Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives


17 Feb 2019 to 23 Jun 2019


Tue-Sat, 11am-7pm; Sun, 11am-5pm; closed on Mon and public holidays


Ilham Gallery

Level 5, Ilham Tower, 8 Jalan Binjai, 50450 Kuala Lumpur

Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives showcases over 160 artworks and archival materials focusing on the last decade of the artist’s life and practice.

Dating from the 1960s until his passing in 1990, the works are primarily sourced from the Chia Yu Chian Family collection as well as other private and national collections.

The opening reception is on Feb 16 at 6pm. A curator's walkthrough will also be held on Feb 23 at 3pm.

In 1963, the very year that Malaysia was formed, Chia Yu Chian handed the management of his Penang gallery and art supply store to his younger brother. He packed up his belongings and moved down to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of this new country, ready for a new adventure.

For the next two and a half decades, Chia would spend the rest of his life living together with his wife and three children in a small one-bedroom flat on the second floor of Selangor Mansion on Jalan Masjid India. The flat also doubled up as his atelier, where he taught art and painted continuously.  

The city and its people were subjects that naturally dominated Chia’s painterly oeuvre. Private Lives is an exhibition that explores the relationship between a modern artist and a modern city in a postmodern age.

In his later works, there was a noticeable shift in Chia’s understanding of the city. Unlike his earlier still lifes, streetscapes and tableaux, Chia trained his observation on both the social drama and the quiet slice-of-life moments where the presence of the human figure registers most forcefully. Very little escaped his notice and as a result of Chia’s careful study, the school teacher, the rich towkay, the drunkard, the beggar, the madman, the politicians, factory workers,  hospital nurses, school children, among others were captured skillfully by Yu Chian through his application of thick impastos, producing images that pulsed restlessly in a riot of colours.

Chia offers an exhaustive portrait of a city populated by those that were simply getting by or who had fallen by the wayside, what sociologist Georg Simmel calls the ‘soul of the cultural body’. His paintings did not bear the likeness of the great and the good, but of the working classes, the ordinary men and women who lived and worked in the city. Chia had the ability to take the most common and unremarkable of  spaces – the pawnshop, the hospital, the factory, the streets itself – and elevate it to important landmarks in the artist’s retelling of the history of Kuala Lumpur. By painting them, he created an alternative narrative, a reimagining of Kuala Lumpur and city life, and to a certain extent the country itself.

The exhibition reunites ILHAM Gallery director Rahel Joseph and University of Malaya art historian Simon Soon, in their third curatorial collaboration after Love Me in My Batik: Modern Batik Art from Malaysia and Beyond and Gerak, Rupa, Ubur dan Penyataan.