Artist Interview: Tan Seow Wei (Singapore)

Tell us more about how you started experimenting with screenprinting and how you incorporate it into your mixed media practice.

I learnt screen printing techniques when I was in art school but the problem was that I had no access to the exposure machine after I graduated. As I have always enjoyed the flat, tonal layers that screen printing lent itself to, I began to work in ways where I could screen print without photographic exposure. Stencilling is one while using masking fluid as a drawing tool is another. When I began working on the first few series of nudes, I wanted a clean, flat background to contrast with the dynamic line works I like to express human forms in. Hence, I began making cut-out stencils and experimenting with the positive and negative spaces of nudes. I was particularly inspired by Henri Matisse’s Blue Nudes. After this, I moved on to layering the stencils with more details using monotype or ink washes, based on what I felt was required to push the compositions further.

What does the iconography of the nude mean to you?

In contemporary society, the naked body is often perceived as a commodity, projected as an object of lust and the focus for sexual exploitation. I have also always found the derogatory association of nudes with pornography distressing. When I was in art school, I had classmates asking me if I thought the subjects of my works were obscene or vulgar. I was speechless.

However, this was not always the case. In the context of Art History, the nudes have always had a place. From the Egyptians’ soulful depictions of nudes in ancient sculptures to the Greeks’ portrayal of wisdom, strength, and courage in their archaic statues. Renaissance works such as Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and Michaelangelo’s sculpture “David” show that the naked form can be looked upon positively.

Likewise, my desire to portray the nude stems from the pursuit of beauty. In particular, the beauty of the human form – all the curves, symmetry, proportions, and grace that comes with the it. The human body should not be hidden away as if it is something vile. On the contrary, we should celebrate it and learn to look at it as it is, without sexualising it.

Tell us more about the close associations between flora and femininity.

Floral analogies have been used to describe attributes of femininity in art for the longest time — be it a traditional portrait of a woman with a single bloom or bouquet of flowers or a painting of woman against the backdrop of a flower garden.

This association of flora with femininity can still be observed in everyday life. From gifting flowers to women on special occasions to floral designs accenting women’s wear and floral notes in fragrances for women… The list goes on.

Why and how did this association come about? Drawing parallels between the gentle beauty of a woman and the delicate flower seems only natural. Secondly, the fruit-bearing ability of flowers has also come to symbolise female fertility in many cultures. In some traditions, flowers represent aspects of the female genitalia and are even used as sexual metaphors. Finally, women’s apparent affection for flowers has undoubtedly rendered the relationship between flora and femininity legitimate.

There is a dominant use of neutral tones and shades in this series. What prompted the use of such a palette?

This is an interesting question. To be honest, I have not really thought much about it, but neutral tones and shades have always appealed to me and I create a lot of my artworks in those aesthetics. If you were to look at the portfolio on my website, you would be able to see that. Perhaps it has to do with my personality? Someone once commented that my artworks are a lot like myself – soft and quiet. I don’t really like to be loud.

The use of neutral tones and shades is also an aesthetic decision. I experimented with bold, solid colours for my first few series of nudes but I eventually settled with this as I wanted to draw focus to the human form. If I were to include colourful details in the background, it might take away the attention from the main subject matter.