By Howard Lee
Let’s be honest – too few in Singapore would have known who Sonny Liew was, if not for the National Arts Council withdrawing the grant for his graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye last year.
The book depicted an alternative perspective of Singapore’s independence that the NAC said contained “sensitive content” and could “undermine the authority and legitimacy of the government”.
Yet the Malaysian-born artist has an international career that saw him illustrating for well-known comic brands like Marvel, DC Vertigo and Disney. His artwork is currently on show in Singapore at Mulan Gallery, which seeks to exhibit works influenced by pop culture, especially those with socio-political and cultural nuances.
I caught up with him to find out a bit more about the exhibition, his works and his view on whether there was something good from the Charlie Chan fracas with NAC.
Tell us a little about the Mulan Gallery exhibition and how you are involved.
It’s a showcase of artwork from the book – paintings, final inked pages and work in progress pencilled pages. Some of them are on sale, though mostly only the work in progress pieces. I wanted the selection to be representative of the different styles in the book, so there are a few pieces from most of the sections.
I saw on the website where you have this mural piece with our three PMs at a kopitiam. What’s that all about?
It was a series I did a while ago called “Eric Khoo is a Hotel Magnate”. The basic idea was to explore the gap between public personas and private selves. In the case of many politicians, there is a contrast between well-to-do backgrounds and the need to project an image that connects them to the so-called heartland.
Charlie Chan is in its third print run now, I believe, with a brand new cover. I mean, we know why it was a runaway success, but do you think it will help boost the arts industry in Singapore?
I think it might be the fifth print run, although we’re talking about small-sized print runs in general here! (Author’s note: This is probably Liew being modest. Charlie Chan is currently topping the charts for Amazon and The New York Times.)
I’d be flattered if it plays some small role in encouraging comics creators here to be a bit more experimental and take some risks with their stories. In structural terms, it also seems to have become one of the reference points for conversations about the relationship between the arts and the state, along with Pin Pin’s movie and other works. So in that sense, it might have some utility, though I’m not certain it will actually alter the mindset of the people at the top.
Sonny Liew’s artwork is on show at Mulan Gallery, 6 Armenian Street, #01-07 from 4 to 24 March 2016. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is available in local book stores, and online at Epigram Books and The Agora.