Huang Yao 黄尧: The Remarkable Guest of Malaya @ NVAG

This retrospective set me straight with a tight slap, for questioning the value of Huang Yao's works in previous auctions. Out of sheer ignorance, I did not know that this artist and education facilitator, wrote a comprehensive history about the Chinese diaspora in the Nanyang states, was consulted by former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak about education policies, helped set up libraries across this country, ran a popular comic strip in Shanghai named Niubizi 牛鼻子, and introduced innovations into Chinese calligraphic art. Even in his early works, Huang Yao already has a keen understanding of Chinese art, and displays a distinct style, apparent in the girls drawn in the Vietnam period (1947).

Malay Niubizi 牛鼻子 series (1956): "In our place only monkeys or martial arts can scale these heights; In this place the village boy can do so."

Having achieved commercial and critical success with his comic strip, the artist begin to travel extensively in the South East Asian aka Nanyang 南洋 region. Infusing tropical landscapes and figures into his work, Huang Yao produced a Malay Niubizi series in 1956, which contain hilarious observations in Mandarin prose, very much a tourist's exclamations after experiencing a foreign culture. Apart from the simple comic characters, the artist also drew portraits of local folk engaged in activities such as collecting fruits. These charming series of works are beautiful, with its combination of Chinese brush strokes, tropical vistas, and vivid colours. Coconut trees and its shadows, have never looked so good in Chinese ink.

Nanyang 南洋 series

Starting in the 1970s, Huang Yao experimented continuously with different styles, and eventually developed Chinese calligraphic innovations such as Chuyunshu 出云书 (ideograms drawn from the bottom upwards), Wenzihua 文字画 (ideograms incorporated into figurative art), and Ziyouhua 自由画 (abstract expressions in Chinese ink). Wenzihua is particularly interesting because Chinese characters are derived from pictorial representations of an object. Manipulating the ideogram to fit a figurative scene, imbues a double meaning onto the paper scroll, where visual and spoken language converge. Ziyouhua tries to be influenced by Western art, but the approach may be too drastic for this artist, as most works are insufficiently abstract, especially the blue paintings that look suspiciously Miro-esque.

Wenzihua 文字画 series: Sun and Moon are Constant 日月之恒 (1981)

The life story of Huang Yao, and his works, provide many lessons for the modern day artist. Utilise your skills to educate others, and drive meaningful change. Travel broadly, absorb foreign environments, and learn from others. Explore your aesthetic and innovate, without jeopardising your vision. In the end, the only gripe about this wonderful retrospective, is the lackadaisical event management by the National Art Gallery. No promotional materials are available, not a mention on its website or Facebook page, and I noticed a number of wrongly labelled texts within the exhibition space. Compare this situation with August 1956, where Huang Yao's 3-day solo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur drew 70,000+ visitors. What would Niubizi say?

Ziyouhua 自由画 series