06 January 2018

Art KL-itique 2017 Look Back

With favourite review site LoveHKFilm (and inspiration for this web log) now on indefinite hiatus, I am tempted to follow the same path. Since strong curatorship is an inconsistent affair, group exhibitions mostly bore, as I hold onto the unrealistic expectation that solo exhibitions allow artist(s) to better present one’s expression and/or vision. In Kuala Lumpur, the opportunities are present. Less-visible but established artists such as Abdullah Jones, Fauzan Omar, and Ramlan Abdullah, present recent work in spacious galleries; Aspiring students and passionate amateurs continue to show at independent art spaces like HOM Art Trans, Minut Init Art Social (currently at risk of closing! #saveminutinit), and RAW Art Space. The latter occupies the location formerly run by Findars 無限發掘, while Moutou 無頭體tend to the rooftop garden at 8 Jalan Panggong.

Installation snapshot of Liew Kwai Fei – divide and rule/ Bekerjasama (2017); Exhibited at “Collective: Individuals” @ 2 Hang Kasturi

How quickly my thinking shifts from exhibition to exhibition space, is indicative of my art viewing experience. Gallery shows that allow for contemplation, take precedence over short-duration pop-up events or performances, which explains why I have not visit the converted warehouse KongsiKL space that have been organizing weekend programs since its opening in November 2017. It is interesting how a number of these new spaces extend out to the public audience, in its conflation of art with design and lifestyle choices. A project realized by OUR ArtProjects – The Zhongshan Building at Kampung Attap – is “The Shopping Mall You Didn't Know You Needed to Visit Until Now” (clickbait headline); Another Think City initiative RUANG (2 Hang Kasturi) is converted into an artsy events space, that offers free yoga lessons on Friday lunchtimes.

Suk Tai – Blessed One and The Fighter (2016); Exhibited at “Labyrinth” @ Warren Art Gallery [picture taken from Warren Art Gallery Facebook page]

Looking back at visual art events in 2017, I am guided by poet-critic John Yau’s words: “I wanted to call additional attention to exhibitions that showed me something I had not seen before, and, in some cases, might not even been aware of not having seen it.” Drawing upon one’s identity as a Malaysian-Chinese woman, is a subject matter explored by artists Suk Tai and Eng Hwee Chu, in two relatively new galleries opened by art enthusiast-collectors. [p.s. Galeri Chandan’s Publika operations ceased by this year-end] Surreal symbols and painterly compositions underlie the strong emotions portrayed, and offer a nuanced take on women’s struggles in a local ethnic context. Referring to my provisional listing, it is noted that out of the 103 KL art exhibitions held this year that feature a single creator, only 19 showcases (18%) are presented by a female artist. 

Dhavinder Singh – Recollectus VIII (2016); Exhibited at “Recollēctus” @ Project Room Fine Art [picture taken from star2.com]

Several solo exhibitions struck a chord: Dhavinder Singh’s “Recollēctus” pays tribute to his long-time residence Razak Mansions, and is more affecting than other art/architecture projects focused on the now-demolished apartments. “Small Works” by Hamir Soib offers good insight into one painter of large canvases, while I regret missing out on “Carta”, the collection of sketches by Jalaini Abu Hassan showing at another new residence-gallery. Virtuoso craftsmanship, historical reference, and visual storytelling, are evident in two exhibitions – “Getaran” by Mad Anuar Ismail, and K. Azril Ismail’s “Thirty Pieces of Silver”. The former recasts modern forms as expired cultural object; the latter transforms expired cultural objects into a modern form. Object is art is artist is technology is making is referencing is historical is modern is contemporary…

Installation snapshot of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu – Hong Kong Intervention (2009/2016); Exhibited at “Afterwork” @ ILHAM

My first experience with having a domestic helper coincided with “Afterwork”, which collection of artworks offered various perspectives around the topic of cross-border imported labour, that provided a balanced view about the issues on hand. Photographs taken at Kota Raya referencing the same subject matter, are displayed at “Rags to Riches: A Story of Kuala Lumpur”. Captioned pictures present a lovely ode to this city, where individual experiences coalesce into layered stories and unique scenes. Underground in the same building, “Collective: Individuals” brought together works from artists belonging in seven collectives. Great art aside, the DIY ethos on show instils confidence and celebrates artists’ self-reliance. Run Amok member Liew Kwai Fei, whose “Art of Painting” works were part of a two-man show with Lee Mok Yee, is memorable for its innovative take on contemporary painting.

Thangarajoo – Atomic Consciousness 17 (2017); Exhibited at “Atomic Consciousness” @ National Art Gallery

I proclaimed June 2017 to be a great month for visiting the National Art Gallery. There was plenty to see, feel and reflect; Two large shows with broad themes, along with two more focused exhibitions, complement excellent solo showcases featuring Zulkifli Dahlan and Thangarajoo. As KL Biennale opened in end-2017, this year will unfortunately be remembered for the occurrences of (self-)censorship, that all happened under events co-organized/sponsored by Balai. Suddin Lappo in January, Samsudin Wahab and Pangrok Sulap in February, then Aisyah Baharuddin and Pusat Sekitar Seni in November. Nothing to see, unsure what to feel, and plenty of reflection needed. Indeed, the situation I find myself in, going into 2018. 

Video still from Au Sow Yee – Kris Project 1: The Never Ending Tale of Maria, Tin Mine, Spices and the Harimau (2016); Exhibited at “ESCAPE from the SEA” @ National Art Gallery

30 December 2017

Snippets: Q4 2017

Organized by the artist’s family, a collection of 100+ sketches and paintings by Chia Yu Chian are cramped into a first-floor room at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. Among figure studies, still life oil paintings, city scenes, and commissioned works tagged onto billboards in the narrow aisles, the quality on show is mixed. For every derivative impression, there is a delightful element, be it a forceful figurative gesture or a swirling impasto. His son reveals, “(e)ven during the times he was admitted to hospital, he would go around and sketch scenes of life in the hospital…” These paintings are incidentally the best works on show, as Yu Chian documents moments of human empathy and humdrum companionship. The older accompanying sketch indicates his strong composition skills, while suggesting also the artist’s painting method and its prominent use of outlines.

Chia Yu Chian – Attended to the Patient [left sketch 1977; right oil painting 1980]

Malaysian Art Archive & Research Support re-stages a series of 2004 works by Yee I-Lann at the British Council, at which opening the artist remarks that she has been wanting to do a similar series for females. “The Writer’s Portrait” series features re-touched portraits of 12 Malay-Muslim men, whose writings and friendship influenced the artist around that time. I-Lann recaps about applying her ‘female gaze’ upon individual persons, while maintaining an ongoing conversation with the men in producing each portrait. Equal dimensions yet stylistically different, pictures that describe less clearly about one’s creative pursuit appear more visually attractive, such as Pak Samad sitting in Starbucks KLCC, Baha Zain tending to a manicured garden, Salleh Bin Joned taking a baldi shower, and Osman Ali resting at his home’s dining table. Next serving of “The Writer’s Portrait”, please, I-Lann.

Yee I-Lann - Baha Zain 'Bahasa Alam' (2004)

During Gallery Weekend Kuala Lumpur, I took the opportunity to visit Galeri Z at Taman Melawati Indah, the home gallery of prominent Malaysian collector Zain Azahari. Showcasing mostly works made in the past five years, the display seems to project a confidence in emerging artists and Malaysian contemporary art, although the medium is strictly confined to the modern modes of painting and sculpture. Unfortunately, the eccentric choices do not reveal any general themes about the collector’s preference, apart from vague notions of spirituality, sensuality, and nostalgia. I left with the impression that gallerists have an uneven influence, as most artists featured are the popular ones in the Malaysian contemporary art market. Hopefully in the next change of exhibits, where older works are planned for display, will change my perception. 

Kow Leong Kiang – Sprout Head (2017)

Works referring to the artists’ cultural heritage are displayed in the upstairs gallery at “Roots”, which include Alena Murang’s small acrylic portraits that give back specifically to each sitter, and Shaq Koyok’s tedious monochromatic close-ups on woven dried pandan leaves. Less direct are the collection of objects depicted by Afiq Faris, whose chequered jute canvases are overlaid with beeswax & resin, inkjet print on silk, and batik dye. The mediums coalesce into fascinating visual collages, that transform household objects into an unstable recollection made up of, impressions derived from the natural/industrial, the mechanical copy, and/or traditional technique. With titles referring to Malay historical stories (and myths), Afiq’s experimentation with multiple mediums and dialled-up contrast, manifest a desire to embody one’s heritage, be it unconsciously absorbed or consciously adopted.

Afiq Faris – And everyone that appears shall return to his home / Maka segala yang menghadap pun masying-masying kembalilah ke rumahnya (2017)

20 December 2017

December 2017: R&G Body Template in A Room

The human body, is the focus of three exhibitions held in the same month, at three independent art spaces. Organized by The F Klub, “Figure in the Room” at HOM Art Trans features a younger line-up of figurative painters, whose tiresome works flaunt individual styles and offer little unique perspectives in depicting/viewing the figure. The collective’s original members, however, do better – Shia Yih Yiing’s literal play on figure-ground relationship draws this viewer to note the size differences in perceived body parts, while one lounging body illustrated by Kow Leong Kiang resembles a copper sculpture in colour tone, yet its figure is soften by the brushy oil paint of the bed sheets. How many of these realistic figures, were depicted based on photographic portraits?

Shia Yih Yiing - Good afternoon! (2017)

At Minut Init Art Social, life drawing is the starting point for the exhibits at “The Enactivist Body Template”. Nudity prevails, but most depictions of the human figure are formal and cold, with an over-reliance on compositional design. Tang Mun Kian’s pink-slathered bodies offer some visual interest, but it was photographic images by Chia Yen which I remembered upon leaving the shoplot gallery. Captures of a performance titled ‘Fragility’ present a naked woman in bubble wrap; ‘I Am Woman’ is a reaction to camera maker Nikon’s under-representation of women in its marketing campaign. The female body is unclothed to stake a representative claim, yet the pictures’ other elements highlight the precarious nature of such positioning. Only then I realized how purposefully strong the image of a yellow penis by Linda Liao is, and the male privilege I embody. 

[l] Chia Yen & Anya Likhita - I AM WOMAN (2017); [r] Chia Yen - Fragility (2016) [photographed by Tan Meng Ching]

‘Genitals are a distraction, it is where our eyes tend to focus on. It is not important.’ So states the catalogue introduction, for an exhibition of works by Jerome Kugan at RAW Art Space. Genderless bodies float on “RED & GOLD” backgrounds, displayed alongside obscene proclamations painted on packaging paper. Centred depictions are more interesting when there are more than two bodies shown, such as the paired drawings ‘The Divided Self/Courage and Fear: “Nak Tapi Tak Nak”’, and the raunchy rapture of ‘The Undivided Self/Trinity: “Well, It’s Essentially A Pig Getting Spit-roasted”. The inspiration behind The Un/Divided Self is taken from Aristophanes’ creation myth in Plato’s Symposium; Other descriptions of each exhibit is stated in Jerome’s online scrapbook.

Installation snapshot at "RED & GOLD", solo exhibition by Jerome Kugan

Among exhibits from these three selling exhibitions that focus on the human body, Jerome’s relatively simple drawings are the most insightful, and priced the lowest too. It seems that the more a creator identifies oneself as an artist, the higher the artist prices one’s creation. The artist’s ego rests upon one’s emphasis on the technical aspects of painting, although embellishing a figurative portrait with a large canvas or painterly effects, appear self-serving in most cases. Why overlay a supine nude with colourful flower designs, when the floral allusion can be embedded into one monochromatic drawing? Why draw a comic banana, when a limp/erect penis looks just fine? While some figurative artists insist that painting the human body is an act of resistance, I fail to see the sincerity behind many completed artworks, that only treat the figure as drawing practice. 

Jerome Kugan - The Undivided Self/Trinity: “Well, It’s Essentially A Pig Getting Spit-roasted" (2017)

13 December 2017

Dash @ Five Arts Centre, 22 September 2017

With beads of sweat covering his forehead roughly two-thirds into his 55-minutes performance, Ho Rui An’s voice starts to quiver. Despite taking sips of water throughout his narration, sitting in front of a projector screen underneath bright lights, is obviously an onerous act. Signs of physical toll provide the finishing touch to a coruscating account that started with a car crash, then zooming past topics such as the rich foreigner, moving at speed, horizon scanning, the Kobayashi Maru, scenario planning, Centre for Strategic Futures, the Black Swan, shamanistic symbols, Marina Bay Sands, economic development, sentiment analysis, luck & trauma, weak signals, then settling back to the dashcam video recording one sitting behind a car’s dashboard.

“Horizon Scanners”, talk by Ho Rui An where a number of topics are also covered in ‘Dash’ [video from Asia Contemporary Art Week (ACAW) YouTube channel]

Donned in black with a wireless headset, Rui An adopts the presentation format pioneered by Silicon Valley, manifesting too its casual/repressive capitalist mode that is central to his performance. Pairing crisp robotic delivery with a stream-of-consciousness narrative, any sense of the inconsonant is pacified by the presentation format.  “His writing is elliptical”, writes Tshiung Han See in a review; I understood every word that Rui An uttered, which perhaps included corporate and economics jargon. The artist’s reference of Shell Oil’s scenario planners as futurist poets is equal parts funny and poignant, as I can testify to the irrepressible efforts corporations take to forecast the future with increasing accuracy.

Snapshot of performance [picture taken from criticsrepublic.com]

Where to look, when we are moving so fast? The world crashes and burns, and our first instinct is to race ahead and look back only when we can see it in the rear-view mirror. Wealth gap perpetuates, nation-states become useless, and unknown quantities are assigned a monetary value. We voluntarily subscribe ourselves to internet protocols, and subject ourselves to be a statistical probability in a commercial transaction. Rui An’s work recalls Futurismo, where contemporary expression extends then subverts its medium. Some clunky graphics aside, ‘Dash’ is a phenomenal show, its entire production itself manifesting one of the key point it espouses – “No longer can one make a clear distinction between signal and noise.” Keep running, there is no end...

Lecture titled "Hunting Black Swans & Taming Black Elephants" by Peter Ho (Senior Advisor, Centre for Strategic Futures). Peter Ho, Black Swans & Elephants, and the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) Programme Office, are topics covered in Ho Rui An's 'Dash' [video from Institute of Policy Studies Singapore YouTube channel]

07 December 2017

KL Biennale (II): The Gift of Knowledge

“What's so interesting about Durai Singam? Durai Singam (1904 – 1995) was no ordinary secondary school teacher who once taught in Kuantan. He also became one of the world's most obsessive bibliographers and collectors of memorabilia related to the world prominent philosopher and historian of Indian art, the late Ananda Kentish Muthu Coomaraswamy (1877 – 1947). (…) A selection of his editorial layouts using collage as a compositional technique are on display in this exhibition. This selection provides the viewer with a sense of the hands-on DIY nature of Durai Singam's by turns whimsical, high-minded, and idiosyncratic approach to publishing. In a sense, Durai Singam pursued this work as if it were his karma or sacred duty to disseminate this knowledge for posterity.”
– Snippets from Visual Art Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya Facebook page, in a post dated 17th November 2017

Installation snapshot

At the end of these long introductory paragraphs, it is noted that “(t)he late Durai Raja Singam was not only Niranjan Rajah's uncle but also the late art historian/curator/artist Redza Piyadasa's secondary school teacher back in Kuantan. Redza Piyadasa (1939 – 2007) is recognised today as a seminal figure whose contribution in art historical scholarship and creative practice since the late 1960s continues to resonate in the Malaysian and regional art scene. He was also the founder of our Program here at the University of Malaya.” Staged at Piyadasa Gallery no less, ‘The Gift of Knowledge: An Installation Commemorating the Person and Work of Durai Raja Singam (1904 – 1995)’ by Niranjan Rajah, is an amazing display that highlights the dedication and resourcefulness of the human spirit, when a single-minded passion is one’s guiding light in life. 


Snapshots from The World of Coomaraswamy

Stepping into the unlocked gallery and turning on the lights, this visitor is greeted by two pedestal-tables and three old cupboards. One coat rack stands at the far end of the room, while a degree certificate from the University of Jaffna is presented next to it. Walking past framed collages of text and pictures, I noticed the books inside the cupboards as copies of publications exhibited on the pedestals. A wall of old photographs and illustrations portray Durai Singam and a few luminaries, but at this point it remains unclear what is significant about this installation. Flipping the book cover open of the volume titled The World of Coomaraswamy, I see the proclamation “THIS IS A BOOK OF MY OWN DEVISING”; Printed in capitals too a few pages later, “Fifty years of Coomaraswamy for me, the cup is filled in another measure. To beg I am ashamed.” fills three quarters of one sheet. Then it struck me what was on show.

Snapshots from Remembering and Remembering Again and Again

Like self-published zines but belonging to a different magnitude, Durai Singam compiles writings and pictures about Ananda Coomaraswamy, then inserts his own texts and designs to make genuinely interesting reads. It appears that Durai Singam was not an academic scholar, as these books do not attribute any university press (also, his home address is always referenced on the book sleeves), but he funded printing presses in Kuala Lumpur for these publications. The thicker volumes are even printed on art paper, bounded in coloured hard covers, and are effectively limited-edition compilations. In A Study of a Scholar-Colossus, the biographer notes in the postscript of his preface, “No doubt the project will be expensive for a single individual but finance never represents a real difficulty. Finances follow. They dog your footsteps if you represent a real cause.”

Snapshots from A Study of a Scholar-Colossus

Notwithstanding the effusive reverence for his subject matter – Durai Singam assigns the title Kala Yogi to Coomaraswamy – the approach in putting together the materials is methodical and rigorous. Explications of each volume’s intent (Monograph? Collection of Letters? Biography? Bibliography?) is stated clearly in the introductions, followed closely by a table of contents, acknowledgement of his sources, and demarcating section headers. It is Durai Singam’s personal touch, however, that stand out. One quote from a cross-continent correspondence here, one snippet from a poem there. Designing an essay’s border with repeating images of postal stamps. A photograph, an illustration, a musing, plus multiple typefaces, all featured on a single page (to hell with sterile book design!) One hand drawn graph is titled “Comparison of Aesthetical and Metaphysical Publications by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, 1917 – 1947”. 

Snapshots from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy: A Bibliographical Record

‘The Gift of Knowledge’ astonishes with its physical evidence, about what it takes to pursue a vocation in studying and documenting one topic of interest. There is even one heartfelt text I chanced upon, which Durai Singam dedicated to his deceased son, and contributed to the delay in publication for a volume. As one who has written about my personal passion for the past five years, it is deeply moving to read a sentence such as “(t)his work is not meant for a publisher who may judge a work by academic standards or profit. It is a one-man edition, written and typeset with devotion and pleasure.” Leaving the installation, I still did not know Who Is This Coomaraswamy? But I now know who is Durai Raja Singam.

Snapshots from Who Is This Coomaraswamy? 

"No sort of work is a hindrance on the spiritual path. It is the notion 'I am the doer' that is the hindrance. If you get rid of that by enquiring and finding out who is this 'I', then work will be no hindrance since you will be doing it without the ego sense that you are the doer and without any attachment to the fruits of your work. Work will go on even more efficiently than before; but you can always be in your own, natural, permanent state of peace and bliss. Further, one should not worry about whether one should engage in work or give it up. If work is what is ordained for one, one will not escape it, however much one may try. On the other hand, if no work is ordained for one, one will not obtain work however much one wishes to strive for it." 
– Excerpted quote from Ramana Maharshi, as seen in one collaged page (presumably arranged by Durai Raja Singam) in ‘The Gift of Knowledge: An Installation Commemorating the Person and Work of Durai Raja Singam (1904 – 1995)’ by Niranjan Rajah

Snapshots of collaged pages exhibited at 'The Gift of Knowledge' installation 

01 December 2017

Snippets: September 2017

Museum hopping in Singapore might become an annual family affair, given the international superstars the nation-state draws to their pristine shores. While the kid runs wild at teamLab’s interactive “Future World” exhibition at ArtScience Museum, I appreciate the fascinating collection of technology-meet-real world exhibits in “HUMAN+”. The highlight of the trip is undoubtedly the long queues to get into the galleries and infinity rooms for Yayoi Kusama’s “Life Is the Heart of A Rainbow”. Visual gimmicks and the solace/trauma of repetition aside, Yayoi’s fabric phalli constructs and large black-and-white drawings stand out to this visitor, for its concerted effort in failing to figuratively depict a representation. As a visitor sums up at the start of her review, “Kusama’s art is far from happy, despite its bright hues.” Indeed, “she’s way more than just a photo op.” 

Snapshot of Yayoi Kusama – Love Forever series

After attending the gut-wrenching “Art AIDS America” exhibition in Chicago this year – which explores how the AIDS crisis changed American art – it is difficult to be enthusiastic about the “ArtAid17” charity show organized by local artists Ahmad Zakii Anwar and Noor Mahnun Mohamed. The past two editions, together with the “Transit” group exhibitions organized by MAARS, have been a favourite personal pursuit to observe Malaysian art output. The quality among artworks displayed by 35 artists is good, with particularly memorable creations by Chan Kok Hooi and Shia Yiih Ying. Alluring also are the ink washes of Wong Xiang Yi, Nia Khalisa’s wonderful collages, and one print/painting by Afiq Faris. Surprisingly for one who has no love for household pets, I was smitten by Anisa Abdullah’s ‘Teman Baru’, whose depiction of her feline companion is intimately affecting.

Afiq Faris – Gold Fence (2017)

Meeting Gan Siong King is easy. The artist meets visitors in his studio four days a week, for four weeks, which resulted in 93 dedicated posts on one Instagram account. Driven by the artist’s genuine focus on developing rapport with his guests, this initiative is clearly not a hokey act of public engagement, as conversation topics and laughter flow smoothly during my visit. Upon arriving at the single-storey house, “tiada yang ‘seni’ mengenainya” (quoting Azzad Diah’s notes). One glimpses small paintings hung onto wooden walls, as Gan explores “making painting that consists of more than 1 canvas.” Strangely we did not speak about the actual paintings surrounding us, but went straight into light and its permutations in painting, exhibition-making, writing and the local art ecosystem, the difference between video work and painting, Gan’s wish to one day bring together both mediums…

Snapshot of meeting.people.is.easy Instagram account

Two days after a sekolah tahfiz in Kampung Dato Keramat is burned down by teenagers which claimed 23 lives, I arrive at a nearby bungalow-cum-gallery showing large hangings filled with dirty colours, caked impastos, scratched shapes, and paint splashes. Fauzulyusri’s new creations appear bright and visually captivating, as the lack of recognizable shapes take away the excessive meaning-making sometimes attached to his works. Quoting the artist in the exhibition essay, “Whiteground comes after two to three years of painting in dark, earthy tones, and as part of a rebellious time of wanting to explore other directions. This merely represents a natural movement of personal tastes – I should bring light after dark…” Viewing these exhibits was a guilty pleasure, as the positive ambiguity in abstract art, is countervailed by the horror which took place just 350 metres away. 

Fauzulyusri – Dripping Link (2017)

Interest in works by Haffendi Anuar is high in the local art scene – it sells well at international art fairs, are displayed in institutional exhibitions, and the artist was recently commissioned to create outdoor sculptures for a London property. Curators have framed Haffendi’s works as adopting a modernist sensibility towards materials, or as addressing a postcolonial legacy with everyday objects. What I see, however, is only the clever subversion of traditional signs into a contemporary form and vice versa. This approach works brilliantly in “Migratory Objects”, where compact designs are affixed to metal stands, then collectively displayed in front of one blown-up photograph taken at Kuala Lumpur’s Bird Park. The natural, the manmade, the real, the fake, oscillates continuously in an infinite loop…

Installation snapshot at “Migratory Objects” exhibition

Chong Kim Chiew’s restaging of ‘Isolation House’ at A+ Works of Art, a new shop lot gallery at Sentul, evokes an uncanny emptiness. A charcoal drawing on paper prints by FX Harsono, of people holding skulls, is displayed behind and accessible only via the gallery’s back entrance. While both artists’ works refer to the history of Chinese peoples in their respective countries, Kim Chiew’s installation is more powerful due to its economical approach. Rusted zinc plates and iron cages (both big & small) project a blank space, which implies narrative gaps and unspoken violence. The third re-staging of this work takes place in a gentrified space, which offers a new perspective to the work’s original intent. As the artist once said in an interview, “history is not past – the taste of things is always in the now. Now, we’re inside future, past and now combined together…”

Installation snapshots of Chong Kim Chiew – Isolation House (as exhibited at A+ Works of Art, 2017)

29 November 2017

To You I Surrender My Vanity @ Suma Orientalis

The Christian ring to the exhibition title is deliberate – Eng Hwee Chu’s devotion to her religion and family, are clearly on display in her art. Consisting of signature acrylic paintings, preparatory sketches, watercolours & pastels, and charcoal & graphite drawings, this collection of works provides a satisfying look-through at the 50-years old’s career. Entering the new bungalow-cum-gallery space, the visitor is greeted by two paintings from the “Black Moon” series made in the early 1990s. The crimson figure and its corresponding shadow, wavy landscape as background, gestures of anguish and cynicism, are all hallmarks in Hwee Chu’s subsequent output. Her more recent works on display suggest an increasingly confident and still-evolving artist. 

Victims of Struggling Live (2017)

The exhibition statement describes well a typical painting by Hwee Chu – “(s)he casts her doppelgänger self and others close to her into her paintings, lingering them onto the canvas surround, as symbols around the messages she is eager to propound.” A cursory glance at her oeuvre, and it is apparent turmoil and strife are the precepts postulated; Hwee Chu’s paintings recall murals of the Christian Judgement Day and the Buddhist Hell, its self-contained images arranged in overlapping axes on the flat picture plane, levelling too any sense of a fixed sequence. The artist’s usage of background tropes can be tedious – a horizon that ends with the sky, dense forest or sterile ground, memorial portraits or cultural motifs, swirling water and gushing gold shower – yet the careful inclusion of each component contributes significantly to her works’ emotional impact. 

After Lost (2013)

The number of figures featured in Hwee Chu’s pictures, have increased as compared to her earlier works, and are progressively depicted in more detail. Ever-present are the burning nude self and her darkened & textured companion, while representations of babies and children, an imagined public, and spectral beings, now become vital symbols. In ‘Authorities Behind Women’, some figures are elongated à la El Greco, the bodies twisted to form an elliptical space enclosing a persecution scene underneath a streetlight and a curving stone arch. Balancing the shape on the left is another ellipse, a misshapen stadium with a façade of arcades, in which a blindfolded cleric assumes an accusing pose. One pink lying nude, a flying horse toy, and the gesturing shadow, anchor the swirling picture, while a luscious flow of gold hold together its elements. The composition is forcefully dynamic, yet brazenly attractive. 

Authorities Behind Women (2016)

Such arrangements of pictorial subjects to create movement, is surprisingly less effective in Hwee Chu’s vertical paintings. Scale dissimilarity among narrow environs in ‘After Lost’, results in a close-packed image of desolateness like a compressed triptych, its floating orb-tombs appearing neither in or out of the picture. In ‘Silent Cry’, one argues that the children at the painting’s bottom is intentionally positioned out-of-focus as such; However, the different brush strokes Hwee Chu apply in blue to create visual continuity is counterproductive. I attribute the relatively successful ‘Return Home’ to its static dimension and clear horizon, with figures entering/existing the picture denoting an expanded picture plane. The positions of the ladies kneeling on the bottom left, and its alignment to other figurative gestures within the painting, testifies to the artist’s mastery at compositional balance.

Return Home (2012)

The virtuosity on display in ‘Origin of Women’ is breathtakingly superb. Portals are utilized cleverly to depict many dimensions, while just a few figures define the swirling movement that Hwee Chu’s paintings typically project. Two lingam-shaped archways roughly frame the expansive picture, while a tiny wooden cross hanging above a patch of green grass, marks the centre. Metaphorical symbols represent beauty and suffering, while life and death is clearly illustrated as intertwined states, as I stare at a baby bump next to one deceased visage. The interplay of gestures (and cultural stereotypes by skin colour) between men and women occur in a shallow pool, while a dimly-portrayed lady covers her ears. Women come into being if they fulfil gender role standards; It is wise to turn a deaf ear to this echo chamber. 

Origin of Women (2013)

Social expectations, then, is the main subject matter in Hwee Chu’s paintings. The struggle (as a filial daughter, an obedient wife, a life-giving mother, etc.) has always been a personal one, but as her self-realization grows, her art simultaneously matures by drawing in external elements that define one’s gender role. These are not feminist images that stir awareness towards gender equality, but a lament of one patriarchal reality. As compared to the sparsely-composed “Black Moon” paintings, the newer works enthral via more complex renderings (and interpretations) befitting the topic at hand. With hymns humming in my ears, I finally see these works as devotional paintings – grounded observations cloaked in symbols, that happen to be situated within surreal landscapes. The self is surrendered, in honour of a greater truth.

Silent Cry (2016)

““When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!””
- Luke 11:24-28, New Revised Standard Version 

Women, Life Warrior (2015)