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Who’s your daddy? Chuah Thean Teng@BSLN

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Chuah Thean Teng: An Appreciation
Balai Seni Lukis Negara
extended until 31 March 2009

Chuah Thean Teng passed away on 25 November 2008, just months before the opening of his retrospective at Balai. This makes the viewing of his works especially poignant, above and beyond the sense of nostalgia that runs throughout the show. I felt I was looking at a Malaysia I had never known: I can’t recognize myself in his scenes of pastoral kampung life, and the people he lovingly depicted at work, rest or play are strangers to me.

Breast Feeding, 2001, Batik, 91.5cm x 61cm, Collection of Yahong Gallery

Teng’s Malaysia is a storybook Malaysia. The story is of a land at the birth of nationhood. People work the land, living in harmony with its rythyms and with each other. Everywhere there is joy, optimism and a sense of shared purpose. I believe Teng held on to this vision till the day he died – works as recent as 2001 (“Breast Feeding”) and 2006 (“The Cat Like Fish”) show no signs of either diminshed idealism or growing cynicism.

For this reason, his works have the sort of timelessness that belongs very much to the period of modernity and nation-building. In their curatorial essay, Tan Sei Hon and Lim Ai Woei say as much: ‘with his passing, we witness the closing of an era’. They don’t define specifically what that era is, but I gather it was one when a chinaman born in a village in Fujian could come over to Malaysia (then Malaya) and find the full flowering of his artistic expression in the most traditional of Malay crafts. He could depict Malay women baring their breast to nurse a child. He could be a national painter, commissioned to create murals for public buildings. Is it any wonder that I see little trace of today’s Malaysia in his work? Where is the Malaysia that accused Yasmin Ahmad of ‘mencemarkan budaya Melayu’ because she made a film about a Chinese boy and a Malay gadis falling in love? Where is the Malaysia that banned a book on breast-feeding? How about the Malaysia of equal opportunity, but more equal for others some of the time and not for all most of the time?

Di Bawah Pohon Palma, 1965, 90cm x 66cm, Collection of the National Art Gallery (BSLN 1965.069)

We Malaysians have a particular penchant for playing ‘who’s your daddy?’. Tun Abdul Razak– Father of Development. Abdullah Arif – Father of Modern Malaysian Art. And the biggest daddy of them all, the Tunku – Father of Malaysia. Teng was known as… what else? ‘Father of Malaysian Batik’. Chuah Thean Teng was a pioneer and innovator. He was a truly outstanding artist whose sense of composition and color, as well as grasp of batik technique, gave us some of the most enjoyable and distinctive works in Malaysian art. That has no bearing on the fact that it’s time we unpacked this patriarchal nonsense of always needing a father, a godhead, a source. Perhaps that’s the greatest difference between Teng’s generation and ours: fathers are defined most of all by a sense of duty. And us, their children, expect to be led by their dreams and visions. The burden falls both ways.

Teng’s vision of Malaysia has not come to pass. But it was the act of dreaming itself that left us such an incredible body of work – rich, accomplished, and utterly unique. Generations to come should not bear the responsibility of fulfilling the hopes of our fathers. Instead, what we need to hold on to is their ability – their freedom – not only to dream, but to make possible. This is what Teng has left us: not a vision of Malaysia that never happened, but of one that could have.

And with that in mind, I urge you to catch Chuah Thean Teng: An Appreciation at Balai before it ends. The show has been extended to 31 March. An excellent publication accompanies the exhibition, as well as a fairly good, if rather shallow, documentary video. I was told that not all of his best works are represented, but there are some outstanding ones just the same. The highlight of the exhibition is the gigantic mural ‘Malaysian Agriculture’, on loan from Universiti Malaya.

To learn more about Chuah Thean Teng, visit Yahong (meaning ‘coconut wind’) Gallery in Penang www.yahongart.com

More images of the show at Balai’s blog (they have a blog!)

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Left: Malayan Culture, c.1957, Poster colour on paper, 72cm x 82cm, Collection of Yahong Gallery
Right: Malayan Culture, c.1957, Poster colour on paper 72cm x 82cm, Collection of Yahong Gallery
(Note: these were mural designs commissioned for parliament building, but never realized)

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Malayan Agriculture, 1960, Mural, 270cm x 600cm, Collection of University of Malaya

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Welcome, 1967, Batik, 91.5cm x 61cm, collection of Yahong Gallery

All images from Teng: An Appreciation exhibition catalogue, published by Balai Seni Lukis Negara

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