Covid-19 Exclusives: ASEAN’s Appeal Watered and Coloured

loading Azman Nor's (Malaysia) Reflection of Life.

Chow Chin Chuan's (Malaysia) The Unfading Past II.

IN THE MIDST of the Covid-19 pandemic, an international watercolour exhibition has surprisingly attracted some of the biggest names in the region.

Southeast Asia Watercolour Exhibition is being held at the National Art Gallery (NAG) Langkawi until November 30, 2020. Famous artists involved include Singapore’s Ong Kim Seng, Thailand’s Derek Kingnok, Myanmar’s Big 3 namely Min Wae Aung, Myint Naing, and young Indonesian Nur Ilham (pohon beringin).

The show was planned before the pandemic, but the organisers at the NAG in KL, had moved to its Langkawi chapter when urgent major renovations at its KL premises had to be undertaken.

In this first ASEAN-dedicated exhibition curated by Syahrul Niza Ahmad Zaini, some 226 works by 118 artists from nine countries are showcased, with the theme Homeland. The artists are drawn from Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. From Malaysia, the oldest are Sharifah Zuriah AlJeffri (b. 1938) and Dr. Wong Seng Tong (b. 1939) with the youngest being Azman Nor (b. 1985).

It is a magic “canvas” offering glimpses into the psyche and physiognomy of peoples and of less visible traditional communities, their cultures, festivities, religions, and costumes; rituals and romance; their affinity with nature; the flora and the fauna; ordinary lives and pastimes; urbanity and the built environment, the terrain and water conurbations – all in a wide spectrum of tropical hues and intriguing styles and techniques.

Guruh Ramdani's (Indonesia) Urbanites At The Crossroads.

Mazuki Mohammad's (Malaysia) Siri Perahu Kolek I.

Dario Encinas' (the Philippines) Early Bird.

I Nyoman Wijaya's (Indonesia) Three Sisters.

The watercolour medium is finding new currency and relevance with changing attitudes, aided by its plein air conditions, ubiquity and portability; and mobile nature itself. Alfresco watercolour painting has become a global phenomenon, following the networking of the International Watercolor Society (IWS) at the turn of the century/ millennium.

Much of the popularity of watercolours is also predicated on the development of the medium itself – metal tubes and a host of new colour permutations; brushes with pliant caresses and holding-water capacity; and paper, primarily cold-pressed and hot-pressed.

Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar have their umbilical roots in the colonial British traditions. Malaysia took cues from the maritime/topographical works of Robert Smith, and Thomas and William Daniell; Myanmar had a long tradition with Robert Talbot Kelly and has re-emerged with vengeance since its 2015 free elections; while early Singapore watercolours were forged on the banks of the Singapore River (pioneer Lim Cheng Hoe). The oeuvre of botany drawings in Bali by Walter Spies, known for his Magic Realism landscapes, was discovered only later. Great impetus was gleaned from coteries like the Penang Watercolour Society and the Malaysian Watercolour Society. Indonesian watercolours are a revelation despite being a late-starter with its watercolour society only established in 2008.

In floralscapes, Aminah Abdul Rahman plunges into blotchy abstracts for a change, while Tean Wei Gin reprises his delicate blossoms and Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri returns to her Chinese brush treatment of the lotus.

And then, there are the gorgeous tutti fruitti bunch of durians, rambutans and mangosteens by seasoned practitioners Zaharuddin Sarbini, Yeo Eng Peng, Angelo Chia Seng Chai and the up-and-coming Lee Sing Pan.

No alcoves and streams come like those of Nanyang Academy-trained Tan Sik Yaw, soldier-turned-(veteran)artist Abdul Ghani Ahmad and Chuah Teong Meow.

As a mode of transport, the trusty old bicycle evokes more than nostalgia, and Malaysia’s two greatest exponents, Loh Kerk Hwang and Chow Chin Chuan, are represented, with Chow against the Melaka-tiled flooring surrounded by a judicious play of shadows. Guruh Ramdani’s bikers at a Bandung intersection could be mistaken for a Vietnamese street bike maze. The rickshaw and the trishaw are covered by Amirudin Ariffin and Adzran Omar.

While riverboats (sampan) may have once been used in less accessible villages to ferry people to towns, boats are mainly for fishing and are often idyllically docked at wooden-planked jetties; such as those in the works of Imanordin Mohd Shah, Ismail Alias, Denis Chai, Amy Goh, Rafiee Abdul Rahman and Tan Suz Chiang, in abstract. Mazuki Muhammad excels in his monochromatic scene of bangau boats parked onshore viewed from the filigreed-carved eaves and verandah enclosure. On the same theme, Razif Omar plays more on reflections from the water’s edge.

Yong Look Lam's (Malaysia) Malay Kampung 1.

Alex Leong Yim Kuan's (Malaysia) Armenian Street, Penang.

Ismail Kadir captures people living in boats taking a respite, lullabied by the sea breeze. Fish catches are rezeki (livelihood) to the fishermen, as shown in the array of fishes by Rizalman Misran, Kho Chon Lee’s sotong (squid), and Filipino Dario B. Encinas’ predawn catches.

Kenduri (celebratory feasts) in the kampung gets different stylistic treatment in the works of Munif Mohd Nor and Maamor Jantan. Simple pastimes suggested by makeshift swings from tree branches (Calvin Chua) or heritage reflected in the wizened wau-maker ( Jacky Chin) hark to simpler times. In I Nyoman Wijaya’s works, the grace and glittering costumes of Balinese dancers are neatly captured.

Malay kampung houses stay replete with nostalgia and tropical functionality following the mass exodus to the cities since Independence, and they can be revisited in the works of Yong Look Lam, Lye Yau Fatt, Loo Hooi Nam, with Zailini Che Hussain@Jejai highlighting the trendy adaptive reuse of these assets as popular homestays.

For a dash of contemporary abstracts, Rafiee Abdul Ghani and Jalaini “Jai” Abu Hassan, two former drifters at Anak Alam, are nonpareil, and both are tasked with conducting painting workshops and talk. Also with an abstract landscape (Tanjung Kubong) is Dr. Wong Seng Tong. Rohaizad Shaari makes a snide social comment with a Beetle car with the portentous number plate, R2020, which might refer to Malaysia’s unfulfilled Vision 2020 and also the “Year Zero” of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The indigenous peoples are well represented by Azizan Ahmad (strapped sleeping baby) and veteran Long Thien Shih, through simple “jewellery” of plaited screwpines on the hair like a sanggul (hair bun), and Galuh Taji Malela (A Man from Mentawai).

Khoo Cheang Jin's (Malaysia) Nagore Shrine, Penang.

Myint Naing's (Myanmar) Shwedagon Pagoda.

Namchai Saensupha's (Thailand) The Bearers.

Akar Myo's (Myanmar) Yangon Downtown Area.

Ekaraj Worasamutprakarn's (Thailand) River And Life.

Khin Maung Zaw's (Myanmar) Ancient Beauty.

Shireen Lee captures big-city contrasts in prismatic hues while Wan Borhanuddin Md Noor juxtaposes the old ramshackled shanty parts of the city with the imposing KLCC Twin Towers. Street scenes abound in the fine strokes of Lee Weng Fatt, Khor Seow Hooi, Ong Choon Hoo and Alex Leong Yim Kuan. Johari Ibrahim reinforces Melaka-tile tradition in Rumah Penghulu Merlimau while Tang Mun Kian emphasises the grotesque overhead flyways in Asian big cities.

Of the rumah ibadat (places of worship), Khoo Cheang Jin paints the Goddess of Mercy Temple and Nagore Shrine in Penang, while figurative artist Jamal Tommy (Tumiran) depicts the domed archways of a mosque’s interior.

Other interesting vignettes include Chuah Phaik Hoon’s Nyonya paraphernalia of kamcheng, belt buckle and flowers, Hla Chin Ngan’s birds, and Keng Seng Choo’s Soo-piengish figurations.

The ubiquitous sand barges plying the Chao Phraya are animated by Derek Kingnok, while Min Wae Aung, best known for his iconic monks with backs turned, renders a strong rap-yellow landscape skien with water reflection, while Myint Naing captures the vibrant life in Yangon’s Chinatown. Laos is represented by Hongsa Khotsouvanh (organic market), and Vietnam by Nguyen Viet Ninh’s dragging of a boat to shore signals the end of day for the fishermen. The harsh suffusive light is seen in the delicate tones of Bruneian Haji Ali Haji Abd Rahim’s garden and Ong Kim Seng’s Midday at the Lagan (Nepal), the only piece outside of the ASEAN focus.

It was NAG which in 2006, brought together rival watercolour groups under its umbrella in a major exhibition. But the biggest international watercolour exhibition was the one organised by Malaysia’s IWS chapter under Jansen Chow, in 2018, which put on show 660 works from 66 countries!

Still, “ASEAN Watercolours” celebrates most competently the traditions and transformations, the alchemy of diversity and commonalties of peoples and cultures, and the places and climes of this burgeoning region.

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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