Women Artists Are Flourishing

Artwork exhibited at RRRAWRRR!!!

WHOA! Where do all these women artists come from? So, so many new young and emergent women artists nowadays in the plethora of women’s-only exhibitions in KL and Penang alone, held to coincide with International Women’s Day?

In the February-March (overlapping April) field season, the parade of female artists has been astonishing, maybe not so by numbers, but by the diverse backgrounds and less conventional materials, and the stances and issues not normally taken.

To start with, there were the women’s only group exhibitions:

1) RRRAWRRR!!! (Galeri Maybank, KL), featuring 33 artists in this second annual instalment curated by independent Tan Sei Hon. Most of the artists were different from those in the opening gambit last year;

2) Victress Niche (G13, Petaling Jaya), showcasing nine artists including Alexandra Hon, Amy Nazira, Eryn and Liew Mei Toong;

3) Small Small World (Artemis, Publika, KL), of works smaller in size, with a six-artist ensemble headed by Viko Zhijune with others being Dr Caryn Koh, Eleanor Goroh, Mei Kei Ho, Poesy Liang and Andrialis Abdul Rahman;

4) Together We Are Beautiful (penangPac, Straits Quay, Penang), bringing together 40 artists including veterans Shirley Chu Siow Eng and Mah Ai Ching; M.L. Ung; gemologist-turnedartist Cheong Mei Fong; and organiser Dr Grace Choong; with the youngest Alice Ong, 18;

5) Women Days III at Atelier 11, Selangor, with 30 artists led by Paris-trained Tan Pek Cheng, with some students from Pek Cheng and her husband Loo Foh Sang’s art tutorship;

6) Imaging Sentiments – Women In Photography (Oriental Art Cultural Centre, KL) featuring 10 new names such as Rachel Neo, Goh Soh Hoon, Phon Mun Kit, Lim Min Jia and Tara Ng;

7) She Who Paints Her Own Story (AP Art Gallery), with the likes of Mastura Abdul Rahman, Fatimah Chik and portrait photographer Soraya Ismail;

8) A six-women show at The Refinery, KL, with mostly new names: Amy Hashim, Ti Yi Rou, Sanae Yamada, Miranda Free, Pooja Verma and Fay Fay Xiao Ting;

9) Alliance Francaise’s Women and Proud As Hell (Gallery des Artistes, Tropicana Golf, Petaling Jaya, until June 18), an exhibition dedicated to art in the #MeToo era, and as part of the French Festival. Works by three French artists Veronique V, Christine and JM Roberts.

Then there were the mixed group exhibitions which had women too, such as Immaterial at G13 (young artists like Yim Yen Sum, Agnes Lau, Raimi Sani and Poland-born Anissa Abdullah); while the F Klub specialising in figures had an exhibition, Human Being, at Ken Gallery, Petaling Jaya, with six known women among the artists, namely Chong Siew Ying, Shia Yih Yiing, Chong Ai Lei, Fadilah Karim, Trixie Tan and Raimi Sani.

And among the shortlisted finalists in the hugely prestigious Bakat Muda Sezaman at the National Art Gallery are 15 alumni from the Dasein Academy of Fine Art, only three of whom are male. The female artists are Alicia Lau, Choo Yan Xin, Ho Mei Kei, Joy Ng Mei Lok, Koo Yan Ni, Leong How Yi, Lim Sin Peng, Ong Cai Bin, Tan Siao Xuan, Tan Yi Ching and Tiong Chai Heing and the just-graduated Mesita Jee Mei Jane.

In the March 24 Henry Butcher Art Auction, out of the works of 144 artists featured, both local and foreign, 12 were women, but only three women artists featured among the lower rungs of the Top 25 high-grossers.

It’s pertinent to note that in most of the group exhibitions, there was a judicious ethnic mix, including East Malaysians.

Of the solos, the most unusual was Dispersing Sublime by bio-artist Nur Amira Hanafi, which involved “collaboration” with cultured bacteria in a controlled environment to create amoebic artwork with interesting colours. Amira was trained as a biologist before taking up her Masters in Fine Art at UiTM, and doing her PhD research at Universiti Malaya. But another biochemist, Claris Loke, prefers to leave her beakers behind and opts purely for the paintbrush.

Other solos included Keep Your Laws Off My Body by self-taught Yante Ismail, a UN refugee activist (Bangsar gallery, KL); CORE, the third solo by Fai Zakaria (Ayu Fairuza Zakaria) in Melaka; 10,000 Mosquitoes by Foo May Lyn (OUR Projects, KL); Dot Dot Dot Line Line Line ceramica by Agnes Lau (Taksu, KL); the Tapirama naivette by Abby Zain; and G13’s confined ProjectRoom showcase by Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Zubir, dubbed the First Lady of Malaysian Abstract Art.

A startling development can be gleaned from the profiles of artists in the RRRAWRRR!!! exhibition, where most Malay artists except Fitriah Roslan (who revisited the Singapura dilanggar Todak legend with a playful parody) were not in the usual UiTM penumbra. For instance, Amani Azlin (photography) was trained at the London College of Communication.

There was also a doctor, Lyne Ismail, who, like the UK-based Dr Caryn Koh (Small Small World), is medically trained. Another, anaesthesiologist Esther Geh, founded Art E-Space.

Ti Yi Rou, who took part in The Refinery exhibition, is a legal eagle-turned-artist and the founder of Artroom 22.

Perhaps the contemporaneity of Art and its purported democratisation have freed Art from strictures of material and form, and from just a picture-making construct, whatever its deep psychological and philosophical underpinnings. The women artists in RRRAWRRR!!! were not restricted to medium or to how art materials were conventionally used.

Take for instance, Kara Inez (strong feminist bodily assertions using silicone, thread, stockings and rice to create a revulsive blob of protoplasm); Choo Ai Xin (acrylic, PVA glue and modelling paste on canvas); Emily Chow Wen Qi (water-based paint on canvas cloth, wooden frames, with shades of Neo-Conceptualism in the reverse construct); and Leong How Yi (charcoal and oil pastel on joss paper).

Lim Jing went for Minimalism in her Textile Art (folding and stitching on silkscreen mesh), while Ho Kar Lok turns the cutting-fingernail ablution into a sort of quirky Daddy Fingers nursery rhyme with a suit of drawings showing mundane everyday chores.

Whereas in the past when women artists were wont to dwell on ruminations that were private and personal, today you find women artists covering a broad spectrum of genres and disciplines.

When I organised the French ConneXion exhibition for the National Art Gallery in 2015, I also incorporated the French- Malaysia Young Artist Award, organised jointly with the French Embassy, and the winner was Lee Lin Chee, who brilliantly combined originally composed music with art. Other young musically inclined artists include Ho Mei Kei, who is also a festival organiser; and Lyia Meta, the RRRAWRRR!!! participant who is better known as the Tennessee World Music Artist of the Year in 2018.

When I curated Breaking Down The Wall featuring the emergent young with radical art for the International Art Expo Malaysia 2014, out of the 13 artists chosen, nine were female. They were Cheng Yen Peng, Yim Yen Sum, Yau Sir Meng, “Bra-tist” Louise Low, Yuki Tham Yoke In, Shaliza Alfred Juanna, Chuah Shu Ruei, Haimiza Johan and Safirah Rashid. All of them have been consistently exciting, with Yim clinching the 2016 UOB Painting of the Year Award and being given her first solo at Wei-Ling Contemporary (The Further You Stand, The Clearer You See) in November last year.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to predict the career path of women artists although in their early years – many have to concentrate on raising their families first, like Nyonya-art queen Sylvia Lee Goh and the late Wong Siew Inn. One early UiTM graduate, Aaishah Latif, after an outstanding burst became a wellness entrepreneur, for example; MIA-trained Ursa Joo Ngee Teoh became a faith-healer clairvoyant using her art as a mandala; while sculptor Jasmine Kok recently gave up everything to become a nun.

But what’s for sure is that women in art are being seen for what they are – for the excitement and what their art purports, rather than the discriminating gender label.

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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