Royal Academy Chronicle The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018 search Menu

1968 Mak Kum Siew

What do you see in the image of this painting before you (Fig. 1)? Are you fixated on its colours, lines, shapes, or fabrics? Is there a man, a body of figures, or ambiguous forms? Understanding the artwork and its author—who bears three names in the English alphabet: Mak Kum Siew, Mai Jinyao, and K.S. Mak—is similar to deciphering a profound puzzle that requires wit and grit to appreciate. This Chronicle entry takes “Mak Kum Siew” as the artist’s name appeared in the catalogue for the Summer Exhibition, in the 199th year of the institution, to discuss an artist who used the Exhibition as one node of display and also to maintain relevance in the London art world during the late 1960s.

Through the time I have spent with Mak over the course of four years, and counting, it has been a concurrent process of discovery and unravelling. It all began with a simple exchange in postcards that led to a hasty meeting in London, where I was evaluated on my character and curiosity. Over time, the length of our correspondence with one another grew, as did our geographical distance. Thanks to the arrival of an invaluable opportunity in spring 2017, we met again. This time, it was at his countryside home and studio. I arrived with a two-man video production team. Together, the four of us spent close to twenty hours remembering, inquiring, and unpacking several decades of histories that had been exclusive to the different phases of Mak.

Explore the 1968 catalogue

Born in 1940 when Singapore was still a British colony, Mak Kum Siew grew up amidst the bustling Joo Chiat district, where his parents ran a laundry business that serviced the British and later changed it into an izakaya (Japanese-style pub) during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. Mak first studied at Yangzheng Primary School before enrolling at the Chinese High School. While the former allowed Mak to cultivate firm grounds in Chinese calligraphy, it was at the latter that his budding ability and passion in art shone. The high school principal, Tay Ann Loon, and art teachers Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng—both prominent artists at the time—spotted this sparkle and groomed him.1 This cocktail of gift and chances allowed Mak to gain recognition and support in the art scene of Singapore at a young age. 

In October 1961, Cheong Soo Pieng and Mak headed to London together on a Dutch liner named Oranje to pursue their studies in art. The liner sailed for five weeks and arrived into Southampton. Smoky air, rain, and grey skies welcomed them to London. After passing a quick moment of self-doubt in The Big Smoke, Mak quickly settled down into his shoebox room and began painting furiously, refusing to waste any moments between his classes at Saint Martin’s School of Art.2

His time at Saint Martin’s School of Art (1961–1964) and the Royal College of Art (1964–1967) was a gateway towards another bright summit. At Saint Martin’s, Mak earned a new wave of support from tutors such as Peter de Francia and Frederick Gore. While Gore would volunteer to help document Mak’s artworks straight off the easel, De Francia became his confidant and lasting friend. On top of structured classes, Mak spent many hours in the school library, eager to further expand his process and experiment with new ways of painting, drawing, and art making. There, he came to know of Tintoretto, Rubens, Mantegna, and gained a better understanding of the human figure, which he began applying onto his canvas in a deconstructed and organic manner.3

At the Royal College of Art, besides attaining the admiration of tutors Sandra Blow, Peter Blake, and Carel Weight, the increased freedom in studio practice allowed Mak to explore uncharted thoughts and ideas.4 From the fluid shambles of disassembled bodies, Mak shifted towards a more angular and hard-edged flow in his works. Using a combination of Chinese calligraphy and coloured paper cuts, Mak created shaped bodies of flawless and smooth colours. Rather than letting go of the human figure, he further minimised men into fine lines and forms. White Arch, made in 1966, is one such result (Fig. 2).

This new aesthetic and structural approach transformed Mak’s way of artmaking. Instead of graphite, he began with a pair of scissors and coloured paper. Once the cut-out shapes had reached a desired composition, they would be fixed to a base layer using tweezers and glue. While the resulting collage might act as the artwork itself, sometimes it would be further developed on canvas using different mediums. Several renditions would be produced, alluding to Russian dolls, and increasing in size towards the final piece in oil.5

In our recent communication, Mak recollected the Royal Academy and its Summer Exhibitions. The historic platform was known for its academic and old-fashioned flair. Towards the latter half of 1960s, Mak observed that works in more contemporary styles were being shown, and this shift in Academy’s direction encouraged him to give it a try in 1968. The acceptance of his first-ever entry was an achievement for Mak—he was hand-picked from among the countless open submissions, as applicants were then allowed to submit at most three works each.6 It was a good platform for local artists to stay connected to the heart of London, its art scene, and to make sales. Exhibiting there led to Mak being invited by McLellan Galleries in Glasgow to feature White Arch in its annual showcase of the best artworks of the country, and it subsequently won the “Best Oil Painting” prize in that exhibition.7

Over the following years, Mak applied to the open section of the annual Academy Summer Exhibition with persistence until 1981, following which he was faced with an artist’s block.8Reflecting on the years of achievements and failures, Mak sees the Academy Summer Exhibition as one of the many processes that composed his artistic expedition, which is still evolving today as he perpetually learns and unlearns how to paint by continuously painting.9 As Mak wrote in an artist statement of 1976, for the Serpentine Gallery’s Summer Show:

To see what you cannot see is the most you can see.
To see what you can see is the least you can see.
The longer you see the more you see you see.
The shorter you see the less you see you see.
To see what you want to see is what you can see.
To see what you can see is not what he can see.
To see what you want to see is not what he can see.
To see what you can see is not what he wants to see.
To see what you see is what you think you see.
To see what you think you see is not what you see.10
  1. Today, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng are regarded as pioneering artists in the art history of Singapore.↩︎

  2. Mak Kum Siew, interview with the author, 24–25 February 2017.↩︎

  3. Mak Kum Siew, interview with the author, 24–25 February 2017.↩︎

  4. Mak Kum Siew, interview with the author, 24–25 February 2017.↩︎

  5. This process of artmaking has been captured on an 8mm film reel documentation of Mak Kum Siew’s practice by director-producer Tom Strupenski.↩︎

  6. Mak Kum Siew, telecommunication with the author, 10 October 2017.↩︎

  7. Mak Kum Siew, telecommunication with the author, 10 October 2017.↩︎

  8. Mak Kum Siew, telecommunication with the author, 10 October 2017.↩︎

  9. Mak Kum Siew, interview with the author, 24–25 February 2017.↩︎

  10. Taken from the last sentence of the artist’s statement that was published in the Serpentine Summer Show 1976.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , ,


Explore the 1968 catalogue