Chua Soo Bin “Legends: Soo Bin’s Portraits of Chinese Ink Masters”Artist: Chua Soo Bin
Mr. Chua Soo Bin was born in 1932 in Singapore. He is a noted photographer and a Singapore Cultural Medallion recipient. In the 1980s and 1990s, he photographed the “Legends” series of Zhu Qizhan, Liu Haisu, Huang Chun-pi, Chao Shao’ang, Chen Wen Hsi, C. C. Wang, Li Keran, Ye Qianyu, Wu Zuoren, Lu Yanshao, Xie Zhiliu, Li Xiongcai, Tang Yun, and Guan Shanyue, recording lively flashes of these fourteen legendary Chinese artists during their later years. The series was published as a catalog in Singapore, and beginning in the 1990s, the pictures toured Singapore and mainland China. “Legends: Soo Bin’s Portraits of Chinese Ink Masters” is now coming to Fujian, Chua’s ancestral home, and visitors will be able to catch a glimpse of these well-known artists and see their lives as they once were.
In Chua’s pictures, Ye Qianyu studies the movements of dancers dressed as apsaras; Liu Haisu sports a floral shirt while painting a figure model; C. C. Wang wears a long Chinese tunic to a Picasso exhibition at the MoMA; Li Xiongcai waters his flowers; Li Keran practices tai chi; Zhu Qizhan listens to Suzhou storytelling and enjoys his plants in the morning; Tang Yun seemed to best know how to live and he liked drinking wine and tea and raising grasshoppers. These images from the everyday offer an unvarnished view of the lives of these Chinese ink masters. Chua began taking these portraits in 1984, when he traveled to China on a commercial project for Singapore Airlines. He had always loved art, so he went to visit painters in what little free time he had. As time passed, Chua realized that masters like Qi Baishi had never had professional photographs taken, which inspired him to take portraits of Chinese painters. Coincidentally, Liu Haisu was presenting an exhibition in Singapore, and after Chua told him about the idea, Liu supported him, and recommended the Chinese title for the series, Liuzhen, which literally means “the truth that remains.”
In the four years from 1985 to 1988, Chua Soo Bin took nine trips to mainland China, four trips to Hong Kong, two trips to Taiwan, and two trips to New York, shooting a total of 200 rolls of 36-exposure film. In his "Legends"series, he used ASA400 film and a fast shutter speed to improve the film’s sensitivity and produce a coarse granular effect. He turned off the flash and took pictures using only natural light. To achieve a better effect in the final image, Chua Soo Bin also used darkroom techniques. When he photographed Lu Yanshao, Chua recalled, “I was prepared to take pictures. We started with a picture of him sitting in front of a white piece of paper and thinking. When he was finished, I took a picture of the piece alone, then I combined the two in the darkroom.” After the series was finished, Chua began working more with contemporary art. In the early 1990s, he opened Soobin Art Gallery in Singapore, and his role shifted from a photographer to a curator and collector who did his utmost to promote Chinese contemporary art.
Thirty-six years later, all fourteen of these masters have passed away, making the series that Chua carefully assembled even more precious. He has certainly been a witness to history. These 84 images are more than an archive; they annotate the paintings of these great artists. The exhibition follows the artists back to daily life in the studios that they once inhabited, showing the dynamism of their working methods or the casual moments of contentment in their lives. The coarseness of the silver salt granules seems to echo the texture of the artists’ brushwork, recording their paintings and personalities using traditional black and white film photography. This series is a homage to the dignity of history and culture. These images commemorate an era and offer a portrait or profile of its spirit; the calm and uniqueness of these artists’ lives are vividly and enduringly presented in these photographs.
By Xiao Ruiyun
CHUA SOO BIN
Born in 1932, Chua Soo Bin became very interested in art and photography from a young age. With his remarkable artistic talent and extraordinary perseverance, he was active in the arts scene as early as 1950s and 60s, receiving outstanding accolades. His innovative photographic compositions are thought-provoking to many and possess an enduring appeal.
As an honest, sincere and passionate Singaporean-Chinese artist, Chua has set himself the mission of promoting Chinese culture. In the course of his work, he has gotten to know many Chinese artists. Through photographic art, Chua aspired to capture their thoughts and feelings and significant artistic contributions so that these poignant images will live on forever as part of our world wealth. To complete this meaningful but extremely arduous task, Chua made tremendous efforts as well as sacrifices. He visited China mainland nine times, Hong Kong four times, Taiwan twice and even the United States and other places in order to conduct extensive research as well as to coordinate writing tasks and publishing matters. In order to capture the most spirited decisive moments to reflect true personality of each artist, he painstakingly researched and planned every picture to the extent that he often went without food and sleep. Hence, his single-minded image and determination throughout the project touched everyone who knew him in addition to the fourteen artists.
His most significant work “Portraits of Excellence” featuring 14 great Chinese artists was completed in 1989 when he mounted an exhibition at the Singapore National Museum with the launch of a book (in Chinese) of the same title, which was the predecessor of “Legends: Soo Bin’s Portraits of Chinese Ink Masters”. The exhibition has since travelled to Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Xi’an and Guangzhou; the book was revised and republished in 2006 in Chinese and English, both of which have with the present publication gone into their second edition due to the increasing popularity of the photographs over the years. Between 2005 and 2021, the exhibition of his opuses went on to tour Chongqing, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Kunming (Yunnan), Guiyang, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Singapore. His works have been collected by the Singapore Art Museum, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Lingnan Memorial Museum, National Art Museum of China, Shenyang Museum, Shenzhen Art Museum, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Guangdong Museum of Art, Guiyang Art Museum, Yunnan Art Museum, Liu Haisu Art Museum and Zhejiang Art Museum.
Chua Soo Bin, Wu Zuoren, 1988. Archival Pigment Print, 35cm x 50cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Chua Soo Bin, Liu Haisu, 1988. Archival Pigment Print, 35cm x 50cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Chua Soo Bin, Li Keran, 1988. Archival Pigment Print, 35cm x 50cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Chua Soo Bin, Lu Yanshao, 1988. Archival Pigment Print, 50cm x 35cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Chua Soo Bin, Chen Wen Hsi, 1988. Archival Pigment Print, 35cm x 50cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Chua Soo Bin, Guan Shanyue, 1988. Archival Pigment Print, 35cm x 50cm. Courtesy of the artist.