Art and context

Peter Yeoh

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T.K. Sabapathy

Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia, 1973–2017
T.K Sabapathy 
NUS Press: 2018
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Growing up in Penang, Malaysia, I wish that Writing the Modern had been available or else someone had directed my attention to T.K. Sabapathy’s writings. It would have been heartening to know there was a nascent art scene on the island, and that artists and intellectuals like Sabapathy were making efforts to elevate regional art beyond its subaltern status. Compiled and co-published by the Singapore Art Museum, Writing the Modern is a new anthology that covers over four decades of Sabapathy’s erudite, sometimes esoteric, opinions on modern art and its history in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore and Malaysia.

Thiagarajan Kanaga Sabapathy was born in Singapore in 1938, when it was a part of the Straits Settlements, a group of British colonial territories established in 1826 — dismantled in 1946 — that included Penang, Dinding and Malacca. He was still a child when the Second World War erupted and the Japanese occupied the settlements. When he was in secondary school, the region was roiled by a guerrilla war against the British. Sabapathy studied history at the Singapore-based University of Malaya. After graduating in 1961, he left for California the following year and earned a master’s degree in art history from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965. That same year, Sabapathy moved to London, where he taught Asian art at Farnham School of Art (1966–1969), became a research fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (1967–1969) and lectured on Southeast Asian sculpture at St Martin’s School of Art (1969–1970).

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