Mesmerizing in its composition and noteworthy in its significance, “Long House Inhabitants” by Cheong Soo Pieng is a stunning portrayal of his long-held fascination with Sarawak’s tribal cultures and community. As a pioneer of the Nanyang Art Movement, which propelled Southeast Asian artists to blend Western techniques with traditional Chinese skills, Soo Pieng was no stranger to dissecting the pictorial form in order to diversify his artistic oeuvre. Always looking for ways to further his visual vocabulary, Soo Pieng’s creative evolution can be distinguished by his sojourns to Bali, Sarawak, China and Europe. Perhaps inspired by his monumental expedition to Bali in 1952 alongside three prolific members of The Singapore Art Society (SAS), Cheng Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang, Soo Pieng planned to embark on trips to more unfamiliar territories soon after. A revitalization to Singapore’s art movement in every right, “Four Artists in Bali” changed the ways in which the mystical landscapes and people of Southeast Asia would be depicted by artists forevermore. With that, Soo Pieng was provided with a newfound drive to navigate the unexplored landscapes, civilization, cultures and heritage of Sarawak, which effectively allowed him to crystalize his personal aesthetic style at the same time. As such, this present lot marks a monumental segment in Soo Pieng’s artistic timeline, as we are invited to partake in a moment of contemplation alongside the elegant women of Sarawak.
The iconographies of what are considered Soo Pieng’s more famous works today are evident in this featured masterpiece, as Soo Pieng illustrates the women seated in calm repose, content in the air of peacefulness lingering around them. As one of Southeast Asia’s most versatile artists, Soo Pieng’s experimentations with the compositional styles of cubism are brought to life not only within the structural elements of the canvas, but also with the stylized facial features of the seated women. Their profiles are configured to spherical shapes: angular oval faces, almond lidded eyes and delicate arches for brows. We see indications of Soo Pieng drawing from the Italian Jewish painter Amedeo Modigliani, who was renowned for his renderings of figures with extended limbs, necks and faces. This is Soo Pieng’s close consideration of the female form, as the elongated arms of each woman rest languidly next to their naked torsos. Their gazes, heavy yet striking, prompt us to inspect the canvas with bated breath, and the circle of women continue to remain in their uninterrupted state of meditation. Permeating the scene with graphical precision is Soo Pieng’s incorporation of cubist structural elements – note how the strings with which the swing is suspended by separate the canvas into three areas, generating a sense of balance. Soo Pieng’s precise color palette is densely defined in this monochromatic piece, as the slight changes in tonal values delineate the caramel skin of the Sarawak natives, the maroon of their decorative sarongs and the browns of their immaculate hair.
Here, we witness Soo Pieng’s endeavors in considering his own perspective in all its totality, as he renders a community filled with tranquil and harmony. As an introspective artist who adhered tightly to the ethos: “man must live in harmony with man, as well as nature
”, Soo Pieng had a personal affinity for the natural tropics of Sarawak, as well as for the undeniably tight-knit spirit of its Southeast Asian communities. Soo Pieng takes care to depict his affection for the seated women in hushed repose, as they bask within the unbreakable solidarity that they have for each other. Therein lies the beauty of the Sarawak locale that Soo Pieng adored - their peaceful, united harmony and their strong sense of community. As such, Soo Pieng’s emotive brushwork delineates an ode to the interconnections between man and nature, and celebrates the ways in which humans are cared for through their cultural bonds. Soo Pieng celebrates the beauty of Sarawak women by showcasing them exactly as they are, seated in their primitive idyll. The silhouettes of these women, almost in a ritualized form, elucidate Soo Pieng’s love for exploring, and using travelling as a mode of practice. As a curious wanderer, Soo Pieng’s habitual sketching and painting en plein air
was his method of immortalizing the immediacy of a subject, since everything he saw was an overwhelming experience in its complete entirety. Built for the safety of Sarawak dwellers, longhouses were literal pillars in the communal lifestyles of Sarawak people, and could house 30 to 50 families at once. This present lot is an unperturbed rumination of centuries of cultural traditions and ways of living; simply put, “Long House” is a timeless illustration that is traceable back to the historical tales of the Sarawak society.
This present lot is an unparalleled composition, one that bears significant markers for Soo Pieng’s later works. Exquisitely transcendental, Soo Pieng imbues the figures in the canvas with iconic features that reflect not simply what he saw, but the essence of his voyages across the bucolic environment of Sarawak. “Long House Inhabitants” is an opportunity for us to rediscover the elements of community and tradition within Sarawak, crafted masterfully by the anecdotist and artist none other than Cheong Soo Pieng.