heading article1s art is a way of life

Some people think that artists are generally ill-disciplined, unprincipled, or immoral. However, this assumption is overwhelmingly shallow and unfounded, and simply incorrect. A serious artist usually arms himself with a high level of discipline; he is particularly sensitive to ideas and concepts that he wants to express through his selection of colours, materials and media, as well as elements of design like line, texture and space. Discipline has a great impact on artists, either in the context of his creativity or in relation to his audience.

Choong Kam Kow is one of local artists who always put huge emphasis on discipline, as revealed by the entire body of work he has created thus far. He initially burst into the Malaysian art scene in the early 1970’ after so many years practicing art alone away from public eye.

In the mid-1960’s, several prominent Malaysian artists pursued their formal art education in foreign countries. Among them were Jolly Koh, Ibrahim Hussein, Ismail Zain, Joseph Tan, Long Thien Shih, Tan Tuck Kan, Redza Piyadasa, Suleiman Esa and Ahmad Khalid Yusof. Like them, Choong Kam Kow also travelled abroad to study art. Interestingly, while most of his artist friends went to England, Europe or Australia for their art education, Choong Kam Kow decided to go to Taiwan - at that time, the art scene there was rather unexciting and dull compared to that in the West. Due to this, we realise that works created by these artists are largely founded on different conceptual and philosophical underpinnings. Although Choong Kam Kow did not really embrace Oriental art after completing his education in Taiwan, his sojourns in foreign lands, including his studies at the Pratt Institute in New York, have exposed him to the influences of Western modern art. His works in the early 1970’s, apart from revealing his strict attitude towards discipline in artistic practice, clearly show traces of these influences. His earlier paintings, like Vibration - Illusion (1970), Sea Thru- Open (1971) and Sea Thru-Flow III (1974), were among the first and most well-known in Malaysia to be produced in the style of hard-edge abstraction. Together with Tan Teong Eng and Tan Tuck Kan, who were also teaching then at the School of Art and Design in ITM, Choong Kam Kow was very much interested in hard-edge painting. Through his vast artistic experiences, he was able to create high quality works with a focus on contemporary aesthetics and a sense of accuracy. Sea Thru - Open combines basic elements of painting and sculpture, and Sea Thru - Flow III uses plywood and expresses the relationship between modern technology and semantics. The experiences that he went through in foreign countries, especially in the U.S., provided him with direction, guidance and lessons vital for the progress of his creativity and artistic career.

Choong Kam Kow is very adept at incorporating contextual and situational ideas into his art. Moreover, he does not confine himself to only one particular medium or technique. A work of his in the Painting and Graphic Print exhibition at the National Art Gallery (1977) exposed his exploration and discovery of a new artistic element. In the show (which also saw participation from artists like Lee Kian Seng, Sulaiman Esa, Mustapha Haji Ibrahim, Chew Teng Beng and Ruzaika Omar Basaree), he presented a graphic print containing elements of local Chinese graphics and dealing with issues related to sacredness and mysticality. His skillful fusion and manipulation of different art forms allows his works to gain attention and appreciation from art enthusiasts. This can be observed particularly in Longevity and The 5th Month Festival (1) - the latter is now in the collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art in USA. Choong Kam Kow is indeed a highly disciplined artist and educator. His sincerity, integrity and excellence in carrying out his duties, and his high degree of creativity are apparently noticeable in many of his works. In my opinion, art has become part of his life style and culture, and vice versa.

One interesting thing about Choong Kam Kow is that Western influences are not really prevalent in his art. This is arguably attributable to his strong awareness of and rootedness in Eastern philosophies and cultures, unlike some other artists. Thus, his interest in hard-edge painting did not last for long. Afterward, Choong Kam Kow began exploring other ways and methods to put forward his philosophy. From hard-edge abstraction, he then adopted a more conceptual approach that took into account concepts relating to local sociocultural contexts but with universal references.

The 80’s marked the beginning of active development of local art, and also the high point in Choong Kam Kow’s artistic practice. His works became more dynamic, and they gave huge inspiration and challenge to young artists. I consider his artistic style original, and it aptly reflects his personality and image. Made using acrylic and paper pulp, these works carved a new trajectory in the historical development of Malaysian art. Choong Kam Kow’s new idea and technique won critical comments from local media and art critics. In the catalogue for the 1984 Asean Art Exhibition, Syed Ahmad Jamal remarks that images and motifs in Choong Kam Kow’s prints were derived from patterns normally found in traditional Malay crafts, like bangau carving, keris making and pandan mat weaving, and were also composed using moulds for making Chinese cakes. Through these works, he managed to draw viewers’ attention to the rich cultures of the two main ethnic groups in Malaysia, revealing to them that local cultural forms do not only possess symbolic meanings and ritualistic significance but also look aesthetically appealing.

Choong Kam Kow believed that clever manipulation of formal elements could lead to a new meaning, thus enriching the content of an artwork. Made from paper material and featuring elements of folk art (traditional cake forms) of both Malay and Chinese races, these works serve as channels to convey sociocultural messages. The original motifs were changed and transformed to generate new relational meanings. One of the works, titled Longevity, vividly demonstrates the artist’s tendency to invent a new structure of painting founded on local cultural heritage - Choong Kam Kow, a Chinese-descent artist, successfully developed it via pop symbolism - as a way to address his perception concerning the peoples’ spirit of festivities. Made from paper, this work employed an insightful and innovative language of modern art. Although the colours are of subdued shades, they still look brilliant and charming.

Choong Kam Kow’s subsequent body of works somewhat suggest that artists can create exciting works not merely by emulating concepts from other countries but also by engaging with and incorporating interesting cultures and ideas abundantly found within the local milieu. Widely praised by both local and foreign art lovers, this series of works were highly sought after by art connoisseurs to be included in their collections. When first shown in 1985, they immediately caught the attention of the viewing public. Produced based on his experience in and impression of the Endau-Rompin expedition, they feature images of fungi, rocks, tree barks, ferns, and so on. The particular process and media applied in creating these works allow Choong Kam Kow to document the beauty of nature in its truest form, and, at the same time, to remind audience about the importance of conserving the surrounding nature.

This is a unique specialty of Choong Kam Kow. According to him, motifs and themes culled from local bangau carvings, keris, mengkuang mats, and Malay and Chinese cakes can be used to represent the traditional values and the spirit of community among different ethnic groups in this country. It is a vastly significant contribution from this artist who has been continuously striving to examine social, traditional and cultural aspects for the creation of his art.

Choong Kam Kow’s art is extensively acknowledged and appreciated by art lovers not only in this country but also in foreign countries like the U.S. and Korea. Throughout his career, he has participated in various solo and group exhibitions locally as well as abroad. For him, art is a way of life. His experience as a Fine Art lecturer at ITM has indirectly helped enhance his creativity. A member of the Malaysian Art Association, he has been serving as its Treasurer since 1984.

YM Raja Zahabudin Raja Yaacob

(Originally printed in the Dewan Budaya, February 1987)

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drchoong kam kow
Dr. Choong Kam Kow is a well known
senior contemporary artist,
a leading art & design educationist and
an independent curator in Malaysia