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Background Information

Secret Art of Survival

Pencil drawing showing two men sitting down in a room with materials hanging from the ceiling. Both are very skinny.
Drawing by a FEPOW: View from My Bed

Japanese military philosophy held that anyone surrendering was beneath contempt. As a result, their treatment of captives was harsh. Working as slave labourers on a starvation diet, many died. Brutal punishments were handed out for the most minor breach of camp rules.

Watercolour painting showing a section of bamboo with a fearsome looking creature poking its head out of the top. Writing around the base reads: Always look inside your bamboo!
Painting by a FEPOW: Always Look Inside Your Bamboo

It was forbidden to document anything in the camps and punishment was severe. Despite this, Far East prisoners of war (FEPOW) hurriedly documented daily existence in pencil, pen and ink, wherever they found themselves, in large transit camps, industrial work camps, jungle clearings or on tropical islands. 

FEPOW artists captured both the beauty and the horror of the landscapes.

Colour painting showing a black, white and blue butterfly
Drawing by a FEPOW: Tropical Butterfly

These primary historical documents provide a  fascinating glimpse of the battle to survive extreme adversity in wartime and the self-help strategies used by British servicemen, including making art to record their lives and as therapy.

Watercolour painting showing a view out to see with a barbed wire fence across the water. There are mountains in the distance and trees on  the left side
Painting by a FEPOW: View Across the Water

Artworks were kept hidden: rolled up inside bamboo tubes in walking sticks and artificial limbs, buried in bottles and tins under huts or with the dead.

FEPOW who were doctors, chemists, engineers and skilled craftsmen such as plumbers before the war, improvised medical equipment and drugs denied to them by the Japanese.

Watercolour painting of the inside of a bamboo hut. There are three beds laid out on a bamboo platform, bottles on a shelf and material hanging from bamboo poles
Drawing by a FEPOW: Inside the Medical Hut

A number of FEPOW artists charted the doctors’ battle to keep men alive: from ingenious life-saving inventions made from bamboo, tin, rubber and scrap to full operating theatres and dental surgeries in jungle camps.

Pencil sketch of a chair made entirely from bamboo held together by rope or twine.
Drawing by a FEPOW: Bamboo Dental Chair

Others documented how faith and hope played a vital role, drawing and painting the small bamboo churches and concrete chapels and loved ones at home.

Pencil sketch showing coconut trees and a mosque made form thatched bamboo with a tower.
Drawing by a FEPOW: St George's Church

Making each other laugh was crucial to morale and survival and is evidenced in the many cartoons drawn and performances produced.

Hand drawn theatre programme for Christmas 1943, showing a list of different acts and a small drawing of a stage.
Drawing by a FEPOW: Chungkai Theatre Programme