Searching for answers
Helen Guek’s Being & Belonging exhibit examines identity and cultural roots.
HE was only a toddler when he left China for Malaysia, so memories of his home country were at best hazy. But the image of misty blue mountain ranges were vivid in his mind’s eye. How could they not be, after a lifetime of listening to stories from his elders, and piecing together descriptions from the Chinese classical literature he adores?
“When my father finally went to China in 1998, when he was 63, he expressed disappointment at what he saw. He had a certain sentimental bond with the family history he heard, and when in China, he looked for the landscapes described in Chinese poetry, the mountains presented in Chinese ink paintings,” relates Helen Guek, 45, who currently has a solo show at the Oriental Art & Cultural Association in Kuala Lumpur.
But reality did not live up to expectations, and he was left disappointed.
“He also had many views on how the food tasted and the way people interacted with each other there,” she adds.
The illusion of the country he thought he knew was shattered, at least partially.
It is something we all face, in various forms, in everyday life. Are these situations truly a matter of reality not meeting expectations? Or are they cases of mistaken identity?
It is such occurrences that pique Guek’s interest in the identity debate. What moulds your identity? What changes your sense of identity over time?
These concerns and more are raised in Guek’s Being & Belonging, a show that spans different generations and ventures beyond physical traits, inherited culture, and geographical references.
“This exhibition is an exploration of identity, specifically that of the Malaysian Chinese. It is drawn from my personal experience as a Chinese in the pluralistic society of Malaysia, and is a combination of my experiences and family story, with the collective history of Malaysia as its backdrop,” shares Guek, who currently lectures ( fine art studies) at Sunway University in Petaling Jaya.
Guek, a graduate of Malaysia Institute of Art, also holds a fine art degree and a master of fine art. Being & Belonging, a largely mixed media and digital print outing, features 20 new works, including three installations. It draws from archival family photos and newer photos which records “places with texture and environment”, like markets, houses, artefacts and signboards, and documentation ( for instance, images from newspapers, magazines and websites).
“The exhibition also attempts to capture and present an epitome of Malaysian Chinese experiences based on age, dialect group, locality and personal experience,” explains the Batu Pahat, Johor- born artist.
During a study stint at Victoria College of Arts, the University of Melbourne, more than 10 years ago ( where she got her fine art degree), her encounters with peo- ple from all over the world with Chinese ancestry sparked her interest in cultural identity.
“I experienced similarities and divergences in many ways during our interaction. Even though we share similar physical traits and speak a similar language, we are different.
“Due to this keen awareness of these differences through our interaction, I started to explore my perception of identity. What determines a person? What are the different dimensions of a person? What is culture and what makes us different within this ‘ same culture’? I began to recognise that, in addition to my ‘ Chinese- ness’, I am conscious of my ‘ Malaysian- ness’,” she observes.
For this show, Guek also quotes American feminist writer Cynthia Enloe, who defines a nation as “a collection of people who have come to believe that they have been shaped by a common past and are destined to share a common future”.
Guek, intrigued by the combined factors that make us unique in our own way, shares that what makes up the Malaysian Chinese identity is so much more than outer appearance.
“It is what is beneath the superficial surface. It is our experience with fellow Malaysians, and the feeling of home defined by smell, sight, taste and feel,” she says.
She maintains, however, that in the current political and cultural landscape of Malaysia today, all Malaysians experience “invisible boundaries and division in one way or another”.
“Instead of promoting our common experiences and collective history, we are being defined and divided according to differences, namely ethnicity, religion, language and culture,” she laments.
“Therefore, this exhibition is a way to commemorate and cele-
brate shared experiences and to recognise, within the submerged and accumulated traces, the being and belonging as a person, as a Malaysian, in this place we call home,” she concludes. Five highlights at Being & Belonging:
Our Stories – The Layering Portrait ( Hakka)
In this series of portraits, Guek sets out to tell some of the stories and experiences of Malaysian Chinese.
First- generation Malaysian Chinese Michael Foo and his memories are captured in this mixed media on canvas work. He was only nine when he was sent away from his hometown in China on a boat bound for South- East Asia. His father hoped that the warmer weather in the region would be better for his health as the younger Foo was asthmatic as a child. He settled down here, got married in 1969, and moved his young family to his wife’s hometown in Negri Sembilan. They have been here since then.
Imprints Of Memories
Guek took the image of her father, now 81, as her subject in this work, a demonstration of a submerging and dilution of memories over space and time. His migration from China and subsequent settlement in thenMalaya leaves fragmented ties and missing pieces in the past, but it is also a journey of building new memories and experiences in a new environment, which adds new meaning to one’s sense of identity over time.
History Of The Explorer
An extension of Imprint Of Memories. Guek pre- printed digitalised images on paper with elements of Malaysian landscapes combined with other textures and patterns. The completed work, with seven images arranged horizontally, symbolises the journey of overseas Chinese in search of a better life.
The Traces Of Descent
This digital print, featuring the artist’s grandmother, was created with the intention of exploring feminist perspectives in interpreting the migration experiences of Chinese women. The bound feet and traditional Chinese motif on textile is incorporated into the work as a reminder of days past, a memory contained in a lifetime. The layered background captures the atmosphere of the village her grandparents lived in, with coconut, rambutan and durian trees aplenty.
Layered Inner Landscape
It looks like a silhouette of a person, but nestled within the overlapping dense layers are fragments of landscapes, which is part of a Chinese ink painting which her father brought with him from his first visit to China when he was in his 60s.
On the right, a local floor tile pattern can be seen; in the centre, a prewar shophouse reminiscent of her father’s first permanent home in the new land, along the port of Batu Pahat in Johor.
This work is based on faded and fragmented memories about home, where different images are layered and sandwiched together without indication of time or any separation between them, but are collectively linked by memories.
Helen Guek’s Being & Belonging is on at the Oriental Art & Cultural Association, Jln 1 / 137C, Jalan Klang Lama in Kuala Lumpur till Sept 11. Opening hours: 11am- 7pm ( closed on Monday). For more info, call 03- 7785 6363.
Imprint Of Memories ( mixed media, 2012).
Our Stories – The Layering Portrait ( Hakka) ( mixed media on canvas, 2016).
Our Stories – The Layering Portrait ( Fuzhou) ( mixed media on canvas, 2016).
1 Guek’s ‘ The Traces Of
Descent 1 ( digital print on paper, 2013). 2 Close- up of History Of The
Explorer ( mixed media, 2012). 3 Layered Inner Landscape ( digital print on canvas, 2012).