Search­ing for an­swers

He­len Guek’s Be­ing & Be­long­ing ex­hibit ex­am­ines iden­tity and cul­tural roots.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By ROUWEN LIN star2@ thes­tar. com. my

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).

Photos: GUEK HE­LEN

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).

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