Artists Never Retire

Cheah Yew Saik.

Chung Chen Sun.

Eng Tay.

Artists, like some politicians, don’t really retire. So who are the notable ones in Malaysia today? Contrary to popular opinion, the oldest most notable Malaysian artist is technically not Yeoh Jin Leng (born 1929). The honour goes to Chinese brush artist Ang Swee Hin (b. 1925) and to the lesser known artist-politician from Sabah, Datuk Haji “Murshidi 6B” Nambi (b. 1925).

China-born Swee Hin@Yew Sheng learned the finer points of his art from his uncle, Ang Chan Chiew, in China, while Murshidi was an adviser to SAPP (Sabah Progressive Party).

Artist-potter-academician Jin Leng, in turn, is often dubbed a “Renaissance Man” for his profound knowledge of Malay traditional arts, South-East Asian textiles and Indian culture. Trained in Chelsea, Jin Leng was featured last year in a two-man show with the late Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah of Terengganu at the Edge Gallery last year.

Then comes the pioneering watercolourist Teh Siew Joo @ Hang Kyang (b. Penang, 1930), who has been based in Ipoh since He is a flower specialist and became known for his animation using Chinese ink when studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (1951-54). His last solo was Fleeting Age and Blossoming Flowers in Ipoh in December 2017.

Wednesday Art Group’s supernova Cheong Lai Tong and Taiwan-trained Tan Chiang Kiong, both born in 1932, took divergent paths with Chiang Kiong serving as art teacher in Penang, even till today. Chiang Kiong was given a retrospective by the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) in 2013. Lai Tong returned to serious painting after a three-decade hiatus as creative director for a cigarette company (1963-1996), although he already made a comeback solo in 1981, at Universiti Malaya. Also born in 1932 is businessman cum Chinese ink artist Dato Loke King Loong.

The two “Chungs/Choongs”, Dr Choong Kam Kow and Chung Chen Sun, are twin Colossus as artist-art educationists. Both were born in 1935, although Choong’s birth-year is listed as 1934. For Choong’s tremendous contributions as artist (sculptor, artist, printmaker), he was accorded a retrospective called “Cross- Culture, Trans-Era” by the National Art Gallery (NAG) from November 18, 2014 to March 31, 2015), which was followed by a retrospective in Taiwan, and with another planned for China.

Ironically, he succeeded Chung, who was the founder-president of the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) in 1967, as CEO-president (2000-2009) and vice-president (1994-1999). Chung, who had his tutelage at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA) in Singapore, had also set up art universities in China, and was given a major exhibition, 5 Decades of Chung Chen Sun, at the NAG in 2005.

Two Malaysian-borns, Khor Ean Ghee (b. 1934) and Yeo Hoe Koon (b. 1935), are now Singaporeans.

National Laureate cum SEA Award novelist-poet Datuk Seri Abdul Samad (b. 1935), known for his 1961 literature classic, Salina, had also made his mark in art in recent years, with two solo art exhibitions, the last being Black and Red in October 2015.

Other 1930s artists accorded a retrospective by the PSAG were Cheung Pooi Yip (b. 1936, in 2014), Dato Tay Mo Leong (b. 1938, in 2009) and Khoo Sui Hoe (b. 1939, in 2007).

Mo Leong is known for his batik innovations of cloisonné stained-glass and Dunhuang-like calligraphic “rub-ons”. US-based Sui Hoe (b. 1939), the spiritual leader of the Utara group and a NAFA-Pratt alumnus, was given a special exhibition by Soka- Gakkai Malaysia (SGM) at its KL premises in August 2017.

The Terengganu Chew brothers, the best known being academician-artist Dr Chew Teng Beng (b. 1938), are spread out over the world. Teng Beng is in New York, Kiat Seng (b. 1939) in Australia, and Kiat Lim (b. 1943), who had a PSAG retrospective last year, in Toronto, Canada.

Three prominent Sarawakian artists are in this group, namely Raphael Scott Ahbeng (b. 1939), Lam Siong Onn (b. 1937) and “bark artist” Ramsay Ong Liang Tong (b. 1943).

Eric Peris (b. 1939), a unique world-class humanist photographer, recently had the Revisiting Kuala Lumpur exhibition in collaboration with Lee Hong Leng and K.F. Choy, at the Sutra Art Gallery.

Melbourne-born portrait specialist Ahmad Nazri Abdullah (b. 1937) joins 1938-borns such as Dato Chuah Kooi Yong, founder-principal of the Equator Academy of Art in Penang; Sharifah Zuriah al-Jeffri known for her calligraphic Bosnia works; Low Kong Wen, Khoo Khay Tat, and Bradford-trained Sabahan Haji Mohd Junaidi Ismail. The 1939 “babes” include Cheah Yew Saik, founder-president of the now defunct Kuala Lumpur College of Art, who was given “An Aesthetic Journey” retrospective featuring six decades of art at the SGM in October-November 2015. Other 39-ers include former Malaysian Watercolour Society supremo Dr Wong Seng-tong, Chinese ink doyen Hon Peow, Lim Eng Hooi and former Thursday Art Group artist Lim Tong Juan.

Eric Quah.

Eric Peris.

Latiff Mohidin.

There are easily a hundred notable active artists who are 70 years old and above, with the cut-off birth year at 1948, and easily another three scores of those who are 60 years old and above. (Those born in the 1950s will not be covered in this article).

The 1941 birth-year peg has three titans in Latiff Mohidin (b. 1941, but actually 1938), and artists-academicians Dr Jolly Koh and Sulaiman Esa. Latiff’s seminal Pago-Pago (1960-1969) was shown by the National Gallery Singapore at the world renowned Centre Pompidou in Paris in February this year. Jolly celebrated his 76th year with a monster book cum exhibition, Jolly Koh@76, at the White Box MAPS Publika, KL, in November-December last year. Sulaiman had a major NAG show in 2011 called Raja’ah – Art, Idea and Creativity. Both Jolly and Sulaiman studied first at Hornsey.

Also based overseas are the New York-based Eng Tay (b. 1947), who was given a retrospective by Galeri Petronas in 2008, Lee Long Looi (b.1942, based in the US), and Chan Chu Chai (b. 1944, based in Paris, France). Eng Tay survived a nasty car accident last year, with his Porsche a complete write-off.

Avant-garde artist Lee Kian Seng (b. 1948) and his Japanese-born wife Shoko Lee (b. 1948) are still painting although they are not active in the exhibition circuit. Kian Seng had a monumental sculpture in Jakarta (3rd Asean Square Sculpture Symposium) in 1984, and won Japan’s Creation Award (Overseas Prize) in 1993. Shoko is known for her Sunny Boy and My Diary series in the 1980s.

Long Thien Shih (b. 1946, actual 1944-45)’s “Man of the Times” retrospective at the NAG in 2014 offers insights into the multi-faceted, highly prolific and consummate artist.

Lee Kian Seng – Soul and Form.

Long Thien Shih.

Five artists born in the 1940s were accorded retrospectives by the PSAG. They are Dato Tang Hon Yin (b. 1943), famous for his Water Margin series, whose retrospective will be held at the end of the year; Eric Quah (b. 1946, retros in 2011); Syed Thajudeen Shaik Abu Talib (b. 1943, India, retros in 2015); James Sum Kin Hing (b. 1944, retros in 2016); and Dato Chong Hong Fatt (b. 1941, retros in 2012).

The House of Teng’s (batik-art founder Dato Chuah Thean Teng) scions also make the illustrious line-up, namely Chuah Siew Teng (b. 1944, a Merdeka Child born on August 31), Chuah Seow Keng (b. 1945) and Choy Siew Kek (b. 1947). Another batik artist worth mentioning is Kwan Chin (aka Goh Yee, Goh Kwan Chuan, b. 1946).

In Chinese brush painting, old age is hugely revered with wisdom and maturity. Prominent is Penang-born Prof. Dr Cheng Haw Chien (b. 1948), who once headed the Central Academy of Art. Cheah Thien Soong @ Cheah Mei (b. 1942) reinvented the Chinese ink genre with his inimical abstractions and the use of the alter ego crake, and his painting transfers on Jingdezhen porcelain. Others are Tokyo-trained “Sparrow King” Yap Hong Ngee (b.1943), Yee Sze Fook (b. 1944) and Septimus Sim Sang (b. 1946).

Thien Soong and Sze Fook were classmates at NAFA, graduating in 1962. Thien Soong was given a “55 Years” retrospective by NAFA in 2013, followed by a major show at the NAG in 2015. Sze Fook was given a “Fresh Strokes” retrospective by SGM in July 2014. Yew Saik graduated a year earlier.

Other NAFA alumni are Class of ’65: The husband-and-wife team of Loo Foh Sang and Tan Pek Cheng (both b. 1944, both also studied in Paris), Wong Kean Choon (b. 1942), Keng Seng Choo (b. 1945), Hong Poh Gaik (b. 1946); Class of ’67: Yong Khek Cheong (b. 1946), Khor Seow Hooi (b. 1946), Tan Sik Yaw (b. 1949); Loke Gee Chian (b. 1946, NAFA 1968) and Chia Hoy Sia (b. 1948, NAFA 1969). Long Looi was a NAFA 1970 graduate.

Kean Choon, Seow Hooi and Gee Chian are all dedicated watercolourists. The unique Tham Siew Inn (b. 1946) shows the way among other watercolourists like Mohd Sani Mohd Dom (b. 1944), who has just recovered from an illness; Choh Kok Kheong (b. 1943), Chiang Soa Ling (b.1941) and Loo Win (b. 1945).

Wairah Marzuki.

Dato Dr Tan Chee Khuan.

Yeoh Jin Leng.

Lai Loong Sung (b. 1944), a student and lecturer of the Kuala Lumpur College of Art, was given a major exhibition by SGM called Heart & Soul, Time & Space, in October-November 2014.

Other notables in the age-group include Yeang Seak Ling (b. 1948), gallerist (Galeri Seni Mutiara)-artist Koay Soo Kau (b. 1946), landscape artist Edwin Ho (b. 1940), fish artist Yeap Tho Seng (b. 1942), Malaysian Oil Painting Society president Wong Seng Non (b. 1942), art philanthropist-psychiatrist cum “colour blind” artist Dato Dr Tan Chee Khuan (b. 1948), Fong Kim Seng and Shamsul Bahari (both b. 1949) and Foo Yong Kong (b. 1948).

Self-taught Mah Ai Ching (b. 1946), known for her grapes paintings, survived a near-fatal road accident several years ago. Other women artists born in the 1940s are the pioneering ITM artist Dato Sharifah Fatimah Zubir (b. 1948), Indonesian-trained novelist-poet-painter Siti Zainon Ismail (1949), German-born printmaker Ilse Noor (b. 1941), Sylvia Lee-Goh (b. 1940), Shoko Lee (b. 1948, Japan), batik artist Fatimah Chik (b. 1947, a Merdeka Child trained at ITM), Wairah Marzuki (b.1948, former National Art Gallery director), and Chinese ink painter cum instructor Hong Poh Gaik and Ang Tin Kean (b.1947), the only artist among Ang Swee Hin’s children. Utara Group stalwart Syed Salleh Mustaffa (b. 1945) has not held the brush for 12 years since suffering a stroke and a series of minor strokes. Bird artist Ong Soo Keat (b. 1941) defied the odds after suffering a stroke in 2003, to hold a solo exhibition at Galeri Seni Mutiara, Penang, in 2011.

Artists born in the 1940s include two former high-ranking government officials, namely the former Tourism Ministry sec-gen Dato Tengku Alaudin Tengku Abdul Majid (b.1945) and former chief secretary Tan Sri Samsudin Osman (b. 1947). Another is former Perak deputy state secretary Dato Mahsun Taib (1948).

Former ambassadors include former Suhakam member Dato Choo Siew Kioh (b. 1944), Dato Abdul Rahman Rahim (b.1944) and Dato Mohd Yusof Ahmad (b.1951), a former director-general of the NAG. For these artists, it’s a pursuit of challenges for a premium in quality and a meaningful message that will stand out as their individual legacies.

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

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