Born in Jilin, China, Wang Yihan (or Jennifer, to her English-speaking friends) started painting at four. Although she grew up exposed to myriad art forms — she can play nine different instruments like the piano, guzheng, yangqin, gourd flute, clarinet and saxophone — her dream was to become a professional artist.
“My mother wasn’t supportive initially, believing it difficult to make it big as an artist. I then started my own business at 18, working at Hong Kong International New Silk Road Modelling Agency and Shanghai Yihai Culture Media Company. Only when I made enough money to support my focus on art did I gain the freedom to become a professional artist,” says Wang, who is in her 30s.
As a young artist, she started with traditional Chinese pigments. As she grew older, she learned to sketch and use oil and a medium. “I like to use acrylic paint to create my works, as it is a little similar to traditional Chinese painting pigments, which can create a form in one go and dry quickly.”
Today, she is a prolific contemporary artist leaning toward the abstract, combining Eastern and Western philosophies. “Chinese paintings often emphasise artistic conception, while Western paintings emphasise realism. As a young Chinese artist, I hope to combine contemporary techniques with a global vision to promote Chinese culture.”
Over the years, her art has been presented at various art competitions and exhibitions, including as part of China’s representation at the Paris Art Exhibition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France.
You will also find her work collected by some of the world’s most prestigious art colonies, including global dignitaries like the Abu Dhabi and Japanese royal families to the prime ministers of France and Thailand. Building on her passion for art, she has been a guest lecturer at the Shanghai Academy of Drama, Shanghai Normal University and Donghua University. Wang is also a member of the Shanghai Youth Art Association, Shanghai Art Association and China Art Association.
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The former model also founded her modelling and media agency in Shanghai and was a beauty queen many times over. Her accolades include first runner-up of Miss China World (2011); Miss China of the Supercar Queen (2012); Miss China of Miss Intercontinental (2013); Miss International Hainan (2013); Miss China of World Top Model (2014); and Miss China of The Global Cheongsam Beauty Competition (2014). Her experiences in the space saw her return as a judge and training instructor for multiple beauty pageants in China to coach younger contestants.
“My cousin encouraged me to join a school-level pageant for fun. Being young and spontaneous, I didn’t mind just entering myself for the fun of it. Little did I know, I wound up admiring the thrill and out-of-body experience of pageantry, that I entrenched myself deeper in more pageant activities. Without me realising it, I had been crowned Miss China four times before age 25!”
These days, the mother of a five-year-old boy lives in Singapore after having relocated here in late 2022. “I fell in love with the local landscape on a family holiday in 2018. I was in awe of the Singapore government’s dedication and support towards the arts and culture scene and the sheer opportunity provided for artists like myself.”
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“Singapore is home to one of Asia's most vibrant art scenes and ecologies, known for being the central point where East meets West. Though this may be an overused phrase, it is simply because of the melding of European and Asian influences that created this beautiful and vibrant society. I am not the first and won’t be the last artist to feel compelled to channel Singapore’s cultural uniqueness into my art. It has become my dream to contribute to this flourishing system with my painted tales.”
She works out of her studio-cum-gallery at 25 Chapel Road, a conservation bungalow off East Coast Road, which belongs to her sponsor. Inside the expansive space hangs a rotation of her colourfully contemporary paintings inspired by Singapore and created while she was in lockdown in Shanghai. In the past two years of the pandemic, she painted close to 60 pieces.
Four extremely diverse multi-layered paintings are currently on display to show that Wang is not just a one-trick pony. Forest Dreaming (梦回森林) features child-like imagery of smiling toadstools inspired by Singapore’s diverse array of flora. The Rich and Noble Elf (大富貴小精靈) depicts the richness of our nation’s melting pot of cultures and religions. Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海经) is a serene illustration of the country’s prime location surrounded by still and calm waters. A Dream of Glazed Light (琉光一夢) features scribbles and splashes of different coloured paint to denote the cosmopolitan and sometimes chaotic vibe of the city-state’s fast-paced lifestyle.
Typically, her paintings range between $10,000 to $25,000. But for charity auctions, like the one she organised in tandem with the launch of her gallery this January, art can go from $1,000 apiece. “As a devout Buddhist, doing charity is my way of giving back to society in the most meaningful and valuable way I can; and I see it as a perpetual constant in my life. When I chant sutras, I vow for world peace, without war, famine and disease.”
Here, Wang tells Options about her artistic pursuits and transition in Singapore.
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How do pageantry and art complement each other?
Both art and beauty contests are pursuits of beauty and mutually reinforcing. It is rare for a beauty queen also to be a literate artist and entrepreneur, simply because people tend to label beautiful women as empty ‘vases’ that look good but bring nothing much else to the table. I participate in these pageants to demonstrate that women can be beautiful, intrinsically artistic and smart.
Do you believe art is a natural gift or needs to be cultivated?
I don’t believe I’m incredibly talented, but I know I live and breathe art. When I pick up my pen to draw, the whole world goes quiet, and I can immerse myself in creating my world, and it’s not uncommon to go days without eating or sleeping when I’m in that artistic zone.
From an educational point of view, nature and nurture are equally important. My mother discovered my talent for painting when I was very young. She began to select the most suitable art tutors to coach me. Having raw talent is a great starting point, and it gives me the courage to persist in learning even when the going gets tough. Professional training helps in honing one’s skills and learning from the mistakes and successes of others. I would strongly encourage parents with artistic children to cultivate these skills and set them up well for their future.
Why contemporary art?
I like contemporary art because it is relatable. As a person born in the 1990s, I have witnessed several major shifts in our global environment on a cultural, technological and social scale as we move towards advancements in humanity. Contemporary art captures these subtle and significant shifts beautifully when we ask the right questions.
Because of smart devices and mobile phones, paintings are no longer necessary to record hyper-realistic events. The rise of the Internet in my generation, and my curiosity about the new and novels, has given me an unrestrained imagination. As the foundation of traditional Chinese art and the inspiration by Buddhism and philosophy, this kind of integrated artistic expression technique can only be contemporary art, which is more interesting than ornamental.
What are you learning about the Singapore art scene?
This garden city is greatly fascinating to me. There are many Michelin restaurants, authentic snacks from different countries, harmonious coexistence of different religions, high-quality education, good public security, and an active and developed financial landscape.
Singapore is not just a place where I can create art and enjoy life, but I can use my art to add value to the development of the nation’s arts and cultural agenda. I have visited the National Museum, National Art Gallery, various temples, botanic gardens and seaside gardens. These wonderful feelings and reflections will be mirrored in my works to come.
What is your hope for your art?
Art has brought me endless enjoyment and a deeper exploration of the spiritual world, and I hope this brings pleasure to others. I also want to contribute to the rise of art education and give back to the community that has been so welcoming to me.
My Chinese culture has greatly influenced and inspired my works, but the Chinese art scene has peaked. I want to broaden my international cultural horizon by making my works bolder and richer with amalgamations of different heritages, cultures, and nationalities. In that sense, Singapore is the perfect place to inspire such works.
What is in the pipeline for you?
My next step will be the spring auction in China, where my works have been stored and selected by the Sungari International Auction Company and the Shanghai Auction Company for preview and auction. In Singapore, I plan to join the official Artist’s Association and create a series of art exhibitions, art auctions and crossover activities ideally combined with charity initiatives.
I also plan to set up a children's art training institution and organise exhibitions and art auctions so that children passionate about art are given a platform and the right opportunities to start confidently in the art world.
On March 10, Wang will display her pieces at Victoria Concert Hall in conjunction with a performance by French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie, presenting Chopin’s complete Etudes and Preludes, sponsored by Altenburg Arts.