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Nov 19, 2021
Lisa Ameera

#RIUHVisits: Capturing The Essence Of Malaysian Lives Through Portraits Across Three Decades


KL is often filled with plenty of fun activities. Whether you’re looking for something highly specific like aromatherapy soap-making or something more suited for the general masses like cafe hopping, you can most definitely find a place that can accommodate whatever it is you’re interested in. A particular activity that sparked my interest was to visit Ilham Gallery and explore Kok Yew Puah: Portrait of a Malaysian Artist. To say the least, it was a wonderful experience that I would suggest to any art enthusiast.

A conversation with Sze Ning, the artist’s daughter, as she revisits Puah’s hometown Klang

From Printmaking to Painting

Puah was a Selangor-born artist who returned to Malaysia after studying printmaking in Melbourne, Australia. The exhibition brings together over 60 of his artworks created over the course of roughly three decades. They’re mostly a depiction of the artist’s life experiences encompassing those in his beloved hometown of Klang as it slowly progresses into an industrial locale. His work also reflects his vision of Malaysia as a growing nation. Puah’s paintings express concerns about the consequences of rapid urban growth, especially on younger generations, and their growing alienation from history and culture besides the impact of environmental destruction.

Ilham Gallery is opened everyday except Mondays and Public Holidays.

The exhibition is carefully curated by Beverly Yong and Rahel Joseph. It not only illustrates his interests and slices of life, but goes beyond that. Puah’s works largely demonstrate his art practice and ideas through interviews, articles, newspaper cuttings, and even conversations with those who knew him personally. An archive of Puah’s materials like photographs, catalogues and drawings from the family’s collection are also put on display.

A self-portrait with bananas, from Kok Yew Puah’s Window series.

Puah’s works are centered around portraits, as you may have guessed. There are self-portraits of Puah experimenting with unique poses, like his self-portrait with bananas, where he explores his own artistic identity with a play on dimensionality that pays homage to Piyadasa’s Terengganu series from the 60s. Besides his self-portraits, there are also interesting portraits painted through the perspective of others where he plays a husband, father, friend, teacher and artist.

Rethinking Malaysian Stereotypes

From a wider lens, the exhibition also puts Malaysians as the main subject with a majority of Puah’s paintings including the people he normally sees on a regular basis such as his wife, two children, and their friends as models for his portraits. The visual cues in the landscape, architecture and dressing paints a familiarity that we’re all highly accustomed to. His art invites us to delve deep into the meanings and stories around Malaysians.

Self Portrait in Despair (left), Two Important Men (middle), and Self Portrait in Deep Thought (right).

Through The Lens Of An Artist

In many of his works, there’s a reference to photography where the painting is often framed within the confines of a camera viewfinder, providing the viewer with the feeling of being behind the camera and trying to capture a precious moment. Some even include colour bars, like those found in printed photographs.

Untitled (Driving Past) by Kok Yew Puah

One piece that I was particularly drawn to was Untitled (Driving Past). It was produced in 1998 and greatly unveils the juxtaposition between new and old. Four people drive past in a seemingly moving sedan, driving past a rickshaw puller with a waving man reflected on the car door. At first glance, it seemed like that was all there is to it, but upon reading the caption, the shop shown is the name of an actual Klang sundry shop, Chop Leong Hup, owned by one of the artist’s friends. The painting highlights the little things we might lose sight of or ‘drive past’ while speeding towards modern lifestyles.

Take Home A Gift Or Two

Once you’ve completed making your rounds at the gallery, drop by the gift shop just steps away from the exhibition grounds. There are a number of interesting trinkets and quirky items that’ll pique your interest like tea towels with vintage prints, Roti Canai mousepads, beautiful gold-foiled money packets - just to name a few. There’s also an entire wall complete with vintage photographs from over a decade ago, maybe even more.

Getting There

If you’ve never been to Ilham Gallery, fret not, it’s close to a number of popular attractions. For one, it’s walking distance from The Linc and Troika. For those riding the train, take the Kelana Jaya line and exit at Ampang Park. For those who are driving, there is a dedicated parking facility within the building. Or if you’re looking to play tourist, get on the KL Hop-On Hop-Off tourist bus and alight at Stop no. 22 which is 5 minutes away from ILHAM. The exhibition will run until April 2022.

Remember to keep a safe distance and to always wear a mask if you decide to visit the Kok Yew Puah: Portrait of a Malaysian Artist exhibition at Ilham Gallery. To maintain the safety of guests, the gallery limits admission to visitors to those who have been fully vaccinated and temperature checks will be done at the door.