NAFA: Pioneering Arts Education

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.

The bronze sculpture of Lim Hak Tai was unveiled in 2009 by then Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Dr Lee Boon Yang, as part of NAFA's 70th anniversary celebrations.

The bronze sculpture of founding principal Lim Hak Tai was unveiled in 2009 by then Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Dr Lee Boon Yang, as part of NAFA’s 70th anniversary celebrations.

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.

NAFA’s first home in 1938 was a two-storey shophouse at 167 Geylang Road that was co-shared with the Society of Chinese Artists. Image Source: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

NAFA’s first home in 1938 was a two-storey shophouse at 167 Geylang Road that was co-shared with the Society of Chinese Artists. Image Source: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

49 St Thomas Walk was home to NAFA for approximately 40 years, including the years it was closed during the Japanese Occupation. Image Source: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

49 St Thomas Walk was home to NAFA for approximately 40 years, including the years it was closed during the Japanese Occupation. Image Source: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

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.

Two leading artists Choo Keng Kwang (left) and Chua Mia Tee, both NAFA graduates, admire the portrait of the cinema on the tricycle. Under the theme Vanishing Trades of Singapore, both of them completed six paintings each. 27 Sept 1977. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

Two leading artists Choo Keng Kwang (left) and Chua Mia Tee, both NAFA graduates, admire the portrait of the cinema on the tricycle. Under the theme Vanishing Trades of Singapore, both of them completed six paintings each. 27 Sept 1977. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

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.

NAFA occupied the premises of the former San Shan School at 107A Sophia Road from 1982 to the late 1990s. This was known as the NAFA San San Campus. Image Source: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

NAFA occupied the premises of the former San Shan School at 107A Sophia Road from 1982 to the late 1990s. This was known as the NAFA San San Campus. Image Source: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

What remains of the former NAFA San San Campus at 107A Sophia Road today.

What remains of the former NAFA San San Campus at 107A Sophia Road today.

In 1985, NAFA also occupied the former Nan Hwa Girls’ High School campus at 2 Adis Road, near the intersection with Sophia Road. Image Source: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

In 1985, NAFA also occupied the former Nan Hwa Girls’ High School campus at 2 Adis Road, near the intersection with Sophia Road. Image Source: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

The former NAFA Nan Hwa Campus building is redeveloped as part of the Sophia Hills condominium project.

The former NAFA Nan Hwa Campus building is redeveloped as part of the Sophia Hills condominium project.

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 1990, NAFA occupied the premises left vacated by Selegie Integrated School at 1A Short Street.

In 1990, NAFA occupied the premises left vacated by the Selegie Integrated School at 1A Short Street. The ten-storey-tall Selegie Integrated School was the tallest school building in Singapore when it opened in 1963.

NAFA once occupied this bungalow at 11 Upper Wilkie Road, which houses the Emily Hill creative cooperative today. Image Source: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

NAFA once occupied this bungalow at 11 Upper Wilkie Road, which houses the Emily Hill creative cooperative today. Image Source: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

This building at 11 Upper Wilkie Road has an illustrious history from being the home to the Japanese General Consulate, to the Social Welfare Department, to the Mount Emily Girls’ Home and to the Wilkie Road Children’s Home. It is today a creative multidisciplinary space occupied by the Emily Hill Enterprise Ltd.

This bungalow at 11 Upper Wilkie Road has an illustrious history from being the home to the Japanese General Consulate, to the Social Welfare Department, to the Mount Emily Girls’ Home and to the Wilkie Road Children’s Home. It is today a creative multidisciplinary space occupied by the Emily Hill Enterprise Ltd.

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.

President Ong Teng Cheong officiating at the opening of NAFA in Middle Road on 18 September 1996. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

President Ong Teng Cheong officiating at the opening of NAFA in Middle Road on 18 September 1996. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

The National Design Centre now occupies the former St. Anthony’s Convent at Middle Road.

Originally the Saint Anthony’s Convent, this building at Middle Road housed NAFA temporarily before becoming the National Design Centre today.

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.

NAFA has contributed to the nurturing of the artistic talents from a young age by initiating Singapore's first and only arts kindergarten, the NAFA Arts Kindergarten.

NAFA has contributed to the nurturing of young artistic talents by initiating Singapore’s first and only arts kindergarten, the NAFA Arts Kindergarten.

A stalwart of the arts, NAFA has produced many talented artists, including 13 cultural medallion recipients and 13 young artist award winners.

A stalwart of the arts, NAFA has produced many talented artists, including 13 Cultural Medallion recipients and 13 Young Artist award winners.

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