An artist works tirelessly to record beauty for posterity before it all fades
Story by Adrian Goh
Receding glacier on Mount Kilimanjaro
Had it not been a fascination with elephants, artist Chew Choon would not have ventured into Africa where he also witnessed the slow depletion of nature’s full glory. The Singapore-based artist stepped onto the green plains in 1987 to get close up with pachyderms (hard-skinned animals such as elephants, rhinoceroses and hippos) so that he could paint them.
Mount Kilimanjaro then wore a full crown of snow. Twenty-two years later, Chew Choon notes, this crown has almost vanished and he witnesses the consequences that follow.
Thirsty beasts drink from a drying pond.
Where scientists prove and disprove how changes to Kilimanjaro could impact the globe, or how long the famous ice fields on its peak could last, it takes an artist to capture in detail what has happened simply from observing the ground. Chew Choon has travelled from one African plain to another, encountering wildlife in their natural habitat such as pachyderms, gazelles, oryxes, wildebeests, zebras, sables and cheetahs.
In spite of photographing them and recording them on canvass, he has a concern. “I noticed in my recent visits that their numbers are dwindling,” he said, adding that the phenomenon seems to have been triggered by Kilimanjaro’s disappearing crown.
Naturally, a drier climate would kill off the animals. With watering holes already hard to come by in Africa, what more with increasing temperatures? So it seems no matter what reports might conclude, the impact of changing environment to living creatures is real and immediate. Yet, he feels, little is done.
“It is apparent that too few people feel for animals,” says Chew Choon in reflecting on attitudes today.
“I recall Chief Seattle’s wise words where he says that Man is empty without the beasts because they invariably share the world and spirit.” Chew Choon chanced upon this saying in 1855 by the wise Native American chieftain (from whom Seattle gets its name from).
To find the truth in these words of Chief Seattle, just see how pets and children relate to each other. It is undeniable that we share a joy with them; one that bonds us emotionally in a sustenance that is not found in the comfort of brick walls, mortar roads or electronic pricing systems.
Chew Choon's Call of the Wild
Chew Choon first saw elephants logging in Thailand and at once, he was taken in by their majesty and grace, resolving to spend his lifetime painting them. In seeking out the free roaming members of the pachyderm family, Africa became the pull and that is where he has gone ever since to be in their presence. He has since travelled to South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana, befriending different tribes including the Masai, learning new cultures and staying in straw huts. No wonder he considers Africa his other home.
It is not elephants, however, that were in Chew Choon’s first paintings as a boy. Growing up in a languid village in Kedah, Malaysia, the only thing that bustled was squawking and bellowing farm animals. His father who owned a rubber plantation often caught him settled under a tree, sketching cows and goats. Nothing could convince Chew Choon to take up an interest in the rubber trade as he grew up – he was committed to capturing the beauty of animals through art. So he moved to Singapore to pursue his dream.
Yet to be named, this 2008 piece captures wild beasts lumbering in search of a watering hole
Graduating from Singapore’s Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1975, Chew Choon complemented his formal training in eastern disciplines with a western approach to broaden his expression in painting landscape and animals. He started with the Chinese brush and paper, but eventually got tired of its parameters and moved on to acrylic on canvas. This transition is seen in the move from realism to abstraction. During this time, Chew Choon was already established in European markets, having displayed his work in galleries and shows there.
Says Chew Choon on his continued visits to Africa in spite of waning wildlife, “It is humbling to speak on behalf of them and the planet because I have taken much already.”
Chew Choon’s collection of his best work and photographs over 30 years is captured in an illustrated bound book titled My Africa.
Both soft and hard cover versions are available by contacting the artist directly at email@example.com.
Photos by Adrian Goh, Chew Choon and Koko.