NAFA: Pioneering Arts Education

In 1938, Singapore’s most prominent fine arts institution, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), was formed. In the 1940s, it was still possible for a young Thai student to be trained in painting and other skills at Nafa. Nafa was the only art school in Southeast Asia until the 1950s. NAFA has under its wing many artists who became the institution’s first generation of instructors, owing to its precedence as the first organization to provide formalized art education. Other notable names on the illustrious list included Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, and Georgette Chen – pioneers in the Nanyang Style Art Movement who helped to create it. NAFA is the oldest arts organization in Singapore, having helped pioneer arts education. NAFA has been a long-time supporter of the arts in Singapore, with many graduates becoming artists or art educators after graduation.

NAFA’s current campus at Bencoolen Street is its first purpose-built one, having been founded in 1938. NFA has generally leased or taken up properties that have previously been used by schools. Many of these former NAFA sites are still in existence today, functioning as creative places, private residences, and planned condominium buildings. Given the Bencoolen Street institution’s long-standing connection with the region stretching from Middle Road to Sophia Road, the campus is perfectly positioned.

The bronze sculpture of founding principal Lim Hak Tai of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts at the NAFA Building. Image Source (Flickr)

Lim Hak Tai, one of the four founding fathers of Nafa and a local artist from Amoy, had previously taught at the Amoy Art Academy and Chip Bee University in China. He started NAFA in an old two-storey shophouse at 167 Geylang Road with only 14 students on 10 March 1938, with the Society of Chinese Artists’ support. Soon after the school’s opening, enrolment increased, prompting the school to relocate to a bungalow on 93 Serangoon Road with a tiny hostel for female pupils.

Western painting class in St. Thomas Campus. Image Source (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)
Outdoor western painting class @ St Thomas. Image Source (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)

The school was re-opened by Dr Lim in 1946, following the Japanese occupation and incorporation of the name Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Lim Yew Kuan succeeded his father as the second principle of NAFA in 1964 after his death. Under his leadership, NAFAB grew significantly. By 1978, there were 180 students enrolled in full-time, part-time, and weekend classes taught by artists who had previously studied at the school.

2nd NAFA Principal Lim Yew Kuan with former President of Singapore, Yusof Iskak. Image Source (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)

NAFA acquired several old school sites throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including the San Shan School, Nan Hwa Girls’ High School, Selegie School, and Saint Anthony’s Convent.

NAFA bought the premises of San Shan School at 107A Sophia Road in Singapore with help from the Foochow Association in 1982. The school was renamed the San San Campus. NAFA also established Singapore’s first Diploma in Applied Arts course that year. NAFA expanded rapidly in the 1980s, with the introduction of Interior Design, Music and Dance, and Fashion Design as new departments. Following the Ministry of Education’s first batch of students attending NAFA for instruction in 1984, the Secondary School Art Teachers In-Service Class was transformed into the Department of Arts Education.

NAFA Nan Hwa Campus. Image Source (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)
NAFA Selegie Campus. Image Source (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)
NAFA Wilkie Road Campus. Image Source(Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)
Current NAFA Campus in Bencoolen Street. Image Source (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)

NAFA acquired the campus of Nan Hwa Girls’ High School at 2 Adis Road in 1985 when the latter school moved to Clementi Avenue 1. 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 1990. In 1997, the various departments were re-grouped into three major schools: School of Visual Arts, School of Performing Arts, and International School of Fashion Studies. Fine Art, Graphic Design, Interior Design, and Multimedia were all included in the category of Visual Arts.

In 1996, NAC financed NAFA’s purchase 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 11 Upper Wilkie Road in 1997. The Department of Drama (renamed Theatre in 1998) was established in August 1997.

NAFA changed the landscape in 1998 with higher education programs in conjunction with Australian institutions. In the late 1990s, the arts education movement began to gain public attention. NAFA was designated as a full tertiary institution after a government-sponsored study on the viability of expanding the two already existing arts organizations. In 1999, the Ministry of Education approved NAFA’s diploma courses for polytechnic-level funding.

After moving from several former school locations, NAFA was able to establish a home for itself. The national Fire and Rescue Services Authority was launched in 2004 when the NFA moved to its own three campus buildings in Bencoolen Street. The construction of the fourth NFA campus building, which will be located directly below the planned Bencoolen Street MRT Station, is currently underway.

Former NAFA President, Mr Choo Thiam Siew with former Minister Tan Hwee Hwa at Chen Chong Swee exhibition opening. Image Source (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)
In appreciation of the contribution, NAFA has named its Library the “Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Library”. Image Source (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts)

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