title from a 1937 poem by Vietnamese poet Che Lan Vien, is not intended to be comprehensive, or to tell a simplistic story about the region’s relationship with modernity. The works reflect the complicated relationship the artists had with national identity, Oen writes. “The resulting visual vocabularies give form to unsettled questions of modernity, not in opposition to tradition, or as an unavoidable consequence of East-West interactions, but as one more cacophonous factor in a region already dense with multiplicities.” “Scenes of This World: Modern Paintings from Singapore and Vietnam”, LGDR & Wei, G/F, 2 Ice House Street, Central, Mon-Fri, 11am-7pm. Until March 10.