In Chua Mia Tee's 1955 painting 'Epic Poem of Malaya', the 2015 Cultural Medallion recipient and one of Singapore's most prominent social realist painters depicted a slice of local life: A society's desire to inculcate Malayan nationalism in the young. Featuring a leader reading nationalistic poems about Malaya to the youth with differing responses, it reflected Chua at his best: An artist committed to paint Singapore's national and social concerns of a particular time (he's also the man behind the Yusof Ishak portrait on your dollar notes).
Fast-forward to 2016 and the painting's back in the spotlight, this time tickling one's feline fancy. Russian artist Svetlana Petrova has introduced her cat (and golden ticket) Zarathustra into Chua's scene to celebrate her first Asia solo exhibition. If you aren't familiar with her name, you might recognise her works that incorporate a fat tabby cat into some of the art world's most recognised works: Rembrandt's 'Danae', Klimt's 'The Kiss', da Vinci's Mona Lisa and van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'.
Named after the "hero" of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Petrova shares in an email interview that the 10-going-on-11-year-old tabby was initially her mother's cat and is now a "living memory" of her. Though he's on the larger side, the health-conscious should note that he's on a diet of healthy treats of raw beef and king prawns (the latter's his favourite).
Petrova first incorporated Zarathustra in 2011 in Rembrandt's 'Danae' and since then, her Fat Cat Art project has become an Internet sensation. She works with digital scans of the original paintings and reproduces them with photographs from a shoot with her cat. Studying the styles of each painting, she reproduces them digitally to look as close to the original as possible. Petrova shuts the skeptics with her works by questioning how digital media corresponds with physical ones, and an understanding of what is art.
"In our digital world, art is not something untouchable," she summarises. "We can communicate with it. Digital media gives people incredible possibilities to interact with art." In fact, she's shared that her works have heightened people's interest in the originals by providing the stimulus to learn more on art history. The cat language is of course, a universal one.
"People understand its meaning without words. This language unites people," she says. "No one knows the originals of all 150 works in my gallery. For example, many people have told me that the Mona Lisa became better with the cat. They have such a feeling because now, the scene is understood by a modern person: A girl with a cat posing at her balcony."
For Zarathustra, he's just happy being the star of his show. The Insta-famous feline has his own managing team, international agent and publisher. "Sometimes I am inspired by his poses — so coquettish or dramatic that some old paintings come in my mind," shares Petrova on her process. "Sometimes I think about a painting and suggest to Zarathustra to make its interpretation".
So what inspired her to take a stab at Chua's painting?
"It's an iconic Singapore painting and it tells about the spread of knowledge and raising of national consciousness," she explains. "Zarathustra's intervention shows a modern development of how knowledge spreads: A huge Internet cat brings to the teacher his history of art in memes, while a small paparazzi cat in the front of the painting immediately takes a picture of this moment".
In the long run, Petrova aims for her works to be shown alongside the original paintings in museums. Chua's 'Epic Poem of Malaya' is currently shown at the National Gallery Singapore, and if Petrova gets her way, Zarathustra might just be able to leave his mark there as well.