"THE STRAITS TIMES", 6 June, 2002

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Having the last laugh
- Awarded -winner artist Raymond Lau demonstrates how he has conquered the demons of his childhood with his latest exhibition, titiled Motherland


   WHEN Raymond Lau was in primary school, he did not want to be an artist. He wanted to be Prime Minister of Singapore.
    "When I shared this with my teacher, she nearly fainted," he says, langhing.
    He had never been good at his studies.
    That he is now, at age 34, accepted as one of Singapore's better artists should offer some consolation for his lack of academic achievement during his childhood.
    His latest exhibtion, Motherland, is his fifth solo show since he launched his career in 1993, when he won the UOB Painting Of The Year Award. Last year, he won the National Arts Council's Yong Artist Award.
    Still, the scars, both emotional and physical, are not so eaily washed away.
    Constantly taunted by his relatives for being a poor student, Lau grew up feeling that he was "rubbish to society".
    He could not study. But it was not for want of trying.
    In his first year at Mount Vernon Secondary School, he tried hard to keep up with his classmates. When he could not, he would punch himself in the face as punishment.
    "I used to whack myself until I bled," he says of that dark time in his life.
    "You can't tell now because I look so fantastic," he says, laughing again.
    Tourette's Syndrome, however, is not a laughing matterl When Lau was in his late 20s, he learnt that it was this genetic neurological condition that made him say and do things uncontrollably.
    The condition, which is characterised by tics, had plagued him since he was a child of seven.
    He was given medication to control his fits, but he never stayed the course because it made him "drowsy and tired" all the time.
    To this day, he still has sporadic episodes of uncontrollable speech and tics.
    His parents, who ran a hawker stall in Serangoon Road, thought their child was possessed.
    "They took me to so many mediums," he recalls. "One even told my parents to hit me in the face with wooden clogs to drive out the evil spirits."
    And they did. He was only 10 years old.
    "I know my parents wanted to cure me but I felt like a prisoner being punished."
    Lau's parents, especially his mother, could not accept his affliction. She had two other children to take care of so Lau had to live with his grandmother instead.
    These memories - the love for his grandmother, the yearning for acceptance - have become a part of his work.
    It was she who encouraged him to draw as a child. later, after secondary school, he applied to study at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. He was rejected.
    Demoralised, he wanted to give up. But the then principal of Mount Vernon Secondary School, Ms Tan Suan Imm, introduced him to Brother Joseph McNally from Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, who enrolled him there. He graduated in 1991.
    Lau's earlier, better-known paintings, executed in his characteristic impressionistic style, all have the joy and love he has ever experienced as the central theme.
    The scenes of Chinatown streets and mamak stalls, painted from memory, were places he remembers going to with his grandmother, who died when he was 14.
    Lau then had to go back to live with his parents, but it took a lot of adjustment.
    "I didn't believe they were my parents because I had always been so close to my grandmother."
    His latest exhibition, Motherland, a tribute to a mother's love, is about his acceptance of his difficult childhood.
    "It was not until I became popular as an artist and found myself that I realised that my mother must have cared. If not, I wouldn't be alive today," he says.
    "Painting is a way of expressing this love."
    Motherland is a series of 31 works for his mother in words, he painted them using a palette of intensely warm colours, which makes every canvas seem awash in a golden sunset.
    Lau is unabashedly "romantic". His vision of Batam is not unlike the idyllic impression of Chinese artists from a earlier generation who painted Bali in what is now known as the Nanyang style.
    His painting also show a sensitivity to the particular quality of tropical sunlight.
    "I like light and shadow, and deep shadows are very tropical."
    In Motherland, he has also began to people his canvases for the first time.
    The characters are mostly villagers from Batam.
    Using broad brush strokes, as Lau dose, it is not easy to capture facial expressions. Yet he manages to.
    The faces, charged with feeling, are revealing, perhaps mirroring his own.
    Asked how he would like his paintings interpreted, he says:"In our lives, we need more communication, caring ... and love."
by Arthur Sim

Website about Singapore Artist Raymond Lau