A New Generation of Women Artists Steps Up to the Palette

By Ooi Kok Chuen

November 2021 PENANG PALETTE
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Yuki Tham has had two solo exhibitions, at G13.

TIME WAS WHEN women artists in Malaysia could be counted with the fingers. On one hand. Now, there is a plethora of women expanding the parameters in different media and trajectories of art practices.

From a trawl of those active aged 40 and below, with the birth-year marker 1981, some 51 artists are identified, with most of them art-college-trained mainly from Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) and the relatively new Dasein Academy of Art (established 1996) – from teenager Mulaika Nordin (b. 2004) to Zarina Abdullah (b. 1981).

Zarina Abdullah, winner of the Nokia Art Award 2012.

Among the more prominent of this bevy are “Red” Hong Yi (b. 1986), Novia Shin Pui San (b. 1989), Anniketyni Madian (1986), Fadilah Karim (b. 1987), Chong Ai Lei (b. 1985), “Bratist” (bra artist) Louise Low Seok Loo (b. 1984). The list also includes Swindon-based doctor Caryn Koh (b. 1987).

Louise Low was among outstanding emerging artists featured in the 2014 Art Expo Malaysia’s Breaking Down The Wall (Wall) showcase (curated by Ooi Kok Chuen), which also arrayed Yau Sir Meng (b. 1992), Yuki Tham (b. 1992), Haimiza Johan (b. 1989), Yim Yen Sum (b. 1987), Chuah Shu Ruei (b. 1987), Safirah Rashid (b. 1987). Shaliza Juanna Alfred (b. 1985 in Johor) and Cheng Yen Pheng (b. 1982).

"Red" Hong Yi's sensational TIME magazine cover on April 26, 2021 with "Climate Is Everything", on a potential climate change apocalypse.

Sometimes the women organise themselves or join all-women bandwagons like the RRRAWRRR and NAFAS staples at Galeri Maybank, KL. The most recent all-women group exhibition was G13’s called Girls The Mic Is Ours (May - June 2021) after its March 2019 Victress Niche.

Red Hong Yi, who paints without a brush, was featured on TIME magazine’s April 26, 2021 cover, with “Climate Is Everything”, a world-map canvas (2.3m x 3m) of 50,000 matches, which were then lit. With a Master’s in architecture (Melbourne), she quit a lucrative job in Shanghai to become a full-time artist. Her art tools include coffee stains, socks, chopsticks, sunflower seeds, tealight candles, dyed teabags and a basketball dipped in red paint.

Novia Shin was joint winner in the 2016 Young Contemporary Artists (Bakat Muda Sezaman) with miniaturised installations. She also won the Grand Prize in the Nando’s Peri-fy Contest in 2012, resulting in her first solo in 2013.

Anniketyni is a game-changer with her wooden sculptures with intricate designs referencing Iban traditional pua kumbu textiles, BFA UiTM (2009). She won the SEA Women of the Future (2018) award, and was a Sovereign Art Prize finalist (2016). She had three solos (2011, 2015 and 2017), and her artist-in-residency (AIR) includes Vermont, USA (2018).

Anniketyni Madian and her intricate wooden concoctions inspired by her Sarawakian roots.

Fadilah was honoured with the unprecedented First Decade show (2010 - 2020) by Segaris Art Centre (2010 - 2020) in 2021. With MFA from UiTM (2013), her accolades include 1st Prize Malacca TYT Action Portrait (2007), HOM Young Guns Award (2013). She was mentored by the pugilist-art king Amron Omar for two months in 2010.

Ai Lei (Dasein) sparks a trend of sensual female forms after going full-time in art in 2010. Her laurels include the Malaysian Emerging Artists Award (MEAA), 2011. Her first three solos were in Yogyakarta, 2013; Jakarta, 2016; and Hong Kong, 2017, before a local solo at The EDGE Gallery, KL (2018).

Louise Low created a huge sensation with her shark installation made up of brassieres, and she later Christodraped a motorcar, a trishaw and a bicycle with used bras. She pursued a BFA in Tasmania (2010) after her Kuala Lumpur College of Art (KLCA) stint, and won 1st Prize in the Tanjong Heritage 2004. A finalist in the 2019 BMS, she has had four solos including one in Sydney (2010), with the latest at Suma Orientalis (Suma), PJ, in October 2020.

Chuah Shu Ruei and her fruit concoctions at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, KL.

A qualified doctor, Dasein-trained Caryn Koh astounds with her burst of creative Viagra, excelling in painting, video and also murals done in Malaysia, Spain, The Philippines, Yogyakarta and the U.K. (mainly Swindon). She had her 3rd solo in Swindon in 2020.

Of the Wall artists, the superb Haimiza, who also was mentored by Amron Omar, seems missing in action in the last half-decade.

Sir Meng, an alumni of the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), is teaching in Xiamen, China, after doing her Master’s at the Taiwan National University (2019). Her Educationthemed installations are a marvel, such as the miniature school made of sugar (a parody of a spurious miracle memory-aid pill loaded with sugar).

Dasein-trained Yuki Tham has had two solos, both at G13, in 2017. Yen Sum, also Dasein, transforms her gauze veil into delicate printed embroidery with a play of fragility, harmony and light. She won the Grand Prize (mixed media) at the 2006 UOB Painting of the Year and an “AIR” at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. She had a Kaohsiung, Taiwan, solo before being featured at the Wei-Ling Gallery marque in October - November 2018.

Shu Ruei excels in participative-interactive community art and has served residencies in Reunion Island (France) and Cebu (The Philippines) besides Rimbun Dahan. Graduated from Aswara (2013), she took part in the 2013 Singapore Biennale.

Langkawi-born Safirah is best known for her camouflaged “Invisible Art” of Pop-Up painting and human-alive canvas / sculpture performances with Tony Mdy, including in London (Tower Bridge).

Shaliza (UiTM-trained, Master’s) is unique with her menagerie of dysfunctional figurines made from screws, bottle caps, buttons and playing cards, and for her Snakes and Ladders soft-sculpture concoctions.

Yen Pheng, yes from Dasein, won the 2019 UOB Painting of the Year Award and the MEA Award (2009) and riled the powers that be in the 2014 BMS with her transformative work, alksnaabknuaunmo (2013).

Yau Sir Meng and her Sugar School installation mocking the magic-memory pill endorsed by certain headmasters. Shown at the 2014 Art Expo Malaysia, under Breaking Down The Wall highlight.

Penang-born Okui Lala (b. 1991, the moniker for Chew Win Chen), has consistently produced critical works on the Chinese diaspora such as her video National Language Class: Our Language Proficiency, which showcased in the 2019 Singapore Biennale. Studies: Universiti Malaya and Multimedia University.

Two in quirky terrain are Lith Ng Yee Leng (b. 1996, KL) and Engku Iman (b. 1990). Lith Ng (MIA) ventures into microbial sculptures and phallic forms alluding to sexual discrimination in her two solos in 2019, while Engku, of Taylor’s University, works on themes like feminism, religion, culture and society, and had a solo in Hong Kong in 2010.

Unique is Nur Amira Hanafi’s (b. 1990), for her imagemaking “collaboration” with bacteria for some amoebic forms. A 2019 BMS finalist, she was trained in Marine Biology (2012) and also got her MFA at UiTM (2016).

More Daseinistas in the UOB winning circle are: Ong Cai Bin (b. 1989, Gold Award Emerging Artist 2017), Tiong Chai Heing (b. 1986, Grand Prize 2015), Cheong Kiet Cheng (b. 1981, Grand Prize 2018) and Trixie Tan Lu Man (b. 1992, Silver, Emerging Artist 2013). Eryn a.k.a. Winnie Cheng (b. 1983, Gold Award Emerging Artist, 2015), cut her teeth in Brunei (Master’s) and Canada (BFA Toronto University 2006), and boasts of two solos, in 2016 and 2019.

Tiong Chai Heing, Grand Prize winner of the 2018 UOB Painting of the Year.

Ong also won 2nd Prize in the 2018 Nando’s contest, and had her first solo at Suma in 2019. Tiong, known for her Keiferish landscapes, had two solos at Suma in 2019 and 2020 and one at HOM Art Trans in 2010. Trixie Tan had her first solo by HOM Art Trans in 2018, and had a Bali “AIR” in 2015.

Cheong boasts of three solos at Wei-Ling Gallery (2015, 2017 and 2021).

Other prominent Daseinistas include Liew Mei Toong (b. 1996), the Lau sisters of Agnes Lau Pik Yoke (b. 1990) and Alicia Lau Pik Yen (b. 1995), Ho Mei Kei (b. 1993), Viko Jejune a.k.a. Ng Zhi June (b. 1993), Wong Hui Lynn a.k.a. Panney (b. 1995), Lim Sin Peng, Joy Ng Mei Lok (b. 1996), Sora Cilipi a.k.a. Lim Yong Wei, Chong Yi Lin (b. 1992) and Krystie Ng (b. 1990) and Liew Sze Lin (b. 1988).

Liew delves into urban ennui and had her first solo at G13 in 2008. Taksu gave Agnes a solo in 2019 and an online solo, New Mundane, in June 2020. Alicia added a BFA from Middlesex University, London (2017), and made her debut solo at G13 in 2020. Sin Peng and Joy Ng won the Jury’s Prize and the People’s Choice prizes in the 2019 BMS. Yong Wei did her Master’s at the Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand (2018) and won the Art for Peace Prize there in 2019. Ho was given a solo by Taksu in 2018, Chong (who got her BFA in Taiwan, 2019) by LostGen in 2015, while artist-curator Krystie Ng had her solo in 2012.

Two more prominent alumni from MIA are Ong Xing Ru (b. 1991) and Alexandra Hon Su-yin (b. 1989). Ong, who had a solo at Galeri Chandan in 2016, won the MEAA in 2013 and 1st Prize Issey Miyake Essence of Life 2012. Hon achieved her MFA at the Wimbledon College of Art in England.

Wong Xiang Yi (b. 1987), whose works referenced Japanese manga, trained in Hong Kong and Taiwan (Master’s) with a 2018 “AIR” at Rimbun Dahan, and Clara Wong Pei San (b. 1986) was a lone graduate from Southern University College Johor (2018).

Lim Yong Wei a.k.a. Sora Cilipi did her MFA at the Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand.

Others from the UiTM juggernaut are Nor Tijan Firdaus (b. 1986), Atiqah Khairul Anuar (b. 1995) – both Master’s; Sofia Haron (b. 1991), Wan Amy Nazira Abu Bakar (b. 1989), Wan Nor Ain Wan Abdul Rahman, better known as Ain Rahman (b. 1994), Raimi Sani (b. 1992), the cosmopolitan Hana Zamri and Warsaw (Poland)-bond Anisa Abdullah (b. 1985).

Atiqah had an “AIR” at Rumah Seni Selangor (Russel) and Yogyakarta, while Nor Tijan incorporates recycled materials into her works. Wan Amy was 3rd in the UOB 2016 contest. Sofia, who surfaced at the 2016 AEM, had a solo at Suma in 2019. Anisa known for her collage paintings had her first solo at Galeri Chandan in 2013. Raimi had her first solo at G13 in 2017. Ain Rahman, known for her installations and Action Painting, had a memorable solo at Core Design Gallery in Selangor this year. Hana did her MFA at UiTM after her Architecture studies (International Islamic University Malaysia).

Other mentionables are Zarina Abdullah (b. 1981), the 2002 Grand Prize winner of the Nokia Art Award, and Anisha Hashim. The “baby” of them all is Mulaika Nordin, who held a solo, A Thousand Days of Change, at the National Art Gallery in January 2020.

Some of these young women will step up to the plate in the years to come, to claim the mantle of leading artists of their generations.

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.