Published on 14 December 2017

The award-winning multidisciplinary artist believes in constantly stepping out of his comfort zone.

By Melanie Lee

41-year-old Ben Puah started his experimentation with art early on in life. While in kindergarten, he painted a cow “like a rainbow” and received a scolding from the teacher because a cow, to her, could only be white and brown. That day, he went home and cried.

However, that did not stop Puah from trying out more artistic pursuits as a child. For one, he enjoyed drawing isometric houses with interior plans based on property advertisements in the newspapers. As a fan of a Hong Kong drama serial about China’s first emperor, he would also create his own dynasties with toy soldiers and furniture and furnishing accessories serving as battlegrounds and palaces.

“Whatever I liked seeing, I would create or draw out,” he recalls.

When he was retained for a year in Tanglin Technical School because of poor academic results, this serendipitously gave him the chance to take on a new ‘O’ level subject the school decided to offer when he had to repeat a year– art.

“A friend told me that you just have to ‘anyhow paint’ and you can pass this subject,” he says. “It turned out to be the only class that that I wasn’t impatient for to end. I would always stay back to ensure my printmaking was done nicely. I learned what it meant to do something out of interest.”

Karong Guni Uncles Project (2017)
A View from Bridge No.1 (2016)

Puah went on to study sculpture at LA SALLE, and later received a full scholarship to study at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Distinction. In between while serving National Service, he became active with former contemporary art collective Plastique Kinetic Worms (PKW). While he was not officially a member because he could not afford their membership fee, founders Vincent Leow and Yvonne Lee helped him get his first start in the art world by taking part in their exhibitions. Soon after graduation, he was selected as one of the President’s Young Talents in 2001.

“I feel that it is a miracle that I can be an artist in Singapore, and that all these different points in my life destined me to this work. Every practising artist has worked out his or her own means to survive. For example, some choose to teach to support their craft. But I don’t teach. As such, I have to choose not to rent a studio to save on costs. I am also fortunate to have a group of collectors who collect several of my works and this helps me to make ends meet.”

It also means accepting help. His recent sculpture “A View from the Bridge No. 1” which was originally displayed at the Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade from November 2016 to January 2017 received a new three-year exhibition space at Dempsey’s Tanglin Village thanks to support from Singapore Land Authority and THI Engineering & Construction Pte Ltd.

A Stroll in Rochor Canal (2017)
My Secret Playground (2016)

While in art school, Puah came up with an art avatar of a rat (two of his previous projects related to the rat theme), something he felt represented him at that point in time where he felt an artist, like a rat, was considered “dirty” and “discardable” in society. However, over time, his understanding of his rat art persona has evolved more positively as he gains a better understanding of how he works as an artist.

“I’ve learned that being a ‘rat’ artist is actually quite fun. A rat survives the harshest conditions and turns up anywhere. A rat is hard to get rid of. A rat adapts to its environment. This is similar to my approach in creating art that is relevant to the time and circumstances I live in,” he says.

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