Reframing femininity in ‘The Velvet Chamber’

The Velvet Chamber is an exhibition from Alexdrina Choong after spending two month as a residency artist at Bon Ton Locale, Langkawi


Feminism is a movement that fights for equal rights for all genders. Started in 1837, the movement gained traction in Malaysia during the British occupation in Malaya. According to Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, women from various ethnic groups started to unify and voice out their stands against anti-colonialism and matters pertaining to women’s inferior status at the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945.

One feminist theory in relation to arts is the male gaze, which is the act of depicting women and the world in the visual arts and literature from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer.

The opening reception welcomed representatives from Balai Seni and MOTAC, along with local art enthusiasts and visiting artists. The afternoon was filled with art, laughter, delicious food, and beverages courtesy of Bon Ton Resort.

Taking something that once had a negative connotation, some feminist artists play around with the male gaze theory to their strengths. They do this to give a deeper outlook on the hardship that women face due to the male gaze.

That is what I saw in The Velvet Chamber, the latest solo exhibition by Alexdrina Chong. After spending two months at Bon Ton Locale, Alexdrina churned out a collection of graphite drawings and ceramic sculptures. She stated that her latest solo, “… Delves into this female experience through the lens of surrealism, laying bare the contradictions and hypocrisies that bind women to their prescribed roles and expectations, however archaic and oppressive they may be.”

Having the chance to spend two months at Langkawi Island, specifically the Bon Ton Locale really helped Alexdrina in developing her art practice. This latest exhibition is part of her embracing the path of a full-time artist, dedicating herself entirely to art. Located at the Bon Ton Resort, Bon Ton Locale was founded by Narelle McMutrie. It stands as a nurturing haven for artistic expression with an art residency program that provides artists with both housing and creative space amidst the tranquil backdrop of Langkawi.

The Velvet Chamber was curated by Dato’ Sri Bernard Chandran under his new initiative, Lumina. Bernard, a renowned name in the fashion industry is not new to being the patron of the arts, co-creating Art is Fair KL in 2021. As for Lumina, it is an art and cultural initiative with a vision to reconstruct art experiences by dismantling traditional boundaries and integrating diverse disciplines and cultures.

From left, Dato’ Sri Bernard Chandran, Alexdrina Chong and Narelle McMutrie

“When I visited Alexdrina at Bon Ton Locale and she walked me through her initial work, the narrative about modern femininity and its intrigues, all of that was surprisingly familiar for me working so closely with women,” stated Bernard.

Surrealism has always been the way Alexdrina expresses herself. In 2019, she created 100 drawings that captured her inner thoughts and emotions. This was compiled in her book, 100 Pages of Solitude. Trained as a graphic designer at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, she made digital illustrations that juxtaposed childlike designs with gruesome touches.

What has changed in The Velvet Chamber is that the work has a more gruesome feel, especially when done with graphite instead of digital drawing. The drawing mostly consists of self-portraits and also figures with twisted and contorted body parts.

Alexdrina said, “Fractured and augmented, twisted and gripped by a deliberate contortion, the female bodies presented in the series symbolize an eerie imperative for women to contort and transform into a superhuman version of themselves.”

The surrealism of her works is explored further in her ceramic works, done in the second month of her residency at the Bon Ton Locale. The figures in the sculpture are more contorted and distorted in nature; there’s even a flock of birds with human faces.

One of the works that caught my attention was Who & Why where a figure can be seen holding up a plate with three masks in front of it. For me, this really expresses the role which women must play in accordance with society; choosing which face to wear.

Pavilion, part of Bon Ton Locale’s creative hub, doubles as an artist’s workspace, a stunning gallery, and an event venue. The ceramic sculptures showcased in The Velvet Chamber exhibition were all crafted within this space.

Since her return from a decade-long hiatus from the art scene, her works have been mostly monochromatic, with a splash of red here and there. “Maintaining a black-and-white palette enables me to concentrate on the compositional aspects, emphasizing shapes and forms while remaining true to the intended narrative,” she stated about her choice.

Alexdrina’s work challenges conventional behaviour by using surrealistic exaggerations, pushing the audience to confront the opposing characteristics that characterize modern womanhood. The goal is to encourage viewers to question commonly accepted beliefs surrounding the mysterious and complex female experience. Of which I think the exhibition delivers just that.

Alexdrina Chong, the artist-in-residence at Bon Ton Locale for two months (Sep- Oct 2023), has produced a captivating body of work showcased in The Velvet Chamber. This collection features both graphite drawings and ceramic sculptures.

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