Ingrained in every society is the people’s right for expression. But where our words fail and our voices seem unheard, art takes the burden in being the interpreter of what we so purposefully want to convey.
Nostalgia, history, humour, and hope are manifested in ingenious ways by its creator, who undoubtedly spent hours working through the wee hours of the night, meticulously going over every detail – and at the end, choosing instead to put the art piece at centre stage.
In the run-up to Merdeka, we’re shedding more light on the often shadowed artistic nature of Malaysia. From vintage dioramas to funky food innovations, these 9 artists are masters in their own craft and serve as pioneers to our very unique art scene.
Here are some of Malaysia’s artists who are spearheading the art culture and making huge strokes in their careers both on home soil and internationally.
Zoom into the miniature dioramas of Eddie Putera as he takes you on a journey back in time to days of Malaysia’s past. Eddie’s art concepts are often modelled after the older days of Malaysia, and his depictions are so realistic you could have easily mistaken it for a vintage photograph taken during that era. In an interview with GoAsia, Eddie remarked that the realism of his work is owed to his expertise across a myriad of disciplines involving all kinds of materials ranging from wood to metal. To create miniature dioramas as Eddie does, one would need his dexterous hands and his eye for detail, as he himself is a photographer and painter who now apply these tools to his passion.
His effort into ensuring that the effects of weather are reflected on buildings, vehicles, and landscapes renders a rustic charm to his creations that is so fondly admired by his following.
Nor Tijan Firdaus
It takes a true visionary to see waste material as a potential medium for art. Nor Tijan’s re-creation of herald masterpieces from the likes Johannes Vermeer, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claude Monet from e-waste showcases her artistic prowess and an inventive flair that is exhibited in the clever placement of her unorthodox materials. Apart from her pretty creations, she also brings to attention the rate of which modern society discards material without thinking much about its repercussions.
Despite some of her projects being based of previous works of renowned artist, what she produces is far from a mere imitation. What Nor Tijan brings to the table is a complete genre of its own, and not many can boast to have the same astounding practicality as hers when it comes to turning trash into treasure.
Intricacy is no stranger to the works of Anniketyni Madian, whose mastery over wood-sculpting is apparent in her designs. Born a Sarawakian, Anniketyni doesn’t stray too far from her home as she draws inspiration from the traditional patterns of the Pua Kumbu, a multi-coloured ceremonial cotton cloth often used by the Iban people. You can only imagine the painstaking process of crafting these labyrinthine Pua Kumbu motif into a three-dimensional wood sculpture that gives the art piece a certain elegance.
The implementation of her ethnic background that is so prevalent in her sculptures serves not only as a stunning eyepiece, but as a means of preserving her native culture. With an entire series of wood crafts dedicated to her ancestral roots, Anniketyni is a firm advocate for the East Malaysian cultural art identity.
Red Hong Yi
As one of the more notable names in the current art scene, Red Hong Yi is inseparable from Malaysia’s art vernacular. A Sabahan native, Hong Yi is now an internationally known jet-setting artist whose reputation of being an artist who ‘paints without a paintbrush’ is no exaggeration.
Previously working as an architect in Shanghai, Hong Yi first shot to internet fame when a video of her painting a giant size portrait of Yao Ming went viral. And while the painting itself was beautiful, what undoubtedly caught everyone’s attention was the tool she was using – a basketball.
With the eyes of the world now being introduced to this refreshing new idea, Hong Yi seized the opportunity and took up the decision to pursue her artistic calling. To stamp her mark in the art world, Hong Yi followed up with a portrait of Jay Chou illustrated through coffee stains, and later on her work of 64,000 chopsticks depicting the beaming face of Jackie Chan caught the attention of everyone, even the man himself!
Although internationally acclaimed, Hong Yi is never far from home as she continuously contributes to projects that advocate for her hometown, Sabah. Just recently, she initiated the Pillars of Sabah, an initiative where 30 pillars were delegated to chosen artists to beautify. With a reputation both abroad and home, Red Hong Yi is unquestionably one Malaysia’s top pioneers in innovative art.
Chong Fei Giap
In Chong Fei Giap’s vision, Malaysia is levels upon levels of rustic shophouses, gritty alleyways with rivers flowing in between, and a town networked by cable cars. While so unalike from where we live, in his art, Fei Giap paints a scene that is different, but close to home.
Inspired by his father’s hometown in Kuala Pilah, his digital illustrations are based off the kampung community re-envisioned to take on a new face. Amidst this rural theme across his artworks, we find the Komtar towers of Penang and the famous Twin Towers making an unlikely appearance in the background. In others, cable cars alike to the ones in Genting are assimilated into the city’s transport system. These are visualizations that tells of a Malaysia that could have been, and maybe in some of us a Malaysia we wish it would have been.
You could easily spot traces of Hayao Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli (see: Spirited Away), which he greatly admires. These different take on a re-imagined Malaysia treads on the balance between nostalgia and contemporary. Or, in his own words, “they look familiar, yet seem illogical”.
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Art to Shaq Koyok is more than just an outlet for expression. To this native of the indigenous Temuan Tribe, the acrylic on the woven traditional Pandanus mat is a cry seeking for the public to turn their attention towards the plight of the Temiar people against illegal deforestation. In one of his paintings titled Malok, Hak Kan Nik (Where Are Our Rights?), Shaq drew the portrait of one Aban Anjang, a 90-year old retiree of the Senoi Praaq, a unit of the Royal Malaysia Police comprising mainly of Orang Asli members.
Abang Ajan is pictured with hands open wide; his wrinkled expression questioning the absence of justice that should rightfully be brought upon the illegal lodgers insidiously affecting their livelihood. As one of the more prominent indigenous artist, Shaq Koyok’s work has been featured all around Malaysia, beyond even to London and Florida. His humility is reflected in how he wishes to portray himself to the younger generation. Citing the high dropout cases of indigenous students in high school due to bullying and lack of ambition, Shaq is determined to use his success in art as a means of inspiring the youths in the indigenous community.
Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin
In the northwest state of Peninsular Malaysia, the town of Kuala Kangsar in Perak has its reputation of being one of the most attractive of the Malay royal capitals. Prior even to Malaysia’s independence, Kuala Kangsar has a notable history of housing the royal Sultan’s of the past and that has carried on till this day as the Perak Sultanate still resides in the Istana Iskandariah.
But the artist we speak of here is not those of palaces and kingly stature, but one of iron and elegance. And while not a King by constitution, Raja Shahriman’s mastery over metal confers him a regal reputation in his own right.
A veteran sculpture of over 20 years, Raja Shahriman’s artwork involves turning scrap metal into one-of-a-kind figurines. His forging of metal intertwines purposefully to create many forms; from battle movements in his Gerak Tempur series, to fascinating abstract pieces in his Api, Bayangan & Kemenyan collection, Raja Shahriman’s scope of metal works reaches far and wide as he remains one of Malaysia’s inventive iron artist.
Samantha Lee is perhaps the only person who can get away with playing with her food. A stay-at-home mother of two, Samantha began making food art as a way of encouraging her eldest daughter to eat. As she began sharing her creations on Instagram, her imaginative use of food caught on with the public and was even featured on international outlets such as Today.com, Daily Mail, and Huffington Post. As her art began to gain traction, Samantha got more creative with her ideas and featured the likes of pop stars Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, and a number of Disney characters.
Despite having no culinary background, Samantha has a knack of bringing food to life in whimsical fashion. To this day, her tasteful creations are still a hit among parents who are looking to break from the normal routine and spruce up their plating skills in the kitchen. With all the recognition she has received, Samantha is indeed a unique contributor to the Malaysian art community.
Emma & Adrihana (Bingka KL)
Who can resist our traditional Malaysian kuih-muih? Bite-sized and delicious, these delicacies are irresistible whether as food or on silk. Emma & Adrihana conceptualized Bingka KL off distinctive Malaysian elements such as batik, kampung motifs, and kuihs. Hand-drawn on silk, these materials are then turned into pouches, tote bags, home furnishing items, and more. Their aim is to break away from the mainstream products that foreign visitors usually bring back home as souvenirs and create items that even locals would want to buy.
To the team behind Bingka KL, storytelling is just an important factor as design. A browse through their catalogue will show you the Malaysian heritage instilled in detail throughout their work. Despite consisting only of a team of four, Bingka KL continuously churns out impressive works of art that keep their label fresh and true to the Malaysian identity.
Without art the nation will lose an essential part of its culture. It is capable of preserving a nation’s history and showcasing to the eyes of the world the beauty of what this country possesses.
At the very least, it is time we begin to acknowledge local artists and encourage more movement in the art scene. From poetry and dances, sculptures to paintings, there is unmistakable truth that Malaysia is vibrant in the art we produce.
You can participate in Malaysia’s unique art scene by supporting our local experts in their efforts to promote and preserve traditional art forms. Book on LokaLocal to try your hand at amazing workshops around Malaysia and perhaps discover an artist in you!