A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN. IN JINJANG.
Texts by Simon Soon


But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction --- what, has that got to do with a room of one's own? I will try to explain. 1

To uncover the economies of writing, to structure expression as principled around the sovereignty afforded by financial security, to demand upon gender a style intimating lifestyle - these were the pressures laid bare by Virginia Woolf in her book length essay, A Room of One's Own. Her argument issuing from the premise, 'a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction'.

Where is this correlating space located in Malaysia? Shia Yih Yiing's practice offers one context and entry-point. The ability to cultivate artistic practice around the demands of female domestic responsibility provides us with a sociological lens to examine opportunities and challenges that artists face when they negotiate between these domains of livelihood. As a result, we can also undertake this as an occasion to think through Yih Yiing's pictorial codes and narratives - her fictions - as embodying these tensions.

But first, apropos of Malaysian art history. In The Disbanded GRUP - Houses, Myths and Art, exhibition curator Wong Hoy Cheong elucidates the kind of aura in which Malaysia's first generation of modernists were able to construct around themselves. He highlights the mythical quality that pervades these modernist artifice with the following observation, 'This myth, functions as an idealised frame for artists and art students to negotiate with and aspire to.'

What interested Hoy Cheong was that the images that have accumulated around the pre-eminence of their stature. On the one hand, these were the large houses they live in that represented respectability and worldly success. On the other hand, they also projected the artistic life as imbued with mystique and privileged access to creative insight.

GRUP portrait.

The nodes in the above instances, Hoy Cheong concludes 'serve as frameworks and entry-points for the Malaysian art community and public. The development and direction of art, even today, is founded on negotiations with and through their art, thoughts and lifestyle.' 2

These affectations do have repercussions in the way artistic self-images continue to be fashioned even if the dominant mode of artistic practice have swung towards figuration today. Ironically, figuration was the genre that Hoy Cheong sought to privilege over abstraction in order to redeem an artistic sensibility as one that was socially aware and politically engaged. He would not have anticipated its reach, commercial value and broad acceptance, and today stand as the dominant mode and cipher of the Malaysian identity. 3

 
L: FKlub group portrait
R: Group portrait for The Door II: Plight exhibition by HOM Art Trans.

In the recurrences of this kind of self-representation, we begin to see the inclusion of women artists in these recent pair of photographs taken by House of Matahati. In fact, Shia Yih Yiing appears as the fifth figure from the left in the group portrait of the F-Klub, a loosely formed collective of artists who produce figurative artworks, all of whom have recently gained some form of commercial success and repute.

How does a woman artist arrive at this stage? It is not as if in Malaysia's modern art history, women artists were entirely absent. 4 If we were to consider the domains that continue to impinge upon the time and space for creative output, this would require us to qualify Woolf's assertion with the specificity of a Malaysian domestic reality. In Shia Yih Yiing's case, she must have a room of her own in
Jinjang.

Jinjang was established as part of the Briggs' Plan during the Malayan Emergency, a strategic forced relocation of rural ethnic Chinese population in Malaya in order to curb the influence of Communism on the populace. Today it has become a residential township, a mixture of old dilapidated wooden houses marking the older denizens and painted brick and concrete houses that perhaps signal newly acquired means.

In Jinjang, Yih Yiing lives in a three-storey house. Here her studio occupies half of the top floor. Her time and space to paint revolves around her role as mother, part time art teacher and homemaker. 5 If these appear to be discrete units of daily going-ons where she takes on different personas and play different roles in society, the walls that are erected around these separate spheres of activities are soon taken down as she begins to paint. In her painting, we are able to enter into the second discrete unit of Woolf's proposition. Fiction. The stuff of yarn and fable.

Once Upon a Time, 2007.

An entry point can be found in Once Upon a Time. The painting recites and locates these stories within the realm of the mythic. The logic of the fairytale when applied to our understanding of Shia Yih Yiing's practice opens our consideration to the possibility of motherhood as embodying particular elan. Here her maternal sensibility is not seen as opposite to her artistic ambition, the retreat into the domain of storytelling enables her to conflate them, even as her daily routine negotiate across these spaces as distinct spheres of activities.

Central to many of her paintings are her children, who lead us through the fantastical worlds that occupy Yih Yiing's mindscape. They may represent the hope for a future, searching for the threads of stories that will continue to lead them towards an adventure. Yet part of what the complexity is, is to identify what are the treads that would constitute the Malaysian imaginary.

I like to trace these courses up a number of streams to illustrate three different points of departure. We may think of them as recurring agents or triggers that may perhaps intimate at the 'shape of time' to use George Kubler's term - or perhaps the shape of times - the multiple historical rhythms, forces and temporalities larger than herself operating and coursing through her painting. 6 So that forms wending their way across different textures of time, are able to convey some of the motivations and circumstances that artists in Malaysia need to grapple with today. In doing so, perhaps they make reference also to the concept of visual time as a range of imageries that traverse different sets of practices, quite independent of content or artistic intention. Here are larger intersecting histories at play.

 
L: The Astana, built in 1870. Photo taken circa 1930.
R: Castle Cake, 2007.

The first of these is the Astana, the tropical castle built by the second White Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke as a wedding gift for his wife. The Astana exists as an architectural landmark in Kuching, the town where Shia Yih Yiing was born. The palatial ground that incorporate medieval features such as a fort with parapet walk, could be seen to embody the reproduction of a fairy-tale setting within the framework of colonial enterprise. Speaking of the Astana, Ranee Sylviam, wife of third White Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke, commented,

'The Astana palace was a fantastic medley of beauty and bad taste. Outside, its walls were white and it had a grey tower where a sentry stood guard day and night... There was nothing wrong with their proportions; but the old Rajah has filled them with appalling imitation stuff from every period of English and French history.' 7

It is worth nothing how this claim to the trappings of European Royalty were reproduced essentially by a self-crowned buccaneer through the accumulation of objects that represented connection to a larger imagined history. Here the space where fantasy bleeds into reality is the portal in which we are able to locate an instance, through the quirks that resulted from the history of colonialism, that our inheritance of European fairytale are not simply oral narratives but also spatial productions of a hybrid imaginary, one where a mediaeval castle, or in Shia Yih Yiing's painting, Mughal palatial structures, is transplanted to these parts of the world.

 
L: Tan Tee Chie, Giving Instructions, Woodcut print, 1958.
R: Tell Us One Story, 2009 - 2013.

The second is a woodblock print by Tan Tee Chie titled Giving Instructions, created in 1958 in Singapore. Produced a year following Malaya's independence from the British, and when the desire for Malayanisation or Singapore-Malaya merger was in full spring in Singapore, the print also tells the story of the arrival of migrants to the Nanyang or South Sea.

Depicted here is a mother pointing towards the horizon as the sun rises in the east. She surveys the land with her child and we may presume from the title, conveys to him or her, a sense of a new beginning. Encapsulated in the work is a prospect offered to a new generation, the story of mobility and of arrival. Here land and landscape signifies belonging. Essentially it tells the story of the Chinese migration to the Nanyang region.

The work connects to Shia Yih Yiing's practice on two grounds. The first being that as an ethnic Chinese herself, Yih Yiing's family history mirrors the scene depicted in the woodcut. The woodcut then projects the kind of reorientation of homeland and the finding of a sense of belonging that the Chinese community undertook as they migrated to the Nanyang and found home in these parts of the world. Secondly, it is also a tale that poignantly captures the intergenerational bond, through the act of instructing, storytelling, and teaching. It relates intimately to the maternal role that continues to figure strongly in Shia Yih Yiing's iconography, a role she does not seem to shirk from as she enters her studio. Here the worlds collapse and inform each other.

 
L: Hassan Muthalib, Hikayat Sang Kancil: Sang Kancil dan Monyet, 1984.
R: Kancil Sends in the Little Model, 2008.

Lastly, since 1983, Filem Negara Malaysia began releasing a series of locally produced animation, beginning with the Hikayat Sang Kancil. 8 Filem Negara Malaysia, originally called the Malayan Film Unit, served as the propaganda wing of the government whose aim was to release films that would 'raise the public's understanding about the government's development program and policies.'

However, animating principle of these locally produced cartoons was to revive local fables. It followed closely and made use of the introduction of full time colour television transmission that was launched just a year before in 1982. 9 This was in line with the direction set out by the National Cultural Policy in 1971, more so that, the late Ismail Zain, who was an active promoter of reinventing traditional lore and imagery through new technology and former director of the Department of Culture and National Art Gallery, was appointed director of the newly established FINAS, a separate national film industry promotion body in 1981. 10

If we think of Sang Kancil as a totem, the mousedeer's reemergence in popular television resonates with Yih Yiing's interest in choosing the mousedeer as a protective figure to accompany her daughter in a number of her paintings. Yih Yiing in personal interviews have expressed her regret that she was not able to tell these stories to her children when they were younger, and felt that her paintings would be able to recover the experience of transmitting this oral tradition to the next generation.

In a manner, her paintings serve as a cipher to convey a sense of loss and regret. They reflect, in some small part, an ethos that sought to rescue from oblivion, a rich vein of historical folklore. These are oral registers of traditional worldview increasingly being forgotten as a result of modernisation and colonial education. This would be redeemed through the mediation of a new technology and channel of distribution. In this sense, the technology brought along with the desire to rule by those who sought riches in far off shores and built their dream castles in these parts of the world, are counter-appropriated by the formerly colonised to create their own fiction.

  
L: 60s Homage Couture, 2013.
M: Grace Salvanayagam, Peacock on White, Screen print, 1962.
R: Tan Nan See, Rupa Malaysia, photograph installation, 2010.

But you may ask, what has it all got to do with having one's own room in Jinjang? Part of this has to do with how the arc of migration, colonial legacy, ethnic identity, demands of motherhood, domestic life and livelihood, and post-colonial reimagining of national space thread across Yih Yiing's pictorial fabric. As we return to the room situated on the third floor of a private home in the town of Jinjang, the room with a view overlooking the township, of the artist's own, provides us with an instance in which these historical forces and present day demands on her as mother, housewife and part time art teacher, intersect in a personal story that weaves in and out of that collective and mythic narrative we call nation.

Perhaps what
The Weaver could intimate, is best exemplified in her recent series of paintings Homage Couture. These are self-portraits of the artist, putting on a variety of gowns. Identifiable works from Malaysian art history are amalgamated as period motifs, conflated into the design of costumes representing different epochs. On some level, the series faintly alludes to the fabric artworks of Grace Selvanayagam, who exhibited her screen print fabric as works of art in the sixties. 11 It suggests the utilitarianism of art, in which the sartorial skin is taken as a costume to forge one's national identity as it envelops one's body.

While it also shares similarities with Tan Nan See's photography series Rupa Malaysia in their shared interest in exploring the applicability of art into vernacular design, it is also unlike Tan Nan See's distillation of an exhibition discourse into an essentialised design character to critique the nation as a determining aesthetic framework. 12 Yih Yiing's self-representations align sartorial evolution to stylistic fashion in art history. Decontextualised, they appear as campy motifs that may suggest levity and play yet their cluttered composition suggest a kind of encumbrance, a weight and armature that one requires to put on and speak through.

Perhaps we can think of the Weaver's task as to negotiate through the palimpsests of histories, and register the pattern in the warped and weft of the cloth that binds the Malaysian body. To do so, she must also overcome the hurdle set upon her by domestic life, and secure a room that is of her own. This is so that she would finally be able to aspire to the ranks of her male peers within the parameter of success that have been marked out by an earlier generation of artists. But is this achieved at a cost? Only if one appraises her success solely on those terms. In that case what is elided from this materialist reading is the texture of temporalities that would course through her art, as a repository of the experiences, both hers and others, that make up Malaysia, coming together in one instance, for one moment. Unaligned and inimitable.


1 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 1929.

2 Wong Hoy Cheong The Disbanded GRUP - Houses, Myths and Art, reGRUP: 30 Years On, Kuala Lumpur: Valentine Willie Fine Art, 1997.

3 See What About Converging Extremes?

4 See Nur Hanim, Wacana Wanita dalam Seni Rupa Malaysia, Euforia: Selonggok Retorik Nur Hanim Khairuddin Tentang Seni, Safinawati Samsudin, ed., Penang: USM and Teratak Nuromar, 2010; See also, Tiga Sezaman/Three Contemporaries, Balai Seni Visual Negara, 2012.

5 See Cecily Cheo, Motherhood Games: Paintings by Shia Yih Yiing, exh catalogue, The Art Gallery: The National Institute of Education, Singapore, 2008.

6 George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, first published in 1962, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996.

7 See Lady Sylvia Brooke, Queen of the Headhunters, London: Sphere Books, 1970.

8 Hassan Abd Muthalib, From a Mousedeer to Alien Creature, paper presented at Conference on Pop Culture in Asia: Adaptation, Convergence and Challenges, National University of Singapore 10 - 13 December 2010.

9 Colour television was however introduced in 28 December 1978, when the first Sang Kancil animation was produced but never released until 1983.

10 Soalan Lazim, FINAS website: http://www.finas.gov.my/index.php?mod=about&p=faq#f4 (Accessed 12 August 2013)

11 Syed Ahmad Jamal, An Appreciation of Grace Selvanayagam, PELITA, Vol. 6. No. 2., Kuala Lumpur: Esso Publication, 1968, pp. 10-14.

12 The exhibition discourse Tan Nan See responded to was an exhibition curated by Redza Piyadasa titled Rupa Malaysia.
 
 
ⓒ COPYRIGHT OUR ART PROJECTS SDN BHD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED