Of women artists and their art


Yap YuDan, who is also known for 4x4 expeditions to Africa and South America, is adept at both Chinese brush paintings and Western paintings.

Male dominance permeates all aspects of society. This is more obvious in some areas than others. In the world of art, this dominance seems to have been weaker than in most other fields of human activity... at least if we judge by how many of Malaysia’s prominent artists are women.

In this era of the Super Woman, the purportedly weaker sex has to juggle her duties as wife, mother, daughter-in-law, daughter, sister, career woman or home/ family business-person.

Except for certain cloistered societies or backward tribal cultures, women have mostly broken through into almost all male domains.

In Malaysia’s art world, any perceived setback of women has been more a question of opportunities/priorities rather than any real gender discrimination. To be sure, there was more discrimnation in the early flush of nation building.

Pioneer artist Georgette Chen Li-Ying, with her Shanghai-Paris chic and sophistication, had a seminal influence on both sexes in the Nanyang (“Southern Seas”) littorals when teaching in Penang (1951-1953) before her 27- year teaching stint at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore.

In her indefatigable work as artist, teacher and mentor, she had inspired many, especially Lai Foong Moi, to go to Paris for further art studies. Lai, known for her early works on Sarawakian tribal natives, did come against some personal bias.

Even in the 1950s, in the days of amahs, aprons (housewives) and pearls (the mistresses and tai-tai), women had already “graduated” to the ateliers in Paris, Shanghai and London. They included Susie See and Tay Hung Ghee, but the honour of being the first to have studied art overseas went to Rosalind Foo, later a Puan Sri (title by virtue of her husband), who studied at the Chelsea and Slade schools of art in London in 1938-1939.

In the 1940s, Catherine Kao Chong Hui Ying was trained in art in Shanghai and started the Lingnan movement when she came over to Malaysia.

Sand T's painting that won the 1st Prize in the Boston "red" Art Prize (Cambridge Art Association) 2011.

The 1960s saw Grace Selvanayagam, Renee Kraal, Sivam Pragasam nee Ponampalam and Ida Tallala flocking to art citadels in England.

There were also others such as Tan Gek Khean (Mrs Tay Hooi Keat, later Datin, by virtue of her art pioneer husband), Liu Siat Mooi and Tina Rimmer. Hong Kong-born May Liang (now deceased) started with her husband Tay Mo-Leong (later Datuk) the Galeri de Mai in Penang which organised an international exhibition of South-East Asian art in 1963 and 1964!

The establishment of the Mara Institute of Technology (ITM) in October 1967 was to be a milestone in Malay women’s art. Among the pioneer batch were Sharifah Fatimah Zubir (later Datuk), Wairah Marzuki (later National Art Gallery director) and Ruzaika Omar Bassarree.

Sharifah, who was to further her studies in England and the US in the 1970s, won the Bank Bumiputra Prize in the highly prestigious 1978-1979 Salon Malaysia.

Others included Norma Abbas (Britain), Yuen Chee Ling (the Philippines), Siti Zainon Ismail and A. Aishah Abdul Latiff (Indonesia) and Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam (courses in UK/US).

Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Zubir and her Shahadah paintings. In recent years, her paintings have become more spiritually embedded in her Islamic roots.

Some emerged through associations with art groups. They included Hamidah Suhaimi (Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia or APS); Siti Zainon Ismail, Sharifah, Maryam Abdullah (Anak Alam) and Janet L.L. Ng (Wednesday Art Group).

Siti Zainon, later Prof Madya, is also a published poet, while Maryam is the wife of Anak Alam “gate-keeper” Mustaffa Ibrahim. Self-taught Hamidah illustrated the book Wild Mammals of Malaya (Oxford University Press) with her husband Mazeli Mat Sum, the second head of APS.

Socioeconomic developments and legislative reforms such as the 1969 equal-pay-for-work-of-equal-value, the Domestic Violence Act 1994 and the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 (Act 164); as well as the growth of women non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Women Aid Organisation are important catalysts in women’s advancement, what with the work-place revolution like in the export processing zone (EPZ) and the free trade zone (FTZ), and the rural-urban migration.

One of Mastura Abdul Rahman's latest works. Mastura is one of the representative of Malaysian art in the London Olympics from July 27 to August 12 this year.

At first, women naturally took to appliqué art because of their traditional skills with needlework. Besides Tay Hung Ngee (patchwork quilt) and Grace Selvaratnam, there were Fatimah Ismail (trained in UK/US), Khatijah Sanusi (Australia/US), Zaleha Zainuddin (US), Zaliha Shaari (US), Zaharah Othman, Kalsum Muda, Zainah Wan Chik and Roshadah Yusof (wife of artist Aza Osman and owner of a batik boutique in Langkawi). Others included Iban pua weaver Bangie AK Embol and songket weaver Habibah Zikri.

Fatimah Chik extended the parameters of batik art with her innovative Nusantara block prints and Islamic cosmogony.

The fragrance of tropical flowers, some symbolic, wafts with intoxicating tropical hues of the “secret garden” works of Sylvia Lee-Goh, Wong Siew Inn, Siti Jamila Samrin, Aminah Abdul Rahman, Mah Ai Ching, Chow Ngan Moi, Elaine Teh, Moy Siew Ting (and insects, too) and at one time, Grace Choong Ai May.

Works by Sylvia, Shia Yih Yiing and Everlyne Tai also touch on the ethnic heritage, with Sylvia blending in the ostentatious Nyonya (Peranakan) hybrid with her heart-tugging stories of aloneness, friendships and closure.

Women artists also keep close to matters of the heart on canvas, especially of family life and friends. Artists in this category include Yau Bee Ling (family), Puan Sri Norma Abbas (friends, in a mock cynical way), Lim Ai Woei (cats), Koh Shim Luen (free and happy domestic life in the kampong), Zuzila Zain and Mariana Salleh (Naïve Art).

Then there are those who dwell on a poetic/arcadian world like Claris Chan, Helen Guek Yee Mei, Ng Buan Cher, Yuen Chee Ling and Tai Suk Hian, with bucolic realms reminiscent of the Philippines art matriarch Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s.

Inner beauty and traditional designs of Malay textiles, crafts and utensils flourished on the canvases of Mastura Abdul Rahman, Rashidah Ismail, Nor Azizah Ismail and Faridah Husin in the 1980s, when artists were railroaded to look deep into their roots.

There are also the mock-surrealism still-lifes of Ng Kim Heoh, the Magic Realism of Eng Hwee Chu and Yii Seng Hwa, and the Metaphysical/Surrealism of Noor Mahnun Mohamad.

Irish Irene Broe is known for her half-bust sculpture of first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, while Waveney Jenkins and Chong Soo Lan pursued the Barbara Hepworth tradition, before Terry Law and later Jasmine Kok and Anniketyni Madian broke the dream-world with their heavy-duty metal sculptures.

In ceramics, there are Ham Rabeah Kamarun, Tan Bee Him, Faridah Yusof, Salwa Ayob, Mariam Abdullah (German-born) and Teresa Wong. In recent years, Umibaizurah Mahirismail, wife of Matahati-an Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, reinvented ceramic art as whimsical mantelpieces/mobiles, incorporating even mechanical parts.

Chinese art with its traditional copying-from-the-masters formula appeals greatly to many women but many of them strike out more seriously to incorporate Malaysian subjects, and with a touch of Western elements and media mix.

A work by Puan Sri Norma Abbas.

The outstanding ones include Rosalynn Teoh, Hong Poh Gaik, Wong Pay Lil, Shirley Chu Siow Eng, June Yap Yu-Dan, fingerartist Margaret Chia Oi-Ying and Sharifah Zuriah Al-Jefri, who moved into khat calligraphy later. The art of Zuriah, Sharifah, Ruzaika and especially Khatijah Sanusi also manifests Islamic spirit and iconography.

Feminine sensitivity prevails in photography with the focus coming from Soraya Yusof Talismail, Pahlawan Aku Aries, Suan I Lim, Teresa Wong, Belinda Siew and Gillian Tan (“Picture This and That”), Azmatul Hazrin Elin and Zaireen J. Redza Piyadasa. Pahlawan also paints, with a slightly quirky edge, but with an alacrity of lines and colours like musical chords, while Teresa Wong also makes clever and functional ceramics.

Since the 1980s, a new breed of women artists has also surfaced. Hayati Mokhtar, Nurhanim Khairuddin, Susilawati Sulaiman, Sharmiza Abu Hassan, Simryn Gill (installations/objects transformation/space adventuring), I-Lann Yee (multimedia installations/assemblages), Sharon Chin (social interactive engagements), Terry Law (power tool art), Azlina Ayob (“Barbie” cut-outs in mobiles, and later collages), Kok Siew Wai and Au Sow Yee (video and electronic-art). US-trained Siew Wai is the co-director of the KL Experimental Film and Video Festival (KLEX) and Studio in Cheras KL (SICKL).

The painterly are no longer wallflowers, as it were, but have breached new grounds in the works of Teoh Joo Ngee and the Lee sisters – Hui Ling and Hui Lien, the New Realism of Chong Siew Ying (romantic face-scapes), Wong Woan Lee (urban life) and Chong Ai Lei (mock-sexual innuendoes). An unusual surge of Islamic feminism can be found in the few raw, grating works on gender discrimination by Hamidah Abdul Rahman, before her death.

Malaysian-born women have also made an impact overseas. Artist-artivist Sand T @Tan Soh Hoon has been bestowed award after award for her marvellous Synthesis/tic Art of epoxy-resin, graphic and paint.

Siew Ying lives between Kuala Lumpur and Paris, while Karen Nunis and Shireen Lee have been imbibing new insights into their art during their Japanese stints. Others such as Dolly Unithan (New York), Enid Ratnam-Keese (Australia) and Hoh Yin Peng (Bonn, Germany) also reveal influences of their new abodes.

Many famous artists’ spouses are also artists in their own right – Shoko Lee nee Kobayashi (wife of avant-garde artist Lee Kian Seng), Tan Pek Cheng (Mrs Loo Foh Sang), Eng Hwee Chu (Mrs Tan Chin Kuan), Moy Siew Ting (Mrs Choo Beng Teong), Yuen Chee Ling (Mrs Yeong Seak Ling) – while German-born Ilse Noor is known for her charming blend of architectural heritage and magical charms in her highly immaculate prints.

A great many galleries, art administrators and practitioners are women. With the arts industry becoming a star performer in the West and even in places like Hong Kong, the ratio of women artists in linked or peripheral occupations is likely to increase considerably.

With more women in high places in the corporate and government sectors, will the top profile of the Who’s Who in Malaysian art collecting not shift significantly as well?

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.

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