Tay Bak Koi

Tay Bak Koi (b. 1939, Singapored. 12 December 2003, Singapore) was an artist renowned for his portrayals of fishing villages, kampung (village) scenes and urban landscapes.1 He specialised in oil and watercolour. Tay's works have been exhibited extensively in Singapore and other countries, including Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Germany and the United States. His style tends toward a blend of realism and fantasy, and he was known for his recurring stylised imagery of the buffalo.2 In 1969, he was commissioned to produce some 300 works for the opening of Hilton Hotel in Singapore.3

Artistic beginnings
Tay’s talent for drawing was discovered by his father’s friend, who subsequently enrolled him in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1957. His teacher, the late Cheong Soo Pieng, taught him to appreciate existing works of art in new ways and to challenge conventional art forms.4

However, Tay was dissatisfied with the structural rigidity and formal instructional methods of the school. He spent much of his three-year course selling crabs at a market stall while experimenting with oils and watercolours. He was convinced that his lifelong career would involve the arts, specifically as an artist, but he was also aware that to develop as an artist, he had to hone a distinctive style.5

Stylistic conventions
Although Tay's art is seldom described as radical, it is not conformist either. His regular buyers have claimed that they can recognise his artwork from a distance.Tay’s oeuvre began with early documentations of a vanishing Singapore with geometric kelong and kampung in the 1960s, realistic paintings of Chinatown in the 1980s and lastly, experimentations with bright colours.7 His works also sought to capture scenes of Southeast Asian culture.8

Tay’s distinctive style was largely attributed to his dexterity in merging fantasy with reality.9 For example, when depicting urban landscapes, he tended to disrupt the realistic mise-en-scène with fairytale-like interjections. While he placed emphasis on observable reality, he engaged in a process of elimination and distortion in order to reduce complex forms to their basic shapes. The result was a keen appreciation and presentation of the two-dimensional aspect of painted surfaces.10

He also displayed a deep appreciation of colours and attention to rich textural surfaces, decorative details and acute linework.11 He used colours sparingly in some of his works, playing on the resonance and complexities of cool hues such as blues and greens, punctuating them with spots of bright colours.12 In others, he allowed his colours to emerge in riotous bursts of vivid reds, yellows, blues and greens. In his representations of the Singapore River, he chose to focus on muted tones of greys and browns.13

A recurring motif in Tay’s works is the stylised buffalo, represented by a basic cut-out shape of a massive humped body supported by a pair of inverted V-shaped legs and a small head adorned with two elegantly-curved horns.14 The choice of the buffalo stemmed from the vivid impression of herds of buffalos in Potong Pasir during his childhood, which etched itself into his memory.15

Tay’s extensive body of work has been exhibited in Asia, Australia, Europe, the United States, Canada and the Middle East.16

His artworks were selected by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) art committee for their international charity greeting card collections in 1985 and 1988. The cards were produced and sold in 1986 and 1989 respectively.17

Tay passed away on 12 December 2003 at the age of 64. He had been suffering from nose cancer.18

Solo exhibitions19
1964: Tengah Airport Club, Singapore.

1964–65: National Library, Singapore Art Society, Singapore.
1966: Ipoh Public Library, Malaysia.
1970–71: Gallery Fine Art, Singapore.
1971: National Library, Singapore.
1974–75: National Library, Singapore Art Society, Singapore.
1975: Raya Gallery, Melbourne, Australia.
1978: Gallery Fine Art, Orchard Towers, Singapore.
1979: Raya Gallery, Hyatt Hotel, Singapore.
1981: Hyatt Hotel, Singapore.
1990: Lone Pine Gallery, Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Parade Hotel), Singapore.
1990: Impression: The Art of Tay Bak Koi, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1996: In Harmony with Nature, The Art Gallery, Penang.20
1997: From Joy’s Diary…, Eagle’s Eye Art Gallery.21
2007: Reminiscences of Tay Bak Koi, Stamford House, Singapore.22
2013: Reminiscing Tay Bak Koi, Artspace@Helutrans, Singapore.23
2016: Paintings by Tay Bak Koi, Artcommune Gallery, Singapore.24

Group exhibitions25
: Singapore Art Society Annual Exhibition, Singapore.

1963: Salon De Mei, Penang, Malaysia.
1963: 6th National Art Gallery Exhibition, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore.
1963: Society of Chinese Artists Exhibition, Singapore.
1964: Young Asian Artists, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
1964–65: Modern Art Society Exhibition, Singapore.
1966: Youth of Asia, Japan.
1967–81: St Andrew’s Hospital Charity Show, Singapore.
1969: Eden Hall Charity Show, Singapore.
1976: Six Men, Tang Chou Art Gallery, Singapore.
1976: Inaugural Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1976: Colour, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1977: Large Paintings, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1977: Paintings and Sculptures, Alpha Gallery, Singapore.
1977: Royal Overseas Art Exhibition, London, United Kingdom.
1977: Preliminary Art Exhibition, Cologne, Germany.
1978: Galloway Gallery, Brisbane, Australia.
1979: Singapore Art Exhibition, Bahrain, Dubai and Kuwait.
1980: Three International Artists, Galloway Gallery, Brisbane, Australia.
1980: Singapore Art Exhibition, Tel Aviv, Israel.
1981: Hong Kong Arts Festival, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong.
1989: Twenty Singapore Artists for New York Art Expo, Jacob K. Javits Convention Centre, New York, United States.
1989: 1st Bru-Sin Art Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Negara Brunei Darussalam.
1990: 2nd Bru-Sin Art Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1993: Singapore Artist Directory Exhibition, Empress Place Museum, Singapore.
1994: Reminiscences of the South Seas: Two-Man Exhibition by Tay Bak Koi and Tew Nai Tong, Shenn's Fine Art, Singapore.
2000: Elite Painters 2000 – An Ode to Joyful Living, Eagle’s Eye Art Gallery.26
2001: Elite Painters 2001 – Painters of Praise, 12 Asian Artists, Eagle’s Eye Art Gallery.27
2011: South-East Asian art from the 1960s till today, Eagle’s Eye Art Gallery.28
2013: 1st and 2nd Generation Artists Exhibition, Artcommune, Singapore.29
2014: Applause, Ins’ Art International, Singapore.30


Nurhaizatul Jamila Jamil

1. Tan Su Yin, “Humble Start to End,” Straits Times, 20 January 2004, 3; Margaret Chan, “Bak Koi’s Story – from Crabs to Art…,” New Nation, 16 June 1978, 10–11; “Obituaries,” Straits Times, 13 December 2003, 43. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Koh Buck Song, ed., Singapore: Places, Poems, Paintings (Singapore: Art and Artist Speak, 1993), 198. (Call no. RART q700.95957 SIN)
3. “Out and About,” Straits Times, 28 August 1988, 5; Irene Ng, “From Crabs to Riches,” New Paper, 9 April 1991, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Koh, Places, Poems, Paintings, 198–99; Tay Bak Koi and Tew Nai Tong, Reminiscences of the South Seas: Oil Paintings (Singapore: Shenn's Fine Art, 1994), 30. (Call no. RSING 759.95957 TAY)
5. IIsa Sharp, “Comment,” in Tay Bak Koi (Singapore: Creative Press, 1969). (From PublicationSG)
6. Koh, Places, Poems, Paintings, 198.
7. Tan Shzr Ee, “Nanyang Spirit Lives On,” Straits Times, 6 July 2002, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Tan, “Humble Start to End.” 
9. Koh, Places, Poems, Paintings, 198.
10. Koh, Places, Poems, Paintings, 198.
11. Koh, Places, Poems, Paintings, 198.
12. Tay and Tew, Reminiscences of the South Seas, 5.
13. Sharp, “Comment”; IIsa Sharp, “Portrait of the Artist as a Man on the Crest of a Wave…,” Straits Times, 22 June 1969, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Koh, Places, Poems, Paintings, 198.
15. Chan, “Bak Koi’s Story.” 
16. Tan, “Humble Start to End.” 
17. Goh Sui Noi, “Art of Charity for the Children of the World,” Straits Times, 8 December 1985, 2; Rodney King, “A Singapore Card to Help Fight the ‘Quiet Carnage’,” Straits Times, 5 November 1988, 3; “Charity Cards, Calendars and T-Shirts…,” Straits Times, 3 December 1989, 12; Rachel Chia, “Got Milk? Book Chronicles S’pore-Unicef Partnership,” Straits Times, 27 January 2016, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Tan, “Humble Start to End”; “Obituaries.”  
19. Koh, Places, Poems, Paintings, 198.
20. Joy Loh and Denise Cheng, Memoirs of Tay Bak Koi (Singapore: Eagle's Eye Art Gallery, 2002). (Call no. RSING q759.95957 MEM)
21. Loh and Cheng, Memoirs of Tay Bak Koi.
22. Lisabel Ting, “Backstage Pass,” Straits Times, 12 February 2013, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Callyn Chow and Ronald Kow, “Last Call,” Straits Times, 15 April 2016, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Koh, Places, Poems, Paintings, 198.
26. Loh and Cheng, Memoirs of Tay Bak Koi.
27. Loh and Cheng, Memoirs of Tay Bak Koi.
28. “What’s Up This Week…And The Weeks Ahead,” Straits Times, 25 February 2011, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Arts.”
30. Melissa Tay, “Applause,” Straits Times, 25 March 2014, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Dave Ang, “Impressions of Artist Tay Bak Koi after Six Years,” New Paper, 13 October 1990, 25. (From NewspaperSG)

Jennifer Schoon, “Koi Sticks to His Kampong Scenes,” New Nation, 11 January 1975, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at April 2020 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.

Tay, Bak Koi, 1939-2005