A Nourishing Canvas

Fruits and food and things that can be imbibed all offer ready profound messages for the artist to exploit.

Food sustains body and soul. In art, especially in the depiction of fruits, it is as resplendent as still-life with all the stylistic métiers, and is used as metaphor for human strife and foibles.

An early food canvas is by Singapore pioneer Georgette Chen (1906-1993) with her outstanding still-life such as Still-life with Durian, Rambutans & Mangosteens (1965) and Moon Festival Table (c. 1965-1968) on the mooncake delicacies. The ingredients were simpler back then, unlike now when objects like abalone and Musang King durian can be added. Batik art founder Datuk Chuah Thean Teng (1912-2008) had also done several works such as Boy With Fish, Fruit Season (c. 1970s), Durian Sellers (1990), Eating Durian and Eating Noodles (2001)

In Western Art, food has been given showcase and verisimilitude treatment by the likes of Velasquez, Courbet, Bruegel, Chardin, Steen and Lempicka, with the iconic ones being, among others, Luncheon of the Boating Party (Pierre-Auguste Renoir), Luncheon on the Grass (Claude Monet), Supper at Emmaus (Caravaggio) and The Potato Eaters (Vincent Van Gogh).

The ubiquity of people patronising street food hawkers in Penang is immortalised in the watercolours of the legendary Tan Choon Ghee. While the food is not shown clearly, the patrons are shown standing, seated or even squatting, having their meals or a glass of their favourite teh tarik alongside tricycle carts or under makeshift food-stall canopies. Others like Jansen Chow show patrons in trendy upscaled cafeterias in coloured prisms, while Eston Tan and Chin Kong Yee (Supper In Penang, oil on canvas, 2004) have also painted Malaysians’ habit of alfresco dining.

Self-taught Sylvia Lee Goh, who started the trend of nyonya food and paraphernalia, has a 1978 work, Poverty & Plenty, commenting on class disparities, with cats and dogs scampering below hung fish and sausages. Known for her rich tapestries of women in baju kebaya, she is famed for her food culture staples such as the Woman, Oh! Woman trilogy; Teh, Chai Koay & Ang Koo (1997); Salted Fish (1978); The Festival (1994); Nyonya Kuih (1990); and Nyonya’s Secret Recipe (1990). Apart from culture, tradition and customs, Sylvia is also into the lustrous textures of flowers and plants, inspired by her garden, and women bonding and closures.

Others whose works revolve around the Baba-Nyonya culture include Tan Gaik Hoon and Sherin Ng. Gaik Hoon, who has fond memories of her nyonya kuih-maker mother in her Bagan Serai hometown, has a wide repertoire of works on elegantly dressed nyonya in baju kebaya surrounded by all sorts of Peranakan cakes with paraphernalia like the tiered bamboo bakul siah, teapot and trays. Like most trained at the Kuala Lumpur College of Art, her skills in figures are good. After a spell of teaching, she decided to go full time in 2010.

Installation: Since 2014, young contemporary artist Chuah Shu Ruei has developed six different sets of community-tinged installations called “Fruit in Kind” over six different venues, with the fruits donated to various charities in the end. She has had foreign art residencies in Cebu, the Philippines (Dunia-Kalibutan) and Reunion Island, France (Dunia Le Monde).

In Tan Nan See’s second solo, Artist’s Sojourn, at NN Gallery in April 2011, she combined painting, photography, found objects, self-cooked food (in an interaction of “art you can eat”), woodwork, papiermache, sewing and embroidery in a threemetre long banquet installation called “Selamat Artist’s Meal”. The kitchen wall comprised four different snacks, namely ketupat, kuih talam, coconut candy and chocolate.

Video: Indonesian multimedia pioneer Krisna Murti’s Branded Fruits Archipelago (2012) in single-channel video is based loosely on Eduard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The video hints of colonial enslavement with the people’s propensity for imported fruits over the local tropical variety. Krisna’s works on a variety of current issues hover around surrealism, fantasy and wry humour.

In the art of watercolour pencils, Carolyn Chua has won international recognition for her still-lifes, especially in her still evolving

Chin Kon Yee. Supper In Penang. 2004. Oil on canvas.

Tan Gaik Hoon.

Sylvia Lee Goh. Woman, Oh! Woman. Combo.

Carolyn Chua. I See Bread. 2017. Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer watercolour pencils and polychromas.

Tan Nan See. "Selamat Artist's Meal".

Chuah Shu Ruei. Fruit in Kind. KLSCAH 2014 copy.

Bread in Cellophane series. Her 2016 work, Give Us Today Our Daily Bread (Faber- Castell Albrecht Durer watercolour pencils and Polychromos pencils on Daler-Rowney heavyweight 200g paper, 25.5cm x 35.5cm, 2016) had won Honorable Mention in Still- Life in the International Artist (IA) magazine and juried into the 24th Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA) exhibition in Tacoma in the US. A graduate from the Malaysian Institute of Art, she had worked in the press, advertising and broadcasting industries before quitting to go full time into art two years ago.

The early works of Jalaini Abu Hassan, especially his Lifeform series, feature coconuts, bananas, fish and petai in large format together with kitchen paraphernalia like coconut scrapers and chilli pounders.

SC Sekhar, who set up Reds Studio in 1989, specialises in commercial photography in food, among others.

In 1990 Din Omar won the Minor Award in the Young Contemporary Artists (Bakat Muda Sezaman) with his nasi bungkus concoctions, using an assemblage of acrylic and collage on board. He later went into still-life of tepak sireh (betel-leaf containers). The betel leaf is used to wrap areca nut or tobacco for chewing, but the habit is not popular now because it is messy and is said to be unhealthy.

From 1977 to 1998 Dr Choong Kam Kow, now 83, came up with his highly innovative Festival series that incorporated craftmaking of traditional kuih using spray-gun techniques and handmade paper and yarn to fabricate bas-relief.

Festive delicacies were featured, such as chang (dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves with twines and knots), angkoo (tortoise cake wrapped in banana leaf), ketupat, pulut panggang (glutinous rice wrapped in coconut leaves), and were burnt for the roasted effect.

Goh Lye Hock. Mangosteens On Table. 2003. Acrylic on canvas. 40cm x 60cm.

Koay Soo Kau. Moving Vigorously. 1999. Oil on canvas.

Dr Choong Kam Kow. Festival Series 1 (angkoo).

It was an introspective period fuelled by the National Cultural Congress in 1971 and the akar umbi (tuber, “back to roots”) syndrome against the tide of international modernism. “The festival series manifests the spirit of muhibah, sharing festive joy, mutual respect and goodwill, and (is about) a return to the emphasis of humanity and traditional value,” says Choong, who was accorded a grand retrospective by the National Art Gallery in KL in 2014-2015 called “Cross Culture-Trans Era”. “It’s about cultural values and identity, discovered, transformed and expressed, with an Eastern concept of space.”

Interestingly, this Malaysian way of life has become eroded with growing Islamisation and the restrictions of social interactions.

Others like Ling Hooi Yin also take up this kind of verisimilitude concoctions like the onde-onde (glutinous rice balls with palm sugar), but on a miniature scale using other materials. Non-conventional materials in the creation of art have also expanded: Red Hong Yi deployed chopsticks and coffee teabags in creating images of celebrities.

As paintings on apples go, Lim Kim Hai, dubbed “The Apple King”, is nonpareil for his Hyper-Realism orchestration of apple narratives with classical finishes of satin or wooden surfaces. After making a name for himself in Paris and winning several awards for a little over a decade, he returned to Malaysia with great fanfare in the mid-1980s with his works sold in the six-digits, even outstripping the top artists in Malaysia then.

Others who use fruits to express human character, feelings or foibles include Galeri Seni Mutiara gallerist-cum-artist Koay Soo Kau and Goh Lye Hock, though both of them also play with other subject matter. Mah Ai Ching has gained a reputation for her paintings of grapes.

Ng Kim Heoh has taken the pear, with its shape akin to a sensuous woman body, as a symbol of her surrealistic musings. She also juxtaposes other objects to throw a disturbing light onto her main composition. In See No Evil (2011), the wayang kulit figure fights the temptation of the pear, touted like the Biblical apple. The pear form is also reminiscent of Man Ray’s ( Jean-Auguste-Dominique) Ingres’ Violin, with the same kind of objectification of the female form. After teaching for a few years upon securing her Masters at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Ng decided to turn full time and is better known as a founding member of the Sasaran International Art Festival set up by Ng Bee.

Ng Kim Heoh. See No Evil. 2011. Oil on canvas. 76cm x 91cm.

Food has come to symbolise national identity and nationalism, even beauty and intrinsic ethnic tastes, and has become a battlefield among nations claiming ownership: For instance, the rivalry between the Japanese kimuchi and the Korean kimuchi, while delicacies like satay is prevalent in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Perhaps, with food shortage – even crisis – and the exigency to use genetically modified organisms to overcome origin contamination, these images of food will become the only reminders of the natural abundance of which we were once endowed.

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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