Kok Yew Puah Portrait of a Malaysian Artist


Until Apr 3

Curated by Beverly Yong & Rahel Joseph

Kok Yew Puah: Portrait of a Malaysian Artist reflects on the work of a Malaysian who chose to become an artist twice. Kok Yew Puah (1947-1999) first impressed the local scene when he returned from his studies in Melbourne as a bold hard-edge abstract printmaker in the early 1970s, one among many artists trying to find a direction in the fray of competing isms, ideologies and social politics of the time. After leaving art for several years to run a family business, he forged a new practice as a figurative painter, producing some of the most honest, human and subjective representations of the country’s visual landscape of the late 1980s and 90s. He passed away at the age of 51.

Kok Yew Puah passionately believed in the potential and importance of art-making and artistic exchange. He was acutely aware of developments in global, regional and local ideas about art and culture, throughout his life actively seeking community and conversations with other artists, through running his own space, local art associations, and lecturing and mentoring students. He was also an artist deeply immersed in and concerned about his local environment and the social and cultural development of his country.

On one level, this exhibition attempts a portrait of the artist, tracing the development of his art practice and ideas through his works, essays, interviews, articles, and conversations with those who knew him about his personal history, character and interests. His own self-portraits, often humorous and made in different “postures”, present some interesting ideas of what this “artist” might look like. Through the perspectives of others, he is seen in turns as a visionary, an artist, a husband, a father, a friend, a teacher.

The exhibition also presents a portrait of Malaysians. In his paintings, Kok Yew Puah mostly chose to use himself, his wife and two children, and their friends as models for his human portraits. They are identified as “Malaysians” through the use of familiar visual cues in the landscape, architecture, dress and “props” they appear with. Puah’s paintings invite us to examine our ways of seeing each other, and to create our own meanings and stories around the Malaysian subject.

They are part of a larger, personal portrait of Malaysia, captured through the immediate experience of the artist’s life in his hometown Klang as it transformed into an industrial hub. It is a portrait that speaks of anxieties about environmental damage, and the impact of rapid development particularly on younger generations, and their growing disconnection from history and culture.

Twenty-over years since his passing, as we review the works of Kok Yew Puah and what knowledge we can build around his life and times, what picture do we see of Malaysia, Malaysians and this Malaysian artist?

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