Fired by the Charm of Ceramics

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Kilns are working overtime as a wave of inspiration hits our sculptors of clay.

A flurry of contemporary ceramic exhibitions in recent months has finally reignited interest in this apparent niche art.

Within a space of three months, benchmark solos by Umibaizurah “Umi” Mahir Ismail, Tan Vooi Yam and Hong Kong-based Chao Harn Kae, plus the seventh edition of the annual Selsius international exhibition at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) appeared as if by design. In reality, it was a “potluck”.

Karen Lai


This string of happenstance is capped off by the tripartite exhibition (August 12-October 12) held at Galeri Chandan featuring Umi, her protégé Al-Khuzairie Ali (now an artist in his own right) and Japanese Satoko Ootsuki, who had had a two-month residency at Patisatu, the Puncak Alam art lab-studio run by Umi and her husband, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, from the Matahati art collective.

The crowded itinerary moved pioneer ceramic artist Associate Prof. Ham Rabeah Kamarun, a raku expert who was attending the Selsius exhibition, to hail this as a revival of sorts. Ham Rabeah was active during the 1980s and 1990s, along with other icons like Yeoh Jin Leng, Cheah Yew Saik, Cheah Yeow Seng, Moon Gallery and Wan Ahmad Wan Mohamod, but he had to give up the kiln because of a bad back.

Notable ceramic exhibitions in recent years include Contemporary Ceramics at the NVAG in 2007 and Earthworks at Galeri Petronas in 2014.

For the “solo” trio who came from diverse backgrounds, the penchant for the sculptural in mock-toy figurines (Umi), freakish head busts (Chao), and truncated masks of “Emotional States” and studio wares (Vooi Yam) pushes the envelope in mind and matter, creating stimulating shapes, forms, features, textures, colours, designs and finish with ambient feel or mood.

Tan Vooi Yam.

Vooi Yam, the oldest at 48, comes from a potter family. His art education at the Kuala Lumpur College of Art (1989-92, Diploma in Painting, Minor in Ceramic Design) greatly expanded his horizon, and this showed in his winning the Minor Award in the Young Contemporary Artists competition in 1994 and the Malaysian tier of the Philip Morris Malaysian Asean Art Award in 1999.

After a hiatus of three years where he concentrated on helping his family’s commercial pottery business, Vooi Yam scored his fourth solo since 2012 with “The Expedition of the Fire: Wood-Fired Ceramics”, at the Pin Wei Zhai Art Gallery in Ipoh Greentown Business Centre on July 9-17. In 2010 he set up his own Tao Jie Fang Pottery Studio, where he gives classes, apart from building over eight months in 2014 the first mini wood-fired cave kiln, Ipohgama.

The heady days of the 57ha Ceramic Park in Chepor, Perak, set up in 1991 when ceramic art was a commercial industry, came to an end because of labour problems, drastic hikes in materials (fuel, electricity, clay, imported chemicals) and production costs, and great competition from China, India, Thailand and Indonesia.

For high-end wares, Malaysia is known for its gourd-shaped Labu Sayong earthenware carafe, Sarawak pottery, Tenmoku pottery and the red-shaded Kelantan pottery.

Chao Harn Kae.

Unlike Vooi Yam who is a third-generation potter family, Chao, a Fine Arts graduate of the Malaysian Institute of Art majoring in Oil Painting, catapulted into prominence in 2015 when he was named among 10 artists for his “Rabbit Man” concoction in the New Art Wave Award in Hong Kong, where he had stayed put since 2004 when he moved there for a specific Disneyland project.

Otherwise, he has been involved in minor projects in tandem with Karen Poo since 2014, working on various media like 3D illustration, papier-mache, linen and ceramics.

Brief forays back home hardly registered, even when he took part in the Singapore- Malaysia ceramic show at Sekeping Kong Heng in Ipoh in September 2014. It was only with his head-turning solo, “The Conquering: Chapter Clay”, held at the Oriental Art and Cultural Association in Jalan Kelang Lama in KL on July 10-31 did things change. In that show, he exhibited nondescript faces rouged pantomime-like and with opened hands sprouting on top of the heads, enhanced with designs of little runnels of lines all over.

Karen Lai

Dr Shamsu Mohamad.

While Chao’s potpourri was stark with a touch of the sinister, Umi’s menagerie was more whimsical with a tad of the burlesque. On the back of her two earlier solos – “Hybrid” (2009) and “Tag” (2012) – held at Wei-Ling’s two galleries, which focused on playful concoctions on wheels or standalones, the 41-year-old Umi went into imaginative overdrive in “Fragile”, her solo at The Edge Galerie ( July 21-August 5).

For the first time, Umi, who has a BA in Ceramics from Universiti ITM (2000) and who was a YCA award winner in 2006, also unveiled a set of 10 collages and four paintings, all in mixed media, apart from 12 ceramica installations and five wall-hanging sculptures.

Her meticulous “combines” use distorted, contorted porcelain caricatures with other media such as wheels, decals, copper sleeves, screws, painted steel plates and ornamented wooden cubicle plinths stacked in installations harking at consumer culture – an uneasy beauty and transformation.

While socio-political messages can be read in the works of Umi and Vooi Yam, Chao’s works are more introspective and psychological, delving into the dual animalistic-human psyche, like the Na’vihuman hybrid in James Cameron’s sci-fi film Avatar.

James Seet.

Of the trio, it is Umi who has gone truly international with stints in prestigious biennales (NamYi Seom and Cheongju in South Korea and the Jakarta Biennale) and exhibitions and workshops in Britain, Sweden, Japan and China, apart from Art Stage Singapore and the World Expo in Shanghai.

Chao’s exposure so far has only been in Hong Kong and Macau, while Vooi Yam had residencies in China (Fuping Ceramic Museum, Xian, 2012), and Taiwan (Nantou, 2013).

The Selsius exhibition held from August 2 to September 30 drew established exponents from South Korea, Turkey, China, India, Thailand, the US, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore and Indonesia. The venue alternates between the NVAG and Universiti Sains Malaysia, where Dr Shamsu Mohamad teaches.

The Malaysian component comprised mainly ceramic students and lecturers and was headed by Dr Shamsu Mohamad (MA in Ceramics, Central St Martin’s; PhD in Housing, Building and Planning) and Dr Salwa Ayob (MA in Ceramic, University of Wales, 1998). Shamsu, who has received several awards for his innovative glaze research, regularly takes part in overseas ceramic festivals like in Nami Island and Gyeonggi in South Korea.

James Seet.

The exhibition also mounted a tribute section to Roslan Ahmad, who died while taking part in the Goseong Raku Festival in South Korea in 2015, at the age of 52.

One potter who seldom exhibits locally but is active overseas is self-taught James Seet, by profession an associate creative director at Arc/Leo Burnett with more than 20 years’ experience.

Trained by Yeow Seng and Australians Margaret Fenn, Neil Boughton and Rowley Drysdale’s Quuixotica, Seet had taken part in exhibitions in Australia, Canada (Medicine Hat, 2013) and the US (Workhouse Gallery, Washington DC, 2014).

Also orientated towards the sculptural with heads and half-body busts, Seet was among five Malaysians selected for the first Southeast Asian Ceramic Festival at Ayala Museum in Manila in September 2009. His works are collected in ceramic museums in L’Alcora in Spain and Canada (Shaw Centre).

Not surprisingly, special-purpose museums like Taiwan’s Yingge Museum have sprouted, while biennales/triennales for ceramics have also grown fast with at least 25 in the world today including the World Biennale held in South Korea in 2001. Arguably, the earliest is the Spiez (Switzerland) Ceramics Triennial which started in 1957, but the better-known Australian Triennial has alternated the host job among her various cities since 1976!

The endless permutations of shaping, firing and glazing of raw clay which can result in objects of infinite beauty and potency are truly a triumph of skill, discipline, imagination and ingenuity, and a symbiosis between Man and Nature.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary ‘movel’ (a novel conceived as a mock movie) fantasy spun from a local legend

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