NAFA: Pioneering Arts Education
In 1938, Singapore’s foremost arts institution, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), was established. NAFA was in fact the only art school in Southeast Asia until the 1950s. As the first institution to provide formalised arts education, NAFA had under its wing, many artists who became its first generation of educators. Among the illustrious list of educators were Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen – pioneer artists who contributed to the birth of the Nanyang Style art movement. Other than pioneering arts education, NAFA has been a stalwart of the arts in Singapore, with many students either becoming artists or arts educators upon graduation.
Although NAFA has been established since 1938, its current campus at Bencoolen Street is only its first purpose-built one. NAFA has always leased or occupied used sites such as vacated school buildings. Many of these former NAFA sites still exist today in the form of creative spaces, private homes and upcoming condominium projects. Given the institution’s longstanding relationship with the area spanning from Middle Road to Sophia Road, the Bencoolen Street campus is truly apt.
NAFA’s founding principal Lim Hak Tai, an artist from Amoy, had taught at the Amoy Art Academy and Chip Bee University in China. With support from the Society of Chinese Artists, he launched NAFA on 10 March 1938 with only 14 students in an old two-storey shophouse at 167 Geylang Road. As enrolment grew, the school moved to a bungalow at 93 Serangoon Road with a small hostel for female students.
Lim reopened the school after the Japanese Occupation in 1946 at 49 St Thomas Walk and formally registered the name Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. After his passing, his son and NAFA alumnus Lim Yew Kuan took over as the second principal in 1964. NAFA grew quickly under his charge. By 1978, there were 180 students across the full-time, part-time and weekend classes taught by lecturers who were established artists themselves.
From the 1980s onwards, NAFA occupied several former school premises, such as the San Shan School, Nan Hwa Girls’ High School, Selegie School, and Saint Anthony’s Convent.
With support from the Singapore Foochow Association, NAFA acquired the old premises of San Shan School at 107A Sophia Road in 1982. The campus was named the San San Campus. In the same year, NAFA launched the first Diploma in Applied Arts course in Singapore. The 1980s saw NAFA expanding quickly as the departments of Interior Design, Music and Dance, and Fashion Design were introduced. In 1984, the Secondary School Art Teachers in-Service class was converted to the department of Arts Education after the Ministry of Education sent its first batch of students to NAFA for training.
In 1985, NAFA took over the Nan Hwa Girls’ High School campus at 2 Adis Road when the latter school relocated to Clementi Avenue 1. In 1990, the National Arts Council (NAC) leased the former Selegie Integrated School premises at 1A Short Street to NAFA as its third campus, in addition to the Nan Hwa and San San campuses. In 1997, the various departments were re-organised into three main schools – School of Visual Arts, School of Performing Arts and International School of Fashion Studies. Visual Arts included Fine Art, Graphic Design, Interior Design and Multimedia.
In 1996, NAC sponsored NAFA for the acquisition of the old premises of the Saint Anthony’s Convent at Middle Road to replace the Nan Hwa and San San campuses, as well as space at 11 Upper Wilkie Road the year after. The Drama (renamed Theatre in 1998) department was set up in August 1997.
NAFA broke new grounds in 1998 with further education offerings in collaboration with Australian universities. Arts education also began to gain public interest by the late 1990s. A government-commissioned study on the feasibility of upgrading the two extant arts institution resulted in NAFA’s recognition as a full tertiary institution. NAFA was awarded the polytechnic-level funding for its diploma courses by the Ministry of Education in 1999.
After operating out of several former school sites, NAFA finally had a site to call its own. NAFA moved to its purpose-built three campus buildings in Bencoolen Street in 2004. NAFA will also expand further with the development of its fourth campus building directly on top of the future Bencoolen Street MRT Station.