Profile: Jimmy Ong

Published on 3 August 2015

How artist Jimmy Ong struggled before finding his place in the world.


For Jimmy Ong, becoming one of Singapore’s preeminent artists was a natural progression from his lifelong calling with art. He began participating in children’s art competitions from the age of seven, reeling in numerous trophies and cash prizes. Even as a child, he was en route to becoming a discerning and shrewd artist, as he candidly shares: “My weekends were about plotting which children’s art competition to join and studying what the judges were looking for in the prize-winning pieces.”

Being jobless and unsuccessful in his application to study at the National University of Singapore spurred him to pursue what he was best at — art. He won a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, USA. Since then, he has been working and creating around the world. His works have exhibited in Asia, the US and the Netherlands.

Ong relocated to New York City in 1995 and later moved to neighbouring Vermont, where he has spent the last 10 years enjoying domestic life while being close to the art resources of the Big Apple. For the past year, he has spent most of his time in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, drawn there by “the lure of creative energy”.

Living away from the country of his upbringing has had a profound impact on his work. “Uprooting yourself and adopting another country of residence or leaving family and religion is the most humble way to learn about yourself as part of the human race,” Ong muses. “We are all so passionately alike and yet culturally different.”

He is best known for his large-scale, figurative drawings of men and women, often in states of anguish, though some of his collectors say they like his renditions of botanicals and still lifes. His early works explored themes of sexual identity and gender roles. Currently, he is working with a community of transgender women in Yogyakarta on a form of social-relational art.

“Jimmy Ong is synonymous with his favourite medium, charcoal,” says Stephanie Fong, founder of FOST Gallery in Singapore. “His powerful drawings have always been imbibed with a strong sense of his Chinese ancestry, complicated familial relationships, yet his drawings are firmly placed within the Southeast Asian context. He also deals with difficult subjects such as his early struggles as a young gay artist in conservative Singapore.”

Ong’s works can be viewed at FOST Gallery (Gillman Barracks), the National University of Singapore Museum and upcoming National Gallery Singapore, opening this November.

Scroll Up