By

Awang Pawang
12 June 2013 - 12:00am

If anyone thought that art consultant Valentine Willie was a spent force after closing his art gallery business in Malaysia and elsewhere, ought to see him in action at the [email protected] exhibition launch on June 8 in George Town, Penang.

Despite the top names in the contemporary art world exhibiting at the VW Special Projects show – held in conjunction with the George Town Festival 2013 – it was quite clear who was calling the shots there.

The exhibition which is from June 7-July 7 features the latest works of  top contemporary artists from Kuala Lumpur, namely, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Jalaini Abu Hassan, Chong Siew Ying and Kow Leong Kiang. The group was supported by Penang-born “young” artist Chan Kok Hooi and Penang resident Rebecca Wilkinson. And Agus Baqul Punomo from Yogjyakarta makes up the seventh artist involved in the show.

But it was Willie who was at his wittiest and most self-assured at the event, even after a  few drinks. Ever the smooth operator, he was mingling ever so effortlessly among the guests which included Penang collectors like K.S. Teh and Tan Thean Jin who accompanied veteran Penang artist Datuk Tay Mo Leong to the show. Even New York-based Malaysian model Ling Tan was at the exhibition and at the opening of the festival the previous night.

Acquisition

As for his ground-breaking art projects in Penang, Willie said it was still on the back-burner till things settle down on the island after the general election. But in the meantime, Willie and his backers are still in the acquisition mode as “good works”, he pointed out, are not easy to come by and they are still buying.

In the exhibition catalogue, Willie states that he has always been a firm believer in the importance of “second cities” as a hub for arts and culture. Centres outside the capital, he adds, have the potential to embrace creativity and nurture community in the most unique and meaningful of ways. George Town and the state of Penang is one such place, he points out.

“So when I was invited to curate a special section of the visual arts component for this year’s festival at the Whiteaways (former colonial commercial) building, I accepted without hesitation,” explains Willie. “Having functioned as a collector, curator and gallerist of contemporary Southeast Asian art for nearly twenty years it gives me great pride to be part of such a dedicated event.”

And how did he choose the seven artists? Obviously, Willie had worked with them over the years. And what’s so special about the exhibition?

“Almost all the artworks created have been made especially (sic) for the festival through a diverse range of vision from the poetic to the political in both painting and drawing,” adds Willie.

As for the works, the artists produced as few as four paintings (such as Kow) to as many as a dozen or more paintings such as Chong and Wilkinson.

Ahmad Zakii Anwar 

But the buzz about the show started even before it opened when all eight of Zakii’s life-size charcoal on paper drawings (206 by 76cm) of Malaysians were snapped up by a single buyer at about RM30,000 a pop. His provocatively titled works such as Orang Cina, Orang India and Orang Melayu are subtly apparent in the socio-political message of racial stereotyping, if you view all the eight works as an entity. Therein lies the power of his art. It is wonderfully real and yet discomforting to think how far Malaysians have drifted apart. After all, we are Orang Malaysia. (Images: http://theedgegalerie.com/?photo_gallery=zakii-whiteaways)

Jalaini Abu Hassan

For Jalaini or Jai, as he is known, his six charcoal on paper works were priced at RM35,800 a piece. And by June 9, half were sold. Again like Zakii, Jai’s drawings make a wry comment about issues related to the recent general election. For instance, The Defeated Winner (183 by 152,5cm) shows a long-haired, sarong-clad male figure in a striped-shirt carrying a downward pointing flag of his political party. Who are actually the winners or losers in GE13? The model for this drawing is the same as the two figurative paintings in the MukaKata group show at the Segaris gallery in KL recently.

But his works are not all doom and gloom. On a more humorous note, Jai’s teenage son, Jabil, is the model for two drawings, Ruban Geek and Makan Free. It documents the Malay teenager who grows up in an urban environment hilariously trying to adjust to the rural  environment when the family returns to the kampong or village.

Kow Leong Kiang

The third artist who also features male figures in his works is Kow. His latest four paintings show a bare-chested Malay man portrayed in poses that can be deemed proud or even arrogant. The sarong – a typical motif – in Southeast Asian art, is provocatively tied to the figure’s torso exposing a little more flesh than is normal for a Malay man, rural or otherwise. But what is remarkable is that Kow has refined his technique in painting bare skin on a male figure.

His earlier portrait of Jai in the same MukaKata show was the start. This time the skin tone is highlighted with nicks, tiny scars and veins that add a greater depth to mere likeness of the model, who apparently is a martial arts exponent living in the north of the peninsular bordering Thailand. One Malay lady collector commented that the painting couldn’t be a real Malay man as he was too good-looking but Kow assures everyone that his model is a real person. Kow’s paintings range from RM28,000-RM35,000. Three have been sold by the night of the launch.

Chong Siew Ying

Chong’s charcoal and acrylic works on “paper mounted canvas” offer a new dimension in Southeast Asian art. Her technique involves brushing on a clear emulsion on to the charcoal drawings to resemble a wash. Her charcoal drawings resemble Chinese ink paintings that seems ethereal, alluring but always seems to have a hint of the melancholic. It is like looking at a breathtaking landscape all by yourself with no one to share the moment.

Her presentation involves 12 landscape works plus five nude drawings on paper from an old series that were rediscovered in a store room. At RM26,000 for the lot, the five drawings were a steal and were snapped up before the show opened. The small landscapes of an average size of 66cm by 66cm were nearly all sold at RM6,500 a piece except for two.

Ever the sensitive yet assertive person that she is, Chong objects to any price quotation of artworks especially on the Internet. She finds it distasteful and vulgar to have any artwork with a price tag. (Images: http://theedgegalerie.com/?photo_gallery=chong-siew-ying-whiteaways-2)

Chan Kok Hooi

The half dozen works of Chan seems to be mainly a repeat of what he has done before. Haven’t we seen his “snapshots” of surrealistic images framed with scalloped edges, a few times before? Especially in his major exhibition at Wei-Ling Gallery in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, years ago.

Nevertheless, the most interesting work is Inner Rain (213.5cm by 91.5cm) featuring a squat toilet bowl as a swimming pool. But after a few moments, a big YAWN sets in, as haven’t we seen such compositions of absurdity in contemporary art from Art Stage to Art Basel? The technique is good and skillful but so are many graphic designers.

But all the works were sold except for the trompe l’oeil architectural detail mounted on the ceiling of the old building. No one could tell or bothered to look up, unless they were told.

Rebecca Wilkinson

Wilkinson’s 16 or so, artworks were inspired by the environment that she grew up in and by her travels abroad. The 10 works categorized under Offerings: Gwangju, were produced during her residency programme in South Korea. Her other works under Offerings: George Town were obviously inspired by her current place of residence since 2008. Her pretty, pastel-like coloured compositions include images of dragonflies, praying mantis, agave, anthurium, local koi fish, vegetables on a weighing scale possibly at Chowrasta Market and scenes in humble surroundings. Most of her works have been sold.

Agus Baqul Purnomo

Descriptions of Agus’ acrylic on canvas works (about 200cm by 180cm) have been described in the catalogue as a whirling vortex, random numeric sequencings and repetitive gestures. His visual interpretation and images of Arabic calligraphy, Roman alphabets and numerals are said to conjure up scenes of “sunshine, clouds and starlight” created within his “esoteric and cryptic style”. Well, there is always someone who likes abstract works such as this.