Artist and the Big C

By Ooi Kok Chuen

Published on 2021-06-28 Updated 2021-07-06

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SO FAR THIS year, the Big C has snatched away two prominent Malaysian artists, coincidentally both Penangborn: self-taught Sylvia Lee Goh, who was based for a long time in KL, and artist-educator Dr. Grace Choong Ai May.

Sylvia, aged 80, had Stage 2 breast cancer and Stage 4 lung cancer; and Grace, aged 52, had brain cancer. Both Sylvia and Grace had Peranakan Baba-Nyonya roots and are known for their paintings of the unique Chinese-Malay fusion of food, fashion, mannerisms and language.

They follow a long list of creative minds who succumbed to this scourge. These include artist-educator-administrator Joseph Tan Chan Jin (1941-2001, throat), artist-playwright-novelist- educator-theatre producer John Lee Joo-for (1929-2017, throat), artist-educationist Peter Harris (1923- 2009), artist-educator Yuen Chee Ling (1950-2015, brain), artist-educator Tang Tuck Kan (1934-2012), Dato' Lee Choon. (1935-2019, pancreas), self-taught artist Wong Jong Nong (1944-2010), Peranakan artist Sherin Ng Lee Hwa (1952-2019) and Zulkarnain Jarno (1969-2021, tongue).

Dato' Lee Choon.

Two major artists, Dr. Choong Kam Kow and Lee Kian Seng, recovered from stomach and throat cancer respectively, and managed to maintain a healthy equilibrium with regular qigong exercises. Self-taught Sarawakian artist Debora Teo has also recovered from breast cancer.

But, as far as is known, none of their cancers was caused by exposure to painting materials, which in themselves can be hazardous and carcinogenic because of arsenic compounds, cadmium and chromium. The frightening word "cancer" is believed to have originated from Hippocrates, from karkinos, the Greek work for crab or crayfish, or carcinoma meaning tumour.

Sylvia was first diagnosed with breast cancer, for which she had a mastectomy on February 20, but biopsy tests on her lungs revealed a 6.4cm tumour and her condition was already in the fourth stage. She fought valiantly in March and April but succumbed on May 6 when it spread to her head. Her best friend, Maimun, whom she immortalised several times on her canvas, also eventually died of cancer, of the breast. Her well-manicured garden in her Taman Seputeh suburbia house complete with a lily pond was a veritable oasis that challenged and inspired her. Sylvia was planning to hold her third solo exhibition at the La Galerie du Monde in Petaling Jaya. She told me in her last interviews in March and April that death was just a rite of passage, and that she knew what to expect. "A collective is waiting for me. I know my parents, Emil and Jesus are waiting for me. This has prepared me for the other side…" Her second son, Emil (1966-2009), with an MFA at Goldsmiths in London and based in Seoul, was a pioneering "Neo-Nam June Paik", video-streaming his daily activities from his "mini room".

Sylvia Lee Goh at her Taman Seputeh residence on March 3, 2021.

Grace, a fifth generation Peranakan, graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, with an MFA and BFA. Apart from Nyonya subjects, her repertoire included still-life, landscapes and scenes from her travels to Western and Eastern Europe, China, South Korea, Japan, the US, Canada and Turkey. She had a solo exhibition, Mini Diary, at penangpac, Straits Quay, last year (September 5-27). Her death on March 23 was very sudden.

Self-taught artist Sherin Ng, who took up painting at the relatively late age of 43 (1995), dedicated her art career to painting Nyonya damsels, and had her first solo, Nyonya Affair, at Sepaloh Art Centre in her hometown Ipoh, in August 2018. She once owned a boutique, Karyawarna Batik & Craft.

Sylvia Lee Goh and two of her paintings featuring her bosom friend, Maimun, in her garden sanctuary. Maimun also died of cancer.

The quintessential John Lee Joo-For – painter, printmaker, novelist, playwright, producer – is one of the greatest acts in Malaysian art and theatre, with a truly irrepressible creative spirit. Trained at the Royal College of Art in London, among others, he was honoured by the Penang State Art Gallery with a major retrospective in 2009. His daughter, Francesca, broached the news of his death in a joint email to Dato' Dr. Tan Chee Khuan, the chronicler of Malaysian pioneer artists, and me. She wrote: "Towards the end, the tumour had grown too large both inside and outside and he could not speak, drink or eat."

It was the same with Joseph Tan. I remember watching him have a meal of noodles at the cafeteria in the National Art Gallery, which had commissioned him to do an artist's directory. He was struggling to swallow the noodle, strand by strand, and slowly. And his large watch hung on his bony left wrist like an oversized gelang (bracelet). Such was his devotion despite his deteriorating health conditions that he regularly booked a taxi to KL from his home in Kuantan. Joseph Tan had his tutelage at the National Art School in Sydney, Australia, and the School of Art, Institute of Chicago, in the US. Besides being a major artist and pioneering art educationist at the Universiti Teknologi MARA's School of Art and Design, Joseph Tan had helmed Hong Leong's Nanyang Gallery of Art and a pioneering business dealing with art conservation. He was given a retrospective by the National Art Gallery in 2001, featuring his iconic Pop Art work, Love Me In My Batik (1968), and his landscapes of the Formation and Tambun series.

John Lee Joo-For at his home in Melbourne, giving an interview on his Retrospective monograph.

Peter Harris was the pioneer of art education in Malaysia and was Art Superintendent of the Federation of Malaya (1951-1960) and the Sabah Teachers Training College (later Gaya College, 1962-1967), Kota Kinabalu. He is better known as the founder of the loose art coterie, the Wednesday Art Group, in 1952. He was accorded a retrospective by the National Art Gallery in 1960, apart from another by GaleriWan in 1997 and a Memorial Tribute exhibition by The Art Gallery Penang held in KL in 2001. He had first recovered from cancer in 1993, which he celebrated with his iconic painting, The Healer (1993).

Joseph Tan.

Across the Causeway, several prominent Singapore artists had also succumbed to the Big C, the latest being the versatile visually-impaired artist Chng Seok Tin (1946-2019), who had Stage 4 lung cancer. Others include Lee Boon Wang (1934-2016, pancreatic and colon), a stalwart of Singapore's Equator Art Society, and Chua Ek Kay (1947-2008, nasal). In The Philippines, abstract pioneer Jose Joya (1931-1995) fought a gallant battle against prostate cancer, and Indonesia's Jeihan Sukmantoro (1938-November 2019), known for his portraits with mysterious dark eyes, had undergone surgery for lymphoma in January 2019, but the cancer later spread to his heart, lungs, stomach and intestines.

Among notable artists elsewhere who died from cancer were Grant "American Gothic" Wood, Dorothea Lange, Robert Henri, Gordon Parker and John Sloan. The latest to be afflicted was Tracey Emin, 57, known to be a heavy smoker, who had surgery to remove a malignant tumour in her bladder. The doctors had cut out her uterus, fallopian tube, ovaries, lymph nodes, part of her colon, urethra and vagina, and she was fitted with a stoma bag.

Peter Harris, a pioneering art educationist and the founder of the cult art coterie, Wednesday Art Group.

To raise awareness on cancer, the Hillstrom Museum of Art and Shogren-Meyer organised an exhibition of works of artists afflicted with cancer, on September 14-November 8, 2020, while street artist James Cochran made a painting of approximately 50,000 dots measuring 1.25m x 1.25m using a lab pipette, while Brushes With Cancer, a project of Twist Out Cancer, paired artists with cancer patients.

Fun Fact: In 1775, Percival Pott identified chimney sweeps to be prone to cancer of the scrotum, dubbed soot wart (warts caused by soot irritation that develop into cancer).

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.