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Establishment of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts 10th Mar 1938

The origin of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) came from a call in 1937 by Yong Mun Sen, who was then the vice-president of The Society of Chinese Artists, to set up a fine arts academy in Singapore.[1] A committee was formed to study the proposal. At the time, the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in China saw an increase in the number of Chinese migrants, including artist Lim Hak Tai from Xiamen (formerly Amoy), China, to Singapore. Lim was a teacher at the Xiamen Academy of Art and Jimei Teachers Training College.[2] He became the founding principal of NAFA.[3]

Lim had five objectives for the academy[4]:

1. Integration of the cultural essence of the four races;
2. Fusion of the art of the East and West;
3. Development of the spirit of science and trends of modern thinking;
4. Expression of the local tropical flavour and the creation of a Nanyang (South Seas) art style and;
5. Emphasis on the educational and social functions of fine art.

With these objectives in mind, NAFA was opened on 10 March 1938 with 14 students.[5] The academy was first located in a two-storey shophouse in Geylang before moving to bigger premises at St Thomas Walk a year later. It was closed during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–1945) but resumed operation at St Thomas walk in 1945. The academy then moved to the former San Shan Primary School at Sophia Road in 1982[6] and subsequently opened campuses at Short Street off Selegie Road, and at the former Nan Hua Primary School at Adis Road off Sophia Road.[7] In May 1996, the campus at Adis Road moved to temporary premises at Middle Road, which used to house the St Anthony’s Convent. Eventually, the campus at San Shan Primary School also moved to the Middle Road premises.[8] In 1997, another campus was opened along Wilkie Road.[9] In June 2004, NAFA moved to its permanent home in Bencoolen Street, finally bringing together under one roof its campuses at Short Street, Middle Road and Wilkie Road.[10]

In its early years, the academy’s Chinese lecturers were mostly trained in cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Xiamen in China, and Paris in France.[11] Recruitment of students had commenced on 26 February 1938 for its four faculties: Western painting, sculpture, art education and applied fine art.[12]

The academy faced several challenges in its early years. It had to appeal to the colonial government for permission to recruit students of both genders aged 12 and above because of the ruling then to ban co-education of male and female teenagers. Public donations were also not forthcoming as potential donors tended to assess a school’s worthiness for donation based on its student enrolment.[13] NAFA persisted in its appeals for donations, and remained as the only art school in Southeast Asia until the 1950s.[14]

1. Chi, C. I. (1998). A brief history of NAFA. In 校友美展: 南洋艺术学院60周年纪念 (Nafa 60th anniversary alumni art exhibition) (pp. 19–20). 新加坡: 南洋艺术学院; 南洋美专校友会. Call no.: RSING 759.95957 NAF.
2. Kwok, K. C. (1996). Channels & confluences: A history of Singapore art (p. 23). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum. Call no.: RSING 709.5957 KWO.
3. Leong, W. K. (1978, November 15). Save the Nanyang Academy of Arts - the alma mater of many artists. The Straits Times, Section Two, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Chi, 1998, p. 20.
5. Chi, 1998, p. 20.
6. Leong, W. K. (1982, April 8). Best birthday present for arts academy. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. 2 possible sites for Nanyang Academy's new home. (1993, April 10). The Straits Times, p. 23. Retreived from NewspaperSG.
8. Nafa still looking for permanent home. (1996, September 19). The Straits Times, p. 41; Tan, H. Y. (1996, March 13). Nafa’s Mt Sophia campus to move in June. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. (2014). History. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from NAFA website: http://www.nafa.edu.sg/AboutUs/History/History_01.html
10. Seah, L. (2004, June 28). Curtain rises on Nafa’s new premises. Today, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Kwok, 1996, p. 23.
12. Chi, 1998, p. 20.
13. Chi, 1998, p. 20.
14. Hsu, M. C. F. (1999). A brief history of Malayan art (p. 68). (C. K. Lai, Trans.). Singapore: Millennium Books. Call no.: RSING 709.595 HSU.


The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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