Chen Cheng Mei (also known as Tan Seah Boey) was born in 1927. She studied Western Painting at NAFA and graduated in 1954. Chen practised in a variety of mediums, including oil and ink painting, printmaking and Chinese calligraphy and was mentored by highly regarded artists Cheong Soo Pieng, Lim Hak Tai and See Hiang Toh. After graduation, she worked as a French translator for a bank and travelled to places such as Tahiti, Papua New Guinea and Mexico during her vacations. Even as an artist, Chen maintained a low profile and was regaled as one of the pioneers and a female member of the Ten-Men Art Group, an informal gathering of Singapore-based artists in the 1960s that actively travelled around Southeast Asia and the wider Asia continent in search of inspiration that would fuel their art practice. Long House is a work from this period.
Chen made several research trips through Asia, Africa and the Americas on her own and would spend time people watching and analysing them in their environment. Like an ethnographer, she documented her notes and thoughts in a book she carried everywhere she went in the form of sketches. She engaged in conversations with people she met, learnt about their lives and culture. She portrayed her encounters with these different cultures as they are, void of a postcolonial lens that often either patronised an unfamiliar culture or exoticised them and provided insight into their view of the world.
Untitled depicts a portrait of an olive-skinned lady with a cheroot perched on her lips. A cheroot is a thin cigarette that is in essence, hand-rolled tobacco with dried leaves that is open on both ends. Smoking cheroots is a popular habit in South and Southeast Asian countries and are smoked by both men and women. In old Burma (present-day Myanmar) and India, it was considered a prized skill for women to be competent at making them. The cheroot hangs loosely from the woman’s mouth, suggesting a nonchalant stance that is amplified by her relaxed shoulders. Her hands are by her side, eyes neutral with a curious outward gaze. The woman appears to be comfortable in her environment, perhaps seated against a brown wall with gridlines suggesting thatched walls. Her clothing would seem modern for the time when it was painted, soft dark blouse patterned with rows of red lines and capped sleeves. A pair of earrings with neatly combed back hair adorn her bare face, offer clues to her ethnicity and her origins. Chen’s child-like rendition of the figure, a style that is consistent in her works and astute use of lines and colour add to the vitality and an enigmatic quality to the portrait.