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Sharing a Life on Canvas

BY FAHMI FADZIL

IMAGINE a cute, furry rabbit, sitting and twitching its nose contentedly in a sunny corner of the garden.

Now imagine a hand reaching out in what seems like a tender, loving motion towards the little thing. Such a simple, serene picture, no?

Now imagine that this image is in fact born out of the guilt of eating one’s pets that have been overzealously productive. Dark, yes, but true. Such is the mind of the artist who, in the bleakest moments of his life, sheds luminous tears on canvas and shares his humanity.

In this instance, I am talking about the humanity of Chang Yoong Chia.


The amazingly intricate Kuching, Sarawak

Being more engaged with the performing arts, I was curious to learn how visual artists ply their trade. Are they exhibitionists who want to paint their lives for us to contemplate? Or are they quiet, lonely people? I hoped that talking to Yoong Chia would shed some light.

Currently working as a gallery assistant at Reka Art Space (in Kelana Jaya, Selangor), Yoong Chia was more than happy to meet with me and gab about art and stuff. We met up at Karim’s, a friendly mamak stall in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, that has expanded from a back alley establishment (with nasi lemak bungkus that seriously rocks) into a slightly more presentable half-shop.

Yoong Chia is a calm and reserved person, yet he possesses a dark but tasteful sense of humour. You have to peel away the outer layers to see where he’s coming from.

After getting good grades in his SRP (a generational marker, yes), Yoong Chia was quickly whisked into the science stream. But that stuff just wasn’t his cup of tea, except for Biology (which, to extend the metaphor, was like a hot, buttered scone to him).

“And then when my SPM results came, I was quite relieved I didn’t get enough marks to get into the local universities.”

Oh, really? I was thinking of how this article would go down with educationists?

But where did he go after that?

“There was this very funny moment. I was in my school library and I found a comic book made by MIA (Malaysian Institute of Art) students. That’s when I first knew about MIA lah, and from then on, I decided that this was where I wanted to go. So then, MIA was on my mind.”

MIA On My Mind. Sounds like the title of some catchy song, no?

MIA must have made much out of his dormant talent. Because, songs aside, this young man (he’s only 30!) produces amazingly and meticulously detailed artworks. He’s especially known for his black-and-white Flora & Fauna series, in which he sets himself and his girlfriend within various, often-times peculiar, settings full of flora and fauna.

Mind you, getting your hands on one of these intriguing works is no easy task: almost 75% of his pieces had been sold by the time the Flora & Fauna exhibition closed last year. Someone grabbed the piece I myself was tempted to get, darn it.

Yoong Chia reveals that not all is lost: the series is currently being revisited. The first piece, which has as the centrepiece the rabbit I mentioned before, took him four laborious months to complete. Dang, he’s hard working, I find out.

“How long do you spend, a day, painting?” I quizzed, a little afraid to hear the answer.

“Four to eight hours.” And he does that day in, day out, and mostly at night. I repeat: dang, he’s hard working. I guess that’s the kind of discipline you need to be a visual artist.

Does he feel that what he goes through is something people need to get into their systems if they want to go down this road? To learn that it’s not all wine and cheese and smiles and fat cheques at star-studded gala openings?


Chang Yoong Chia perfoming Quilt of the Dead outside Central Market, Kuala Lumpur, 2003.

“I think, first of all, you have to realise that you have to be serious about your work lah. And then try as much as possible to do the work that you like, that you want instead of trying to constantly think: what’s the market about, how’s the market, and how you can cater to it.

“Because if you are just producing work that other people want, then you can never develop your own (art) vocabulary.

“It’s a long process, but I feel that once you become confident (and) you know what you want, then you can clearly direct how your career needs to go.”

Yoong Chia certainly has no problems deciding in which direction his career is going: it’s increasing in depth. You have to dive into the deeper side of the pool to examine this guy. Take the piece of performance art that he has been cultivating since 2002 called The Quilt of the Dead. What happens is, Yoong Chia sits in a public space somewhere and reproduces in embroidery stitches photos derived from obituaries. Macabre? Sure, but it has a fascinating backstory.

“I did it for the Chow Kit Fest (in 2002). Initially, it was just looking at obituaries, and then I decided to stitch them, because when you look at obituaries, at least when I look at them, I tend to wonder how these people lived, but now they are no longer here, I’ll never be able to meet them. So then I think about their life based on the photos I see. It just started like that.

“I decided to make a 10-foot by 10-foot (3m by 3m) quilt, because the process of embroidering (each panel for that size of quilt) takes quite a long time, and I think ? if you lengthen (a process) you really test yourself.

“You constantly question what you do, you constantly (ask) questions about the subject. And also to me it’s a form of sacrifice because you are dedicating yourself for a period of time just doing that.”

My ever-present question about the arts bubbled up as my coffee mug ran empty: why continue? “I think now I can’t imagine not doing it,” is the quiet reply.

A bold and elegant final stroke, I think to myself as I watch Yoong Chia walk off into the gently blossoming night.

Fahmi Fadzil studied Chemical Engineering in the United States. After returning in 2003, he realised that he really wanted to be a stage performer. Currently a member of Five Arts Centre, Akshen, and a director of Artis Pro Activ, he would like more people to read T. Alias Taib’s poetry. He’d also like to hear from you, so drop him a line at starmag@thestar.com.my