Tretchikoff's propaganda art for the British military in Singapore

The Power of Art

In Tretchikoff’s book “Pigeon’s Luck” he and co-author Anthony Hocking recount how, by 1940, Tretchikoff – at the young age of 27 – had already established himself as a propaganda artist for the British military in Singapore. His work primarily consisted of producing posters, warning the city’s residents of the impending Japanese forces and urging resistance against any potential invasion.

However, as the shadows of war grew darker and the Japanese forces neared Singapore, safety became paramount. Tretchikoff’s wife Natalie and daughter Mimi were among the many non-combatants evacuated from the increasingly vulnerable city. They managed to safely reach Cape Town, where they anxiously awaited news of Tretchikoff.

Tretchikoff wasn’t as fortunate. As Singapore fell to the Japanese onslaught, he hastily boarded an evacuation ship, the Giang Bee, in a desperate bid to escape. Yet, fate had other plans. Japanese bombers targeted and sank the ship. Tretchikoff, along with other survivors, took to the lifeboats, embarking on a gruelling escape by rowing.

After two exhaustive weeks of rowing, they reached Sumatra, only to discover it too had fallen to the Japanese. They were left with no choice but to push on, spending another 19 days rowing in hopes of reaching Java.

It was during this harrowing journey, with all of them nearing starvation and desperate for aid, that Tretchikoff and one of his companions, Skipper, found a family in a remote fishing village.

“There was a whole family up there, and they welcomed us in a dignified sort of way. The head of the family sat crosslegged in the middle of the hut. In the gloom the whites of their eyes seemed luminous. The old man motioned us to sit down with him, by the doorway. When we asked for food he simply shook his head. Instead, he got his wife to serve us coffee in tiny cups, deliciously prepared, and give us a couple of small banana fritters she had made. That evidently, was supposed to be enough to stave off our hunger.”

Seeing that words were failing to convey their desperate situation, Tretchikoff spotted some crayons and an exercise book. An idea struck him. “If ever there was an illustrated story, that was it,” he said later. He began to sketch their recent experiences, especially the dire circumstances surrounding the Giang Bee. As he drew, Skipper narrated the story in Malay.

“Immediately the old man was interested. He got up and stood behind my shoulder watching every stroke of the crayons. I finished the first drawing and was about to start on a second when he stopped me. He went out and came back with a sheet of white cardboard, the lid of a shirt box. He took the exercise book from me and gave me the box lid instead, then settled down to watch me continue. The rest of his family gathered behind him. I drew the second picture, then a third to show the sinking of the Giang Bee and then our lifeboat tossing on the waves. The old man was enthralled. When I had finished I handed them up to him. From his reaction I might have been giving him the Crown Jewels.”

The story painted on paper captivated the old man and his family, breaking down barriers and forging a connection that words had failed to achieve. The old man orchestrated a flurry of activity, sending his family members to present a bountiful offering. Coconuts were gifted alongside pots of rice and an abundance of fish.

“My art has never brought a more welcome reward. Skipper and I carried the booty outside and passed it down carefully to the rest of the party. If we had served them a five-course dinner they could not have been more surprised or delighted.”

And there we have it: Art transcends barriers, conveys emotions and fosters understanding. In our ever-globalising world, this story serves as a poignant reminder that even when words fail, art offers a way to connect and communicate.


Back to blog