Free of Words

loading Artist Ono Kang posing with an art piece inspired by a time machine. Kong Chae Chuan Kui, Kong Chae Yit Cheh (Above All Else, We Must Learn to Control Our Breath) reminds us that we are entirely in charge of the course of our future.

One man turns a disability into an expression of art.

Artist Ono Kang is dyslexic, but was not diagnosed with the reading disorder until he turned 30. Dyslexia was not known in the local community back then, and Ono struggled to fit in at school and was often subjected to cruel teasing.

He recalls falling asleep during a school examination once, having exhausted himself completing the subject paper. He was later jolted awake, ears ringing and eyes tearing, when a frustrated teacher slammed a book down on his head. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me at the time; I was constantly being called stupid and it eroded my confidence.” The incident left Ono emotionally scarred and he stopped schooling soon after. “I wasn’t excelling in school, but I took to heart what my art teacher told me before I left: my education should never be bound to the four walls of the school.”

At 13, Ono ventured out of Penang. He first went to Singapore, and then further away from home. He travelled extensively throughout South-East Asia and at 16, began a tattoo apprenticeship in Thailand. “I can’t read, but I’ve been on the move since. On my last trip, I cycled from Istanbul to France, following the Mediterranean Sea, for four months. It was tough, but it was a beautiful journey towards self-discovery and finding inner peace.”

He returned to settle in Penang as a tattoo artist in his early twenties. But witnessing modernisation take over was saddening and Ono was driven to collect items of old George Town – furniture, household items, gadgets and even factory machines – to preserve the heritage and history of his culture. “I’m appreciative of objects people have dedicated their whole lives to create. They have great sentimental value.”

Oui! Che Meh Gu (Oui! I Am a Blind Cow).

Chuan Ji Kui, Chuan Tua Kui (Inhale, Exhale). This prison door acts like a portal in our lives, to remind us of what is ahead when you step in or out beyond the doorway.

Chuan Kui (Breathe).

As his collection grew, Ono started to build sculptures and installations out of them. “My paintings and sculptures are my totems, in that they represent the wealth of knowledge I’ve amassed over the years. I love the process of creating art and the memories that come with it. There is not a whole lot you can bring back, but those moments of creation are forever immortalised in my artworks – that’s why I never sell them. But I do gift them to friends.”

Chuan Kui (Breathe) is Ono’s first solo exhibition, and features 10 art installations inspired by his life experiences. Visitors to the exhibition are welcomed with a personalised message by Ono to ponder on the spectrum of human breaths, and their many meanings – “Let’s talk about breath. What does it mean to breathe, or in the words of my native Hokkien language, chuan kui? As you enter, please enter with an open heart and take away what you can from the stories ahead. Stories that I would like to share with you, stories that shaped my life. As you do, please be aware of your chuan kui.

The first installation showcases a dummy propped up and shackled in an electric chair. Chuan Kui – named after the exhibition – is a reification of life and death. “Nowadays, we get so caught up in our senseless pursuits, and when the anxiety, panic attacks and tension sets in, we spiral into a black hole of self-doubt and apprehension. This piece is a self-portrait to remind myself to breathe. If we were to direct focus to our breathing, it instinctively teaches us to look inward and away from the increasing demands of socialisation and modernisation. We will not be so easily carried away by our desires, and we will be more content and at peace.

“Or one can look at it as an exploration of death – there’s so much taboo around the word ‘dying’. When I started putting the piece together, I tried to get into the psyches of those who were seconds away from being electrocuted to death, innocent or otherwise. I believe it’s the moments of silence before death claims a life – that’s when a sense of clarity and acceptance finally sets in. I know death makes for an uncomfortable discussion, but it can be a beautiful process.”

Another installation that resonated deeply with Ono, and one that delves deep into parenthood is Wa Ay Gam Ga Lu Eh Chuan Kui (I Can Feel Your Breath). Here, he reflects on what it means when we find that we have given breath to a new life. When life has given you a role you weren’t quite expecting to take up, how will you fill in the shoes? What does it mean to be one-half of a lifetime partnership known as parenthood?

Wa Ay Gam Ga Lu Eh Chuan Kui (I Can Feel Your Breath).

Jiap Siew Tao Ji Kui, Balu Ji Kui, Dei Bui Ji Kui (Acceptance) explores the first breath we take, our current and last breaths..

Gwuei Kuai Goay Xia, Zhu Ew Chuan Kui, Zhu Ew Xneow (Light is Faster than Sound; Breathe Freely, Let Your Imagination Take Flight) is a two-piece installation that challenges us to delve into our imaginations and drive our actions to focus on the reality we want to experience.

“In the beginning, the struggle was real when both my partner and I had to readjust our lives and our initial ideals to include a new life, especially since we are both free spirited citizens of the world and used to making it on our own in life. I’ll be honest with you, I felt chained down by the weight of the lifelong responsibility as a parent. Yet, there is love, and that is the subtle difference between a bond and a chain. Parenthood has reminded me to stop measuring my days by the degree of productivity, but rather to start experiencing them by the degree of presence. There is no greater joy and love in life than feeling the breath of our loved ones.”

Oui! Che Meh Gu (Oui! I Am a Blind Cow) pays tribute to Ono’s struggle with dyslexia. “I was labelled a lost cause because of my condition. What the world does to you, if you let it do to you long enough, you begin to do to yourself. But I wasn’t going to let it. Since I didn’t have a place in the local schools, I began travelling at a young age. At first, I had no confidence especially when facing the immigration officers, being asked to fill in the visitor form at the airport and such. But I learned to overcome such difficulties. In retrospect, it’s a blessing in disguise to have missed out on a chance in literacy. I find myself immune to being brainwashed by the words of the media. My life is much simpler, happier and honest because of it.

Related Articles

Jul 2016

Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.

Oct 2017

Barking Up the Right Tree

Eucalyptus bark is Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir's metier.

Feb 2011

The miracle of Penang Jazz

The Penang Island Jazz Festival has, against all odds, completed its seventh year, and it’s here to stay.

Sep 2017

Whiteaways – Where Art Hangs Out

Mesmerising works of art take the centre stage at Whiteaways.