Tan Swie Hian

Artist, poet, author and linguist, who has published translation of several volumes of Western literary works, Tan Swie Hian is indeed a man of many talents and unarguably the most celebrated multi-disciplinary artist of Singapore.

Born in 1943 in Sumatra, Indonesia, Tan Swie Hian graduated with a degree in modern languages and literature from Nanyang University in 1968. He published his first collection of modern poetry, The Giant in 1968. The book, a landmark work, is considered to be the culmination of the Chinese modernist literary movement in the history of Chinese literature in Singapore and Malaysia. To date, he has published 50 titles of poetry, fables, essays, stories, criticism and translated works. Tan is the first person to have translated works by literary giants such as Henri Michaux, Jacques Prevert, Samuel Becket, Vaslav Nijinsky and Marin Sorescu into Chinese.

Tan held his first solo art exhibition in 1973 at the National Library and since then exhibited his works in numerous solo and group shows in Singapore and around the world.

A self-taught artist, Tan works with different media and he expresses himself equally well in calligraphy, oil and acrylic painting, ink painting, printmaking, cartogravures, seal-carving, sculptures, public art, earth art and performing art. Tan never compromises on creativity and profundity and is able to merge both Eastern and Western cultures to produce a unique style.

Tan has worked with choreographers, dancers and dramatists for numerous performances and is also a stage and costume designer. His performance at the gala opening of Singapore Arts Festival 2003, Instant is a Millennium – A Musical Conversation with Tan Swie Hian, together with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, was a unique concert experience combining music, poetry, calligraphy, sculpture and multimedia.

His achievements in the visual arts and literature, have won him recognition and many awards and accolades, both at home and abroad. Tan Swie Hian was conferred Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et les Lettres by France in 1978 and won the Marin Sorescu International Poetry Prize from Romania in 1999. He is also the first and only Southeast Asian artist to be elected as a correspondent-member to the oldest and most prestigious artistic institution in the world – The Academy of Fine Arts of the Institute of France. In 2006, he was conferred Officier de l’Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur which is the highest honour of France.

In 1998, he was selected by the United Nations together with 97 other celebrated artists from all over the world, including Hockney, Christo, Lichtenstein, Boey, Matta and Tapies, to illustrate a new edition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to mark the 50th Anniversary of its adoption by the world body. He is the first Singaporean to be conferred the prestigious World Economic Forum Crystal Award 2003 in Davos, Switzerland for his outstanding achievements and contributions to cross-cultural understanding.

In Singapore, Tan was the recipient of the prestigious Cultural Medallion in 1987 and has been conferred the Excellence for Singapore Award in 1996. On National Day 2003, Tan was conferred the Meritorious Service Medal by the President of the Republic of Singapore. The award is the country’s highest recognition for an outstanding individual with significant achievements in the arts. In September that same year, Tan was conferred an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by Nanyang Technological University for his multiple literary and artistic achievements. His latest accolades are the inaugural Spirit of Humanities Award from the Southern College of Malaysia and the inaugural Distinguished Patron of Heritage Award 2007 from the Singapore National Heritage Board.

Tan’s gigantic enamel mural and an immense floor calligraphy set in granite can be seen at the Chinatown Mass Rapid Transit station.

Highly esteemed and respected internationally, Tan’s admirers paid tribute to him in their own ways. In 1993, an avid collector, Tan Tien Chi, built the first private art museum in Singapore – Tan Swie Hian Museum. In 1996, at the entrance of the Museum of World Famous Chinese Artists’ Work located along the Yangtze River in China, Tan’s calligraphic preface was inscribed on a stele and erected at the museum’s entrance. In 2000, his essay and calligraphy to celebrate the birthday of the Yellow Emperor was inscribed on a boulder and erected in the Imperial Mausoleum, Shanxi, which is the most ancient tomb in China.

Since 2001, work has begun on the world’s first earth art museum – The All-Wisdom Gardens: Tan Swie Hian Earth Art Museum, which sprawls over a mountain range covering two square kilometers in Qingdao, China.

In 2006, Singapore Post proudly released a set of 11 stamps based on Tan Swie Hian’s creations to pay tribute to this talented and brilliant artist.

In 2006, Candid Creation Publishing in Singapore published the 9-volume Selected Works of Tan Swie Hian with the support of the Singapore National Arts Council. The collection consists of translated works (3 volumes), essays and criticisms (2 volumes), poetry (2 volumes), fables (1 volume) and stories and plays (1 volume). The collection represents a major milestone in Tan’s pilgrim’s progress as an author and translator because it is the most complete and up-to-date.