Ipoh – A Place to Visit for the Art Enthusiast

Lau Chee Wah, ruddy-looking for 82, still takes orders for his traditional chick blinds.

THE double-storey shoplots along Lorong Bijeh Timah (Postcode: 30000) in old-town Ipoh that bustled with Hakka immigrants a little over a century ago has no doubt fallen into desuetude. But the place suddenly resounds with hard knockings and the shuffling of heavy wooden objects coming from seven of the vacant lots – No. 1, 3, 7, 9, 11, 17 and 27. At intervals of time, some 18 persons from different vocational disciplines work feverishly to complete their primarily wood-based art installations on allotted spaces on two floors, the air wells and the peripheral areas, in time for the opening of Art Ipoh on Aug 17.

Project curator Phillip Wong, who is also one of the participating artists, chose the theme, “Preserving our Heritage and Recognising the Importance of Arts & Culture”, to link the past and the present and to advance the notion of rebirth. To make it more collaborative and interactive, he also involved 17 students from the Yuk Choy High School and 10 children taking art lessons from his centre in KL.

Phillip Wong's installation on the first floor of No. 37 Lorong Bijeh Timah.

While the artists have had a free rein of using any material for the installation works, the sponsors, Bukit Merah Wood Products, had put at the artists’ disposal different wood of various sizes and shapes, from its factory, for their use in their working installation spaces of between 50 square feet to 1,100 square feet.

Tin Alley, the newly christened place as well as the prime-movers behind the resuscitation of the area into an arts-cultural- heritage hub, will hold an artist’s residency, an art gallery and conference room, while its spaces and cubicles will be reserved for the arts and for traditional trades like sign-board carving, seal-engraving, old darkroom printing, tea-culture… Only two traditional craftsmen are left: one, signboard carver Chow Hock Kan, 88, is recovering from a stroke; while the other, chick-blinds maker Lau Chee Wah, 82, is making do despite the lesser demand caused by advancement in technology.

Most of the artwork are inspired by a Down Memory Lane nostalgia, but there is a tension of contrast between tradition and change. For some, it’s about childhood reminiscences of environs, playthings or values; and how these resonate with the present and with modern perceptions.

The artists have very diverse backgrounds. Phillip Wong, Ng Sook Peng (both graduated in 1990, with Wong from Commercial Art stream) and Sivarajah Natarajan (graduated, 1993) hailed from the Malaysian Institute of Art. Tan Vooi Yam graduated from the Kuala Lumpur College of Art in 1992, while Aizat Amir got his Fine Art diploma from Aswara, before getting a Performing Art degree. American-trained Datuk Kamil Shafie went into advertising and, since 1993, into politics, and is a former state assemblyman. The rest are from architecture, advertising, graphic design, interior design, fashion design, theatre, factory work and politics.

An art installation by Ng Sook Peng.

Taking centre-stage on the ground floor of the No. 37 corner lot, on what was once the notorious Rex Hotel – a cheap brothel – is Sivarajah’s Sarang, an over-hanging bird’s nest of shaped wood and detritus such as festoons of chandeliers. Splat on the floor is the piece de resistance, a grand giant mother-nest sprawled on the floor. A mock chick-blind unfurled to reveal a snazzy modern print image is a homage of sorts to the popular use of venetian blinds in the Straits Eclectic shophouses. A lighting and stage designer cum curator-trustee of the Sutra Dance Theatre for the last 27 years, Sivarajah, 52, is a mid-career artist known for his figurative paintings combining myth, folklore and heritage.

A flight of wooden staircase leads up to Phillip Wong’s ode to filial piety tracing the cycle of life from babyhood to adulthood and old age with 12 wooden stumps like guardian spirits, the 12 apostles perhaps (and one called “Philip”) encircling, and with two strapped dolls suspended from the ceiling. Clumps of long bamboo sticks bifurcate from the centre in between the vacant spaces. Wong, 51, has also laurels in local Chinese drama as actor, producer and director.

Vooi Yam, 51, who has won the Minor Awards in the Philip Morris Asean Art Awards (Malaysia) and the Bakat Muda Sezaman competitions, plays on the Biblical Last Supper (2020) theme, but with a local political thrust of suspicions and aspersions. The centrepieces are four gothic Easter-Island-like elongated face sculptures from his Emotional States series representing Anger, Happiness, Fear and Excitement (Shock). Another ceramist, Sook Peng, makes quaint ceramic figurines which she places among the ivory-tower tree stumps as ornamental and narrative elements for a dreamy ambience.

Aizat Amir hard at work at his mountain "towers".

Interesting, too, is architect Sharon Ong’s Reaching Out to the Seeds Through Hit and Bump, in which she uses some 252 seeds of the Terminalia Catappa (tropical almond) tree using polylactite filaments and installed on 21 out of 72 cubes bounded by a grid frame. These represent the past, and visitors are free to rearrange the moveable blocks to create a dialogue or institute a change in structure or in space but circumscribed by the enclosure.

Aizat’s The Great Landscape works are square towering stands of unequal heights signifying Nature – trees or mountains perhaps – as objects of memories and myth (awe) and the challenges of life (climbing and scaling the mountains).

Visitors to last year’s International Art Expo Malaysia would remember Azhar Kamaruddin aka “Capt Jack”, 54, for his intricate wooden scale-model antique ships which he has done since 1997. In Art Ipoh, he creates five symbolic replicas related to seafaring escapades and the life of fishermen. Kamil, at 59 the oldest among the participants, relies on his painterly skills in a painted food cupboard and a brace of paintings. He spent his working life in advertising before going into politics in 1993, and was a Perak state assemblyman.

Calligrapher Cheong Min Tze and interior designer Samuel Lim are two other foreign-trained artists – Cheong at Taiwan’s Normal University (2016) and Samuel Lim at the Singapore Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (2001). While Cheong’s works deal with ancestry, family and fertility, Samuel’s are more playful, being a playground of swings and see-saw within a constricted space and exposed to the elements.

Azhar Kamaruddin aka Capt Jack, known for his miniature model ships.

Of the two Penang-borns, Tan Charlyne (nee Tan Jia Ling), 25, is a self-taught carver of signboards with a tribute to Master Chow; while Lydia Chew, an art-teacher and also self-taught artist, plays on the metaphor of nests and dislocation. The common denominator in the works of the two Sarawak-borns, Francis Jofeel Goh and Marcus Lim, are the Sarawak motifs. While Francis is also a musician-singer, both work on trees, with Marcus’ accent being on recycling of tree bark.

The other artists involved are Tasha Ong (“Choi”, meaning “touch wood”); fashion designer Zoe Wu’s soft and hard tulle installation inspired by George Inness’s axiom of art awakening an emotion; stage theatre producer cum actor Rorn Lew, known for the play Too Too Is Missing, with his mock-diorama of the Sungai Kinta and adjacent sceneries; and Iron Looi (Fuei Siang).

Noteworthy is an artwork that is also a temporary mini-hutment abode of a vagrant Abu, called Abu Go Home, where the destitute gets a place to sleep as well as meals during the art preparations.

Lorong Bijeh Timah, the former Kenion Street, will get a new leash of life, with the area already a tourist haunt with its array of food and famous Ipoh biscuits. All of a sudden, Ipoh seems to be a Happening place. Around the same time, there are activities like the Perak Cartoon Fest (PeCAF!), an exhibition and forum of comics from the Rudi Mahamood collection, Aug 17-18; FestivalKolektif, Aug 4; Pasar Buku Ipoh (Oct 17-18); the Sama Sama Riuh (Aug 17-18);Open MIC Market Lane (Aug 17); and the Ipoh Film Weekend (Aug 23-24).

Artists in Art Ipoh: Aizat Amir, Azhar Kamaruddin, Cheong Min Zhe, Francis Jofeel Goh, Iron Loi, Kamal Shafie, Lydia Chew, Marcus Lim, Ng Sook Peng, Phillip Wong, Rorn Lew, Samuel Lim, Sharon Ong, Sivarajah Natarajan, Tan Vooi Yam, Tan Charlyne, Tasha Ong and Zoe Wu.

Art Ipoh is open from Aug 17 to Sept 30 (10am to 6pm daily, except on Mondays).

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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