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Heads have always featured prominently in Eng Teng's work, beginning with portraits, like Jean Bullock, c. 1960 and the expressive imaginative heads, such as John the Baptist, c. 1960-61, to abstractions, like the Mobile Heads, c.1972. According to him, "a head and a face can express the whole emotional thinking of a person. The components in a face are important - the eyes, the mouth, but not so much the ears, I seem to eliminate the ears, but the nose does play a part. The main expressive elements in the face are the eyes and the mouth. The nose could help in the composition but, somehow, I am not worried about the ears!"
Since the mid 1980s, the artist has used this familiar theme, the elements of which he has stretched, pulled apart and recombined in the most inventive and, sometimes, outrageous way, as in Red Face, 1986. In the 1990s, Eng Teng created a number of heads mainly to explore and experiment with textures, glazes, firing techniques and surface decoration. These include Head Profile, 1991 (Fig. 20), Blue Head, 1991 (Fig. 21), Red Head, 1992 (Fig. 22); they are abstract, monolithic and with rhythmic lines, textured surfaces and modelled to be viewed in profile.
Double Profile, 1994 (Fig.23) and Pony Tail, 1994 (Fig. 24) are even more abstract, with the emphasis on surface patterning made by inlaying and scratching, a technique he used extensively throughout the 1990s. The inlay is achieved by scraping away the clay while it is still moist, and the crevices filled by painting on a slip (clay in a creamy consistency and coloured with oxides). After the slip has firmed, the excess is scraped away. Multi-coloured inlays can be achieved by repeating the process as many times as there are colours. The technique can be used only on simple, large forms because fine details would be scraped away. The end result is an interesting pattern of different coloured clays on a textured surface. Often a scratch pattern is included.
Centre Hair Parting, 1993 (Fig. 25) is a whimsical stylisation in which the hair can be interpreted as eyes or as ears, according to one's fancy. An earlier work of the same title (1992, NETAT, Fig. 123, p 265) is equally evocative. It is this ambiguity and metaphor that lend wit and humour to so much of Eng Teng's work.
Red Head and his other pieces in pomegranate red demonstrate Eng Teng's firm resolution to master the more complex ceramic procedures, even after achieving considerable self-expression and technical skill, and even though it meant that he would have to live several weeks in a foreign country, often in uncomfortable conditions. This quest for greater knowledge in sculptural methods had earlier spurred him to try his hand at stone carving in Pietasanta, Italy, in 1987, and bronze casting in Perth and Bangkok in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Eng Teng was intrigued by the ox-blood or pomegranate red glaze which he had tried without much success to reproduce in his own kiln. Although he knew the recipe and the complex reductive firing procedure, he could not obtain the uniform, all-over glazing, characteristic of the best of these wares. So he grabbed at the chance offered by Liu Ou Sheng, a well-known visiting ceramist from the important Chinese ceramic production centre, Shiwan, famous for its long tradition in the production of ox-blood red wares, to work in his kiln. He made two trips there, in 1991 and in 1992, staying a couple of weeks each time, living and working with the potters and producing about twelve pieces with this distinctive glaze. But shipping them back to Singapore was so expensive and fraught with delays and bureaucratic problems that Eng Teng has decided never to work there again, saying, "To me, these works are very precious because of the process and also the difficulty I had to get them back, involving so much money, so much time, so much anxiety and also so much obligation to friends."
Constance Sheares. Bodies Transformed: Ng Eng Teng in the Nineties. Singapore: NUS Museums/ National University of Singapore, 1999.
Last updated: 11 January 2001