heading profile of dr choong kam kow

 
BACKGROUND

dr choong childhoodDr Choong was brought up in the Kinta Valley of Perak, a land full of natural beauty and resources. The vast and fertile land of the Kinta Valley, located between mountain ranges is not only rich in tin deposits but is also ideal for farming. When he was a boy, his family took the opportunity to acquire a plot of land near Gunung Bercham for vegetable planting. The family’s daily routine was to work in their vegetable farm. Even as a boy, Dr Choong had to help out in the farm and when he started schooling, after school hours. He came into close contact with mother Earth and Nature since young. The artistic seeds of Dr Choong, I think, were probably planted and nurtured in this idyllic surroundings at a young age.

It is often said by the Chinese country folks that the hardship experienced by a person in his younger days will be the driving force for success at the grown-up stage. It probably holds true in the case of Dr Choong.

As a young boy, he had to walk for 5 km from home, wetting his shoes while passing through the narrow and weeds-filled mud path to school each morning. When he was in Standard Five and Standard Six, it took him longer to get to school. He had to travel by bicycle, braving hot sun and often rain, for 11 km from his home to the Yuk Hwa Primary School in Ipoh.

During the Japanese Occupation of Malaya from 1941 to 1945, his family switched from vegetable planting to tapioca planting as it was in great demand due to the shortage of rice. Many hawkers from Ipoh came to his farm by foot to purchase tapioca and return to Ipoh for retail as tapioca was widely used as a substitute for rice. The sales of tapioca enabled his family to have good savings in Japanese currency for a while. However, when World War II ended with the retreat of the Japanese army from the Malay Peninsula, Dr Choong’s family was hard hit as the Japanese currency become invalid and sackfuls of the banana-tree currency became waste paper.

As soon as the Japanese forces surrendered, the Emergency period began in 1948 due to the disturbances by the communists. The local British Government imposed the Briggs Plan to isolate all the rural villages from contact with communist elements. All the villages were ordered to vacate their farm houses and move into designated areas known as New Villages in 1950 in order to cut off supplies of food and materials to the communists. Dr Choong’s village and his family’s vegetable farm were affected and they experienced further hardships when they were only allowed to farm during the day and must return to their new villages before dark. All villagers were allowed to bring with them only a packet of rice and some water to the farms daily and this made the farms less productive.

Dr Choong pursued his secondary school education in Yuk Choy High School at Jalan Kuala Kangsar, Ipoh, cycling for 40 km to and for daily. After his lower-secondary education, he attended a teaching course for two years and secured a teaching post at the Hwa Min Chinese Primary School in Temoh, Perak after completing the course. Although the distance between the school and his home was 60 km, he was undeterred. The public transportation between Ipoh and Temoh at that time was very inconvenient, so Dr Choong bought a second-hand 350cc British-made BSA motorcycle to commute from home to school during weekends.

Dr Choong had to teach all subjects at the school, including his favourite Art subject. While teaching there, he maintained his interest in art by frequently doing sketches and drawings. He became keener in getting formal education in Art when teaching the Art subjects there. It was then, around 1956, that he heard about his friends pursuing higher education in Taiwan. Studying in Taiwan was relatively cheaper when compared to that in Britain or Australia. His application to study in Taiwan was approved in mid-1957 and immediately after the Merdeka celebrations in 1957, he quit teaching and went off to Taipei to pursue his Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts at the National Taiwan Normal University.


TAIPEI SOJOURN

dr choong taiwan graduateOn the campus of the National Taiwan Normal University, Dr Choong pursued his study with 40 other classmates from Singapore, Indonesia, Macau, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Africa and Taiwan. In the class and studio, Dr Choong appeared more matured as he had some valuable teaching experience. He was determined to learn and improve, and was always placed among the top five in performance in all semesters. Besides his normal course work, he took every opportunity to draw and paint outside the campus during weekends and during long vacations throughout his four-year stay in Taipei. He loved to paint the Taipei street scenes, parks as well as the landscapes all over in Taiwan.

The Formosa Series produced between 1957 to 1961 is proof of his hard work. At this time, Dr Choong was fascinated with the styles of Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Matisse and Paul Cezanne and so he was applying the post-Impressionist, Expressionist and gestural approaches in water-colour. He continued to use these approaches in the Kinta Series, which was created in Ipoh soon after he completed his studies in Taipei.

Upon his return from Taiwan in 1961, Dr Choong was offered a position to teach Art at the Perak Girl’s High School and two years later, the Poi Lam High School in Ipoh, Perak.


NEW YORK EXPOSURE

dr choong in new yorkAs early as the 1960’s, Dr Choong had wanted to pursue further studies in Fine Art in the West to broaden his knowledge in modern and contemporary art. When the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE) was established to promote exchanges of scholars and researchers between Malaysia and the United State of America (USA), Dr Choong duly applied for a scholarship or grant.

He rode his 150cc Italian-made Vespa for 200 km to Kuala Lumpur to submit his application for a Fulbright scholarship at the MACEE office in Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur. In early 1965, he went for the selection interview and by mid-year, he received news of his successful application. On arrival in New York in September that year, he enrolled himself at the Pratt Institute Graduate School in Brooklyn to study for a Master's Degree in Fine Art (MFA).

dr choong new york graduate showAfter a year there, he was offered a position to teach and head the Art Department of the United Nations International School (UNIS). So he had to convert his study at Pratt Institute from full-time to part-time to enable him to undertake the full-time post at UNIS. Despite the heavier workload as a teacher and a graduate student, he managed to schedule his MFA study in the afternoon and evening, leaving a few theory subjects to be fulfilled during the summer vacation. During his stay in New York, Dr Choong visited art museums and exhibitions in art galleries and attended talks and seminars at the Pratt Institute and in museums.

Since 1945, New York has become the centre of modern art. Many great masters from Europe migrated to America during World War II and this gave birth to many contemporary art movements there, particularly New York after the war. The late 1950’s and early 1960’s saw many new art movements flourishing in the United States. Apart from the New York School movement, there were Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, which dominated the American art scene for nearly two decades. Geometric abstraction spearheaded by Josef Albers, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian in Europe made its way to expand in New York and elsewhere in America and eventually further developed into Shaped Canvas, Minimalism and Assemblage. Other art movements such the Op Art, Colour-Field and Photo-Realism also prevailed in the American art scene. All these and in particular, the geometric abstraction and conceptual minimalism have great impact on Dr Choong’s subsequent art practice and his mission as an art educator. The New York Series, Shaped Canvas Series and SEA Thru Series were produced as a result of his exposure to these American art movements.


TEACHING ENGAGEMENT

For his active engagement in art practice and teaching together with the vast experience he gained in Taiwan, Dr Choong became the first Malaysian artist to be awarded the prestigious Fulbright-Hays Scholarship in 1965. He is also the first in this country to have obtained a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts (MFA) from USA. Upon returning from the United States in 1969, he was offered a lecturer’s job in the the School of Architecture, Planning and Land Survey at the Mara Institute of Technology (ITM, now Universiti Teknologi MARA or UiTM). The School of Art and Design (KSSR) was established in the early 1970’s. Dr Choong continued to serve at KSSR as a lecturer, the Course Tutor (Head) of the Fine Art Department and senior lecturer until 1989, when he retired at the age of 55. After leaving ITM, he was offered the post of Senior Lecturer at the School of Fine Art, La Salle-SIA College of The Arts in Singapore, where he was subsequently appointed Dean until 1994.

Not long after returning from Singapore, Dr Choong took up the post as the Vice-President of the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), Kuala Lumpur. In 2000, he became the President and CEO of MIA until 2009.


CONTRIBUTIONS AND COMMITMENT

dr choong award from agungThe continuous engagement in art practice yielding works series by series, has never hindered his role as a teacher, lecturer and art educator at renowned art institutions. His vast experience and commitment gained the confidence of various institutions such as the National Art Gallery to appoint Dr Choong as a member of the Board of Trustees, from 2005 to 2009 and as a Permanent Collection Acquisition Committee Member from 2001 to 2006.

He continued to make contributions to the nation. He was appointed a Member of the National Art Award Committee and Chairman of the Visual Arts Award Committee in 2006 under the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. Since 1988, Dr Choong has served as the Chairman of the Federation of Asian Artists Malaysia Committee (FAAMC). He has organised Malaysia’s participation in the Asian International Art Exhibitions (AIAE) and headed the Malaysian delegation of artists to attend all official openings held in all the host nations in Asia (The AIAE is organised by rotation among member countries annually). Through his efforts and the collaboration with the National Art Gallery, Malaysia became the host nation for the 5th, 13th and 24th AIAE’s in 1990, 1998 and 2009 respectively, thus making significant contributions to the promotion and development of contemporary art in the Asian region.

dr choong conferment at scotlandIn 2000 he was awarded the Darjah Bintang Ahli Mangku Negara (A.M.N) by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, A year later in 2001, 40 years after completing his studies, Dr Choong received the ‘Most Outstanding Alumni Award’ from his alma mater, the National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan, in 2001 for his achievements as an artist and art educator. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate (Arts) Degree by the Robert Gordon University, Scotland, in 2006 in recognition of his achievements in art practice and contributions in art and design education.

These awards have clearly acknowledged the national and international recognition of Dr Choong’s artistic and academic achievements.


INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION

On the international level, Dr Choong’s art works have shown museum-quality standards. Several of his artworks have been acquired into the permanent collections of a number of art museums in Asia and Europe. It is a great honour for him that his silkscreen work entitled 5 Month Festival I & II (1977) was acquired for the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), New York, United States of America. Several of Dr Choong’s other works have also become the permanent collections of the following art museums such as the National Visual Art Gallery, Malaysia; Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japan; Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan; National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan; Frederikshavn Art Museum, Denmark; National Taiwan Museum of Art, Taichung, Taiwan; Singapore Art Museum; Guangdong Museum of Art, China; Kyushu Sangyo University Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japan; Museum of Art, Guangzhou Fine Art Academy, University City, Guangzhou, China; and the Asian Art Museum, University Malaya, Malaysia.


THE EVOLVING JOURNEY

During the early stage of his artistic career between 1955-1956, Dr Choong often rode on his motorcycle to go to Kuala Lumpur to see art exhibitions at the Chinese Assembly Hall and British Council, before the establishment of National Art Gallery. His indomitable spirit has driven him to create works in water-colours and mixed media. He was brave and dared to experiment with the application of Chinese ink and colour on water-colour paper or Chinese xuanzi (xuan paper). The exploration and experimentation led to the Formosa Series and Kinta Series consisting of water-colours, Chinese ink and mixed media depicting landscapes, city scenes and still-life.

The New York exposure marks the turning point of Dr Choong’s creative journey. Each change of style was the result of his observations on, and response to, the social and cultural conditions of the social environment he encountered. The changing process enabled him to shift the focus and seek new strategy for creative solution in each new series.

The social, cultural and art dynamics that Dr Choong experienced in New York have spurred him to undergo assimilation process and transformed his Asian mindset into a broader global outlook. When he returned home, he was able to bring with him innovative changes and new discoveries in his art-making. The New York Series, Shaped Canvas Series and SEA-Thru Series produced in New York and after his return were the result of such assimilation.

After having fully explored and exploited all the creative possibilities, he moved on to seek new inspiration and embarked on new series of work. So in the mid-1970’s he began to re-examine local culture and heritage which was in line with the rationale of the National Cultural Congress held in 1971 and the Indigenous Roots Seminar (Seminar Akar-Akar Peribumi) in 1979. It became an important factor for Dr Choong to shift his creative focus from modern world to a more traditional and cultural environment. The culturally significant series of Festival, Dragon and Gongfu reflected the outcome of his return to his cultural root. The international exposure that had taken place throughout his life made him a disciplined artist equipped with a global thinking perspective. The familiar local traditional forms and cultural values are explored and reinterpreted with contemporary approaches in his works, series after series.

On the formalistic aspect, his works are seen as more frontal, rich in texture and sometimes tactile. Conventional spatial depth is often negated, vivid colours and combined techniques of brush, spray-gun and silkscreen, paper-pulp exploitation to convey specific contents and messages are aptly dealt with throughout all his works.
 
 

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

FEDERATION OF ASIAN ARTISTS
MALAYSIA COMMITTE CHAIRMAN
NATIONAL TAIWAN NORMAL UNIV. ALUMNI
ASSOC. SELANGOR VICE PRESIDENT
 
HON. DOCTOR OF ARTS (RGU. SCOTLAND, UK)
MFA (PRATT INST. USA) BFA (N.T.N.U. TAIWAN)
FULBRIGHT-ACLS RESEARCH FELLOW