Being born in a middle class Chinese family in Kuala Lumpur, my relationship with Malaysia changed drastically throughout the years starting from my years abroad. I discovered my predominantly Chinese experience in Malaysia was not as important when I am abroad. To others, I am first a Malaysian, then a Buddhist, perhaps then an Asian woman of Chinese descent.
Furthering my studies in United States meant mastering the command of English, a powerful tool towards scholarship and a professional career even in Malaysia, and I understand the access and privilege it has since granted me. When I was interviewed by Bernama Today last November for my solo exhibition Inknovations at JETH art gallery, a commonly raised question by fellow Malaysians was, “Why is your English this good when your medium is Chinese ink?”
As Malaysians, we often take our ability to speak multiple languages for granted, not realizing that at one point in history, our elders only spoke their dialects and perhaps Malay. The wisdom of Chinese Ink Painting that shaped a huge part of Nanyang Art that I learned from Dr. Cheah Thien Soong was all conducted in Mandarin; had I not also speak English, I would not been able to communicate its ancient philosophy and knowledge to an international audience who were already fascinated by Asian arts since the late 19th century.
Today we still see a social divide within Malaysia when it comes to learning traditional art forms: The 24 season drums that was made popular by Hands Percussions toured the world and corporate Malaysia, but master drummers in the group still recruit students from Chinese Independent High Schools; Prolific Chinese Ink Painters in Malaysia were not given MFA degrees that would allow them to teach in universities but were only limited to exhibit and giving workshops at Chinese Schools and Chinese oriented spaces.
Yet Nanyang Art predecessors such as Cheong Soo Pieng whose work are now highly regarded from auction houses to Singapore’s National Gallery started out by teaching both Chinese Ink Paintings and Oil Painting at the same time at Nanyang School of Arts (now NAFA) in the 1950s. Dr. Cheah who studied directly from these masters is one of the few Chinese artists left in Malaysia that has received and taught formal traditional Chinese Ink Painting in a university setting.
I hope to use this residency to ask the questions: What’s the future of Chinese Ink Painting? If it were an important Nanyang (Southeast Asian) heritage and legacy, how do we promote it in the Malaysian Chinese art circle and beyond? How do we innovate within a tradition that has once inspired the likes of Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin? How can I expand the medium’s limitations by collaborating with other artists of dance, music and theater background?
Southeast Asia is an exciting hub of trades and inter-cultural exchange. Its tropical colors and wide array of craft and folk arts were subjects of studies for many foreign scholars and local artists. I wish to immerse myself into the art scene starting with a residency at Rimbun Dahan, to share my understanding of the new and the old based on my own cultural roots that I re-discovered upon returning from abroad, but also expand it’s repertoire to a contemporary Malaysia we as artists are aspired to shape.
Rimbun Dahan is a private arts centre in Malaysia, also the home of architect Hijjas Kasturi and his wife Angela. Set on fourteen acres outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the compound of Rimbun Dahan is a centre for developing traditional and contemporary art forms. I will be a resident artist at Rimbun Dahan from October to December 2016.