heading article1s malaysian contemporary art exhibition

In conjucntion with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Peoples' Republic of China, the China International Cultrual Association has invited the Malaysian Chinese Cultural Society (MCCS) to stage an exhibition of Malaysian contemporary art in Beijing as an exchange programme to mark the occasion. Its aim is to promote cultural relation between the two nations as well as to expose Malaysian contemporary art to the general public of China, Beijing in particular.

The Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) is in tern asked by MCCS to help organize this exhibition. Based on the contribution and the strength of work, 20 artists including very senior artists are invited to participate in the Malaysian Contemporary Art Exhibition in Beijing.

The organizers are happy to note that the work of these 20 artists represent a cross section of Malaysian contemporary art of the late 80s and the 90's. Among them, eight aratists use Chinese ink and brush as the main vehicle of expression, two exploit extensively the batik techniques and process and one explores the print making medium whereas the rest of artists work either in oil. accrylic or mixed media. The oldest is Datuk Chuah Thean Teng, 85, and the yougest being Liew Siow Ching, 23, the age of the rest ranges between 30 to 65. Each artist has his or her own approch, style and artistic manifestation. While this exhibition can not be taken to represent the whole state of Malaysian art, it however,reflects a group of very established and significant artists as well as some young talents of the country. This exhibition may well serve to inform the Chinese counterparts and the general public as how Malaysian artists of different age endeavour to develop their personal styles, creative concepts and artistic manifestation.

Awang Damit Ahmad used bold strokes,strong contrast colours and native symbols to create well constructed yet harmonized compositions. The works on display are a kind of visual notes which convey the message of his childhood experience in the village where he was brought up.. A native from Sabah, his works open the journeys into the past of the self and his cultural life. He has always been engaged in “searching for an active, constructive and progressive aspect of a culture” of his people. His works are strong manifestations and symbols of certain aspects of his cultural root and social transformation of his native land.

Cheah Thien Soong attempted to express Nature by employing bold strokes with dark dry ink which are further balanced by light shades. His spacious compositions are often accentuated by the presence of wild fowls and punctuated with blots of dry ink and light shades to enhance the visual effect. He states that “our experience that come along with our contacts with society and nature would always be stored in our minds and perceptions. These perceptions would, if translated into artistic experiences, thus become the subject of aesthetic works. Through this soundless language of drawing man is able to express his feeling, sentiments, messages and visions and with his laborious effort, Nature is being recreated.” His works convey a sense of peace and tranquility where one can contemplate and meditate.

Choong Kam Kow’s work reflect the cultural practices of the Chinese communities in Malaysia. He employed painting cum silkscreen techniques with acrylic colours to transform the traditional Chinese almanac text and festive cake forms into visual symbols to convery a strong message regarding cultural practices and traditional values in contemporary life of the Chinese community. He stated that: " the treatment of bold and simplified forms, the exploitation of complimentary contrast of orange and blue, red and green etc, the combination of ready existed patterns (often geometric) and expressed shapes (often organic), the juxtaposition of drawn forms and printed shapes / text in horizontal and vertical relation, and the back and forth, positive and negative alternation of space movement " were intended as means to create a distinctive personal identity with Oriental flavour in his work as a result of his response to the cultural and social environment surrounding him.

Chung Chen Sun is the man player in the organization of this exchange project and contributed to the realization of this exhibition. His works demonstrated the mastery use of skills and reflected his profound understanding of Eastern aesthetics. The spiritual content of his works derived not only from the external world but also from his inner personality. All along he believes that ink and brush are the basic forms of expression which characterizes the traditional ink painting. Therefore he places great emphasis on the practice of skills and the quality of the ink and brush strokes. In “Void”, the manipulation of ink and brush is brief yet effective. The shades of ink and variety of strokes complement each other to achieve the character of the portrayed subject. The lines fly, the ink dances and the solid and void interact each other creating a composition full of rhythmic vitality. Chung Chen Sun is well versed with the evolution of Eastern and Western art. Through life long practice, he believes that “Chinese Ink Painting is the realization of the dual pattern thinking process in the Eastern philosophy. It does not just attend to the single aspect of thing, rather; it deals simultaneously with the pros and cons, and achieves the unity of these two aspects. Such a thinking process is certainly differ from the single direction of Western thinking.” His philosophy of art is clearly derived form “Ru”, “Tao”, and "Chan” (Zen).

Datuk Chuah Thean Teng is a well known senior artist who probably is the first Malaysian artist to use batik techniques for creative purposes. His mastery skills in employing batik colours in paintings has created a distinctive style of his own. The forms of men/women ,cows,atap huts, and boats etc. were carefully exaggerated, stylized and sometime distorted to exert a strong sense of diligence and hard labour of the rural folks. The bold outlines, crackers and strong contrast of coulours often created a visual impact which has never before been seen in Malaysian paintings. His paintings entitled “Happy with Mother” and “Full Season” are typical examples of this senior artist who still active in painting in his 80 plus of age.

Eng Hwee Chu, a promising painter in her early 30s. In her work ,she attemptes to express the notion that “Man is always in the process of searching, exploring and chasing ….”. She further states that : "in the past, Man was continueously engaged in the search of uninterrupted traces of history and the beginning of life. In the present, man is engaged in the search of the purpose of life. In the future, man will be in the search of harmony and tranquility.” Her work “Searching” depicts a naïve woman who is lost in the purpose of life. Shadowed by her man (or the men), we wonder if she can find herself back into the limelight like the full bloom of chrysanthemum!

“Sign and symbols have meaning of their own” is the main concern in Fatimah Chiks batik paintings. Like Datuk Chuah, she demonstrated her mastery control of the batik medium to achieve the architectionic quality in her works. She derived her motifs of “ship cloth” from the “tree of heaven” commonly found in the coastal kampongs of Sumatra. “ These motifs were incorporated with geometric elements of the decorative Islamic architectural motifs of the country to reflect a sense of unity, strength and stability of the people of the region”, she stated. Her works reflect Islamic cultural and indigenous contents of the region in Sumatra.

In the "Cherish Series", Goh Ah Ang combined forms of tiny ants and classical Chinese characters as an attempt to explore Eastern aesthetics in Western composition with contemporary approach in search of his own creative direction. His rigid and well balanced of space divisions were soften by the textural surfaces created by washes, marks and classical Chinese characters. Some blank divisions were further dotted with lines of moving ants to evoke a sense of time. “In these paintings, the characters symbolize our cultural development, unlimited by time and space, documenting the evolution of the civilization of mankind”, stated by Goh in his artist statement. The presence of ants in his works metaphorically suggest the Eastern notion of deligence and team work is based on the cooperation and hard working spirit of the ants, transcending time and space and passing down generation to generation perpetually.

Ismil Latiff's paintings evoke a sense of musicality, like a symphony orchestrated by vibrant colours, actives lines, and rhythmic movements. He maintained that his works as “without reference points, it is a creativity honed from futile imagination but it does not lack a spiritual anchor, synthesized, inspired and drawing as it were, in essence. He explains that he works “from various elements of decorative overalls of Nusantara ethnic symbolism, the quaint textile tradition of our region, and from Malay folklore and Western design applications, and of course, from nature in its multi farious manifestations and visual melody”, His works are chromatic spectra of uncanny illusion of time, space, moving force and galatic echo from nature.

Jolly Koh demonstrates mastery use of brilliant colours and dynamic strokes in his colourist works. In the “Blue Reflection” and "Tawaran Falls”, gestural brush strokes loaded with blue & green, and yellow & orange were vividly charged onto the canvases. Expressive yet controlled, formulating yet ambiguous , and through which the reflecting light and mood of nature were captured. Forms and objects in the landscape were transformed into a field of colours exerting a sense of rhythmic vitality and the mightiness of Nature. The clever mainipulation of spatial depth into well organized pictorial structures enhanced the unity and profundity of his work. His passion and assimilation integrated into the landscape has aptly manifested the Eastern notion the “man and nature are one unique entity” which prevailed in Chinese painting throughout the ages.

Juhari Said is induldged in elaborating the meanings of provebs in his woodblock prints with strong sense of sarcasm and humous. The title of his work “katak nak jadi lembu” (The flog desiring to be a cow) strongly suggested this notion. In this work, he portrayed a horned frog jumping out from its tiny abode to pursue it’s impossible dream to become a cow! This work is a metaphor of person with a big lust often desiring to be far superior than what he really is. According to him, his work conveys the message that “the very poor fantasies to be filthy rich, and the little coward wishes to be a voracious giant. So here we have a frog jumps out from its tiny adobe to pursue it's almost impossible dream. As a result of doing thing far beyond his capacity, he gets destroyed as well as the people around him.”

Liew Soo Wong employed black ink in abundance to create area with great variety of tones. The massive black tone areas intermingled into an unique whole but leaving some white space for breathing.As a result of blending and staining, it has created atmospheric and homogenous space. Within the ambiguous space and amorphous form, one can feel the magical dance of the brush creating beautiful shades, marks and strokes.

“The sources of Soo Wong's expression was derived form Nature where oriental artists often seek artistic inspirations from. Through the process of contemplation and interaction, a two-way flow of sense, mood and mind, the artist and the Nature was integrated thus achieving the highest degree of empathy in which man and Nature become one entity.

"The black areas intermingled with certain unpainted area (space in white) combining with freely executed marks , dots and energetic lines is intended to express a state of being in spirit and in matter, of great depths and distances, massive and filled with energy of life “ stated the artist.

Liew Siow Ching, the youngest artist in his exhibition, is seen as a promising young talent. Unlike other ink-painters, she skillfully employed shades of ink and calligraphic strokes in great variety to construct her compositions. Based on her study of congested flats in cities and cluster of huts in slum areas, she composed rather unconventional ink paintings where lines, shapes and colour intermingled and interwined. The interplaying of ink and colour, light and shade in inked (black) and non-inked areas has often created ambiguous space and less defined depth which conveys a sense of instability and insecurity ofteh faced by the dwellers in the slum areas.

The lyrical painting of Syed Tajuddin conveys joy and sorrow. He employed rhythmic lines and lively colours and shades and textures to evoke sense of lyric in his works. Human forms are cleverly exaggerated and distorted to enhance such quality. His lines are musical notes and colours are melodies when put together they form a musical composition. “My aim and objective is to capture the essence of human joy and sorrow. It is an art of the line and line is lyrical ,like a song that sings itself”, elaborated the artist.

Tajuddin Ismail drew inspiration from natural forms and landscapes. His paintings are architectonic yet lyrical. His main concern is to create a personal visual language that expresses a sense of poetic tranquility about space and time in nature. “To achieve this, he said “ I have developed a visual vocabulary of forms, spatial and structural composition, colour and painting techniques that evoke a sensuous sense of atmospheric tranquility which flux between an ambiguous interplay between abstraction and figuration, between painting and drawing, between flat colour field and subtle layering of painterly gesture, between the narrative and the lyrical, between order and spontaneity”. His rather simplified compositions yet with complex visual meanings are reflections of his artistic sensibility, experiences, education, spiritual and interlectual development as an artist. “As a Muslim, nature is Gods gift to man, to sustain life on earth and is one of His many signs for us to ponder over and to realize and worship the greatness of GOD (Allah)”, he further affirmed.

Joseph Tan demonstrated his mastery use of colours and control of techniques in his painting titled “Formation Series No V”. He applied acrylic colours layer by layer until full saturation to achieve the magnificent effect of light, mood and surface quality. The visual effect from such meticulous treatment of rocky slopes, cliffs and mountains supersedes the result done through the use of “cun” and “ran” in most traditional Chinese “Shan-Shui” paintings. He said, “The ferocity of south monsoons, the wind, the rain often followed by the sudden seduction of calmness and rolling breeze. These sudden changes, of moods of lights, of colours, forces, forms, movements and rhythms affected me both externally and internally and became the source of inspiration for my works, My paintings are very personal and subjective interpretations of the relationships between man and nature, between the self and the creation, the growth and decay, of heat and water, of the wind and earth etc.” All these mentioned elements were aptly transformed into colour texture, strokes, light, shades and facets of forms to orchestrate a symphony reflecting 'rhythmic vitality', an important visual effect of the ' six canons' mentioned by Xie He during the Qi Dynasty. (5th – 6th Century) in China.

Contemporary artists have often been fascinated by Chinese ancient philosophy and science . Tan Tong is one of such artists. He drew his ideas from the I-Ching and explored the concept of Yin-Yang by relating it to dance and sexuality. He used squares, circles, triangles and contrastic colour like green & red, black & white to express this complimenting relation. He cleverly placed patches of flat coloujrs, colour-ink stained areas, embracing human bodies at the extreme upper or lower corners to achieve a sense of imbalance. As such, the vast untouched blank area tends to invite the veiwers to contemplate. The Yin-Yang phenomenon appeared and then disappeared into this vast empty space can often evoke a sense of fantasy and mystery. It seems there is nothing one can catch yet it provides opportunity to contemplate and imaging. His works are sensuous, mysterious and at times erotic. He firmly believes that when the meaning become aesthetic one will feel and see that the art has reached its devine level.

Tew Nai Tong’s “Bali” and “Bali Market” depicted the unspoiled life of inhabitants in Bali. The human forms and objects were stylized into elongated forms to reflect a sense of elegance and beauty. This narrative and romantic approach helps the artist to convey his massage about Bali. It is interesting to note that while the women were busy at work at the market place as in “Bali Market”, the men were at leisure and having good time at the beach as seen in “Bali”. This reflects not only the life style but also his cultural practice in Bali. As an artist, Tew Nai Tong believes that, "one should through observational study to develop and organize human images so to establish his own creative style. One should continuously seek new idea, and chart new direction of creativity.”

Inherited from the vast visual legacy of “flora & bird” in Chinese painting, Yap Hong Ngee indulged in portraying the sparrows as a form to express his notion of joy of life. He painted with spontaneity and translated the “subjective response to his surrounding” into visual languages. He often employed casual yet dertemine brush strokes to transform subjects of windows. branches, rocks, lamp posts, roots, roof etc. into interesting compositions. The forms of lovely sparrow were cleverly arranged and placed to enhance the liveliness of his work. His intention is to convey his state of mind through these compositions so that the viewers can sense the frank, casual and intimate human personality and quality. “Through a little sparrow, few strokes, dots and shades, I convey to people the frank intimacy from the bottom of my heart. If my works can lead people to wander with joy. I would be very satisfied and happy”, he said.

Yong Chien Chin's “Past & Present” evokes the sense of nostalgia of an ancient culture of his forebears. He has been very sentimental about the art treasures which he encountered during his first visit to the old city of Xi An, a center of ancient culture and art of China, Numerous dynasties including the Chin Dynasty had built capitals there leaving behind a vast collection of ancient antifects. The majestic tombs with terracotta warriors, (now a museum), stone carvings, tablets with inscribed calligraphy and antiques etc offered the artist a new horizon of artistic vision. His works have since been influenced by this ancient culture. His reinterpretation of terracotta warriors is an attempt to inject a strong sense of ancestral culture into his works, He elaborated ,“ throught the medium of ink ,colour and Chinese calligraphy and brush strokes, I expressed my personal philosophy of life, visual language, cilverization of the past and ancient culture in my works, bringing the spirit of the past to our present time.” His work conveys a sense of remoteness, nostalgic and mystery.

The organizers believe that this exhibition will foster a closer relation between the artists of China and Malaysia and offer an opportunity for them to interact and exchange artistic views. It is anticipated that more exchange exhibitions will follow in years to come.

Choong Kam Kow
(from the catalogue MALAYSIAN CONTEMPORARY ART EXHIBITION, Beijing 1999. Edited on 29.12.2010. )

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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