I’ve known and loved Kwai Fei’s works for almost a decade. Painting Suite (2008), a triptych* of his earliest minimalist geometric paintings hangs in my bedroom.

[* A triptych is a set of three separate works that are meant to be seen together as one complete work. A diptych would be a set of two separate works. Quadriptych a set of four and so on.]

My favorite in this triptych I’ve hung across from the bed, so I wake up to the light slanting on those tiny off-white triangles floating on four rectangles of black acrylic paint. Below it, on a chest of drawers, sits a small, framed photo someone sent me long ago, of sailboats on the pacific ocean, seen at great distance from the top of a cliff – sharp, three-cornered shards of white cut against a limitless blue sea.

Both painting and photo remind me of the order, and disorder, of my own imagination. It’s a purely visual effect, like music, but for your eyeballs. I get the same feeling looking at the work of fashion designer Isabel Toledo, who has described what she does as ‘romantic mathematics’.




Installation views of “Color, Shape, Quantity and Scale” at 15 Jalan Mesui (2010)


Kwai Fei’s subsequent exhibitions “Paintings for All Ages/Paintings with Extended Space” (2009) and “Color, Shape, Quantity and Scale” (2010) filled entire rooms with units of colorful, minimalist geometric paintings in oddly shaped frames. They leaned on walls, fit around corners, and climbed up the sides of doorways. These memorable works were probably influenced by the wonderful Thai artist Mit Jai Inn. In turn, I see their influence on fellow Malaysian artist Chi Too’s bubble wrap paintings in last year’s “Like Someone In Love”.

It seems like a huge, disjointed leap from there to this current show, at Richard Koh Fine Art, on the top floor of Bangsar Village II shopping mall.

I find the new works strikingly ugly. I thought about starting that sentence with ‘sorry’, but I’m not someone for whom ugliness is a bad thing. In fact, seen against the backdrop of BVII’s glitzy shops, Kwai Fei’s art is like chewing on a bitter herb after eating too many sugary doughnuts.

I’d argue that there is an unbroken thread that connects those minimalist haikus from years ago with the current pun paintings in “Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah?”. To make sense of this show you have to see it in the context of that continuous arc.

At the heart of his geometric works was the idea of modularity – that is, a system of discrete units that can be rearranged to form larger structures. IKEA kitchen and office furniture – that’s a modular system. It’s as if Kwai Fei broke a painting down to units of colour and shape, so he could put them back together in new combinations, like a drummer improvising rhythms.




Above and Middle: Installation views of “Painted Words & Written Paintings, for the Refined and for the Masses” at Valentine Wilie Fine Art (2012). Bottom: Installation view of “Kami Bukan Hantu, Ah Pull & Ah Door” at Run Amok (2013).


Next came a series of word-play paintings in Painted Words & Written Paintings, for the Refined and for the Masses (2012) and Kami Bukan Hantu, Ah Pull & Ah Door(2013). Those works looked as if a Chinese dictionary, manga art, and old school hand-painted signs had been put into a blender and spit out  – they couldn’t be further from the simple shapes in saturated colors that had come before.

In fact, however, they come from the very same place – Kwai Fei was taking the approach of breaking down and reconstituting units, and applying it to language.

“Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah?” is also about language. There is a crucial difference in style. Put those 2012-2013 paintings beside these current ones, and you’ll see it. There’s a… voluptuousness in the images completely missing from the new works, which are lurid and brash.



Above: Installation view of “Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah? 我的名字哈苏丹。You Look F**king Funny Lah!” (Image from Richard Koh Fine Art). Bottom: Interacting with God Breast You, 2015.


It’s crucial, because Kwai Fei comes from a Chinese working class background. He was on home ground tearing apart the seams between and around Chinese language, image and identity, and he was fluent in putting it all back together.

With this new show, he tries to do the same to two foreign languages: Malay and English. As he writes in his artist statement (which holds the key to the exhibition title and exhibition as a whole; I’d argue that you can’t fully understand this show unless you read it), he has experienced these languages as instruments of ridicule and exclusion.

This is why “Siapa Dia Tong Sampah?” is unsettling for the viewer: the paintings look like jokes about race and class, the kind that Malaysians love to make to and about each other, but in this case we’re not sure if we’re on the inside or the outside.

They reveal the total effects of prejudice on an individual in our society – not just as a receiver of racism and classism, but a nurturer and perpetuator of it. No neoliberal niceties here. No easy, hollow, ‘we are all Malaysians first’ hypocrisy. Even the title excludes: you may or may not understand the Chinese component. It’s pronounced ‘wo de ming zi ha su tan’. Translated: My name is Ha Su Tan. Hasutan is Malay for ‘sedition’.




Above: Jangan Ketawa, 2015. Middle: Lady’s F, 2015. Bottom: Takkan Seni Halus Hilang Di Dunia, 2015.


The works themselves literally invite you to uncover what’s underneath: lift up a ladies finger and you see a cunt, lift a keris to reveal the words ‘Seni Harus Untuk Melayu Shj’. The latter… ohhh boy. Ok, I’ll try to explain. It’s a reference to UiTM – one of the few public universities in Malaysia to offer a Fine Arts degree – and its Bumiputera-only admissions policy. It’s also a play on how Chinese speakers often pronounce ‘l’ as ‘r’. HaLUS means ‘fine’ in Malay – seni halus: fine art. HaRUS means ‘should be’ – Seni Harus Untuk Melayu Shj: Art Should Be For Malays Only. Puns upon puns upon inside jokes that don’t include you, because they are lost in translation. Miss the joke and all you see is a bad painting with a racist statement on it. Happens all the time in Malaysia.

The paintings are ugly because the subject uncovered is far from pretty. But the uncovering itself is done as skillfully and self-critically as such a difficult, I’d even say, impossible, task will allow.

These works sit uncomfortably in Richard Koh Fine Art. They don’t look like desirable commodities. But they sure do grab attention. I saw a security guard – Nepalese? Burmese? – walk past and linger, his eyes glued to the painting about migrant worker deaths suspended from the ceiling. For him, simply stepping inside the gallery would mean a greater transgression of racial, social and class boundaries than we can imagine. I thought about that for a long time after leaving the show.



Above: Lu Siapa? Mana Kampung? Mana Mau Pergi?, 2015. Bottom: Shopping Class, 2015 and Xiao Portrait, 2015.


For an artist with Kwai Fei’s background, to be represented by RKFA means both artistic validation, and a level of social mobility. Yet, somewhat ironically, there may be too many hard truths in this particular series to be friendly to the market. ‘All that is gold does not glitter’, but the classes that buy art from RKFA generally prefer a thicker coating of sugar on their bitter pills. Eventually, this is how commercial galleries come to calibrate what kind of art gets made.

If I had the funds, I would buy one of these paintings to hang beside the sublime quiet of Painting Suite – to remind me of the work between them, of time and distance travelled by experience. These days, we’re hard pressed to give anything more than two seconds of our attention, let alone follow an arc that spans a decade. Also, to remind me that beauty and ugliness can inhabit the same room, like joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure. It’s a good room that can invite both.

Lately, I’ve been wondering why I continue to look at and write and think and care about art. This is one reason why: it may seem as though we are unraveling, but artists are weaving threads that hold our story together – both the beautiful and the ugly. We need to pick them up and follow, so we can weave them together, strand by strand, to find our way home.



Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah?  我的名字哈苏丹You Look F**king Funny Lah, 16 – 31 March 2016, Richard Koh Fine Art

Review by Art KL-itique 

Feature in The Star


Shika, besides being an artist who has shown at the Singapore Biennale, a Nippon Foundation API (Asian Public Intellectual) scholar, a transgender activist, and a prolific blogger, designer, illustrator, and graffiti writer, is also lead singer for the Ting Tong Ketz.

I watched them play a couple of weeks ago. ‘Pulang, marilah pulang, ke pangkal jalan…’ chanted Shika, in a song she dedicated to JAKIM. She pointed to the crowd, and on cue, we screamed the refrain: ‘TAK NAK!!!’

The joy of that refusal: I felt it crack out from under my ribs and bounce across the room – unapologetic, free.

‘Pulang ke pangkal jalan’ is what we say to people who’ve strayed off the path. It’s a call to come back, back to the crossroads, before you went wrong. They’re iron words in a velvet glove, often used by those with power – the state, religious authorities, parents, society – to persuade you that not only is their path better and safer, it’s the only one that’s true.


One of my favorite Shika designs is the logo for Pangkal Jalan Pub. I have it sewn above the left pocket of my number one jacket, which I wore to the opening of “Buang Bayi”, where Pangkal Jalan Pub transformed from an idea into something real. Shh… Diam! (the sharpest and funniest band in Malaysia right now, btw) set up a bar on folding tables, DJ CT spun from her collection of vintage Malay pop, and visitors toasted to the only paths worth taking – our own.

The society we live in makes some paths much more perilous than others. Being a transgender person in Malaysia means traveling a road strewn, literally, with dead bodies, but also, discrimination, abuse, exploitation, rejection and violence.

To call “Buang Bayi” an exhibition about transgender issues would be like putting a label next to an arrow pointing to somewhere in an exploding nebula, and saying: here, this is what this is, and this is how you should look at it.


Instead, Shika’s show makes me feel like I’m inside a spaceship. From there, I see that a world in which gender was radically redefined would be a world expanded beyond recognition.

In the sheer density of creation and universe building, Shika reminds me of Eko Nugroho, or Yoshitomo Nara, only about a hundred times more fun. The space – Kerbauworks is artist Yee I-Lann and punk rocker Joe Kidd’s multipurpose studio – is stuffed, wall-to-wall, with zines, posters, paintings, patches, sculptures, toys, t-shirts, tote bags, buttons, postcards, drawings, prints and more. In one corner sits her guitar, in another are sashes meant for the beauty queen, MISS GENDERED.




The amount of material created in all manner of techniques and mediums is almost dizzying. There’s the campaigns she created for I AM YOU: BE A TRANS* ALLY, and Justice For Sisters, infographics on SOGIE, fictional characters, autobiographical cartoons, and on and on. But there’s an order to this universe – formed by Shika’s virtuoso sense of design, as well as a syntax of recurring symbols: mirror, bicycle, raft, unicorn, butterfly, roadside table, and humans escaping from their own skins, amongst others.

It’s an alternate galaxy tethered to earthy reality. Take the exhibition title “Buang Bayi”, which refers to the disturbing recurrence of baby dumping in Malaysia, or the aforementioned Pangkal Jalan Pub: Shika twists familiar images into a multi-angled mirror, simultaneously reflecting back to the world an image of itself as it is, and as it could be.




Shika’s universe was made to be distributed. If you took a piece of it home, whether a painting or a patch, it feels like another baby would quickly spawn and be dumped in its place. Most days, the artist was on site, singing songs, drawing alternate gender portraits of visitors, making paintings, and updating to Instagram. It’s the model of an art exhibition as a living, breathing, social thing, and not, as I’ve said before, dead objects on display for two weeks.

What Malaysian society and media tells us about transgender people and gender identity is a feedback loop of ignorant garbage. We can’t even get the pronouns right. Don’t worry, I’m learning too. Read this handy guide to transgender terminology. It’ll take you 5mins.

Shika built a spaceship for an expanded universe that doesn’t exist yet. She filled it to overflowing with beauty, joy, solidarity, punk rock and a future in which anything’s possible. I want to go where it’s going, into the deep unknown.



Buang Bayi: An Exhibition by Visual Artist Shika/Shieko Reto, 12 – 27 March 2016, KerbauWorks, 11 Lorong Kurau, Bangsar.

Review of “Buang Bayi” by Art KL-itique

Shika’s blog, Tumblr, Instagram.


When I think about last year, my mind turns to mash – I can’t remember if I did a thing five months ago, or two years ago. So I’ve been putting this off, because I don’t want to think about what that formlessness of time might mean. Why do the days of 2015 seem like a solid block I can’t enter, where can’t see myself in time?

One possible reason is that I tried to be at least three different people simultaneously.

Sharon-1 wanted to do journalism. Somehow she got attached to the idea of what it meant to be a journalist: objective, authoritative and inherently useful to the public. Maybe she wanted to get away from all the ambiguity and subjective doubt in art – its apparent uselessness, its aura of weakness. This made things harder than they had to be, because those reflexes had already been imprinted on her mind like a muscle memory.

I went places, talked to people, then came home to draw and write stories about what I’d observed (including observations of myself observing things). Mostly I paid attention. I don’t know if I was being a good journalist (for one thing, I can’t write to deadline, which is, like, a baseline requirement), but I was an artist doing something akin to journalism.

For ‘In The Land That Never Was Dry‘, I’d planned to do six illustrated pieces about water issues in Malaysia. I barely managed three.

One was about micro-hydro electricity in the interiors of Sabah, and another about hundred year-old wells in Kampung Hakka Mantin. The draft of the last one, about connecting water pipes in Sarawak, I submitted to my editor hours before the year ended.

Each one felt like wrestling a beast in a dark cave for months, only to find, on cutting off its head, that it was my own shadow.

In August, I went to the Tangkap Najib and Bersih 4 protests, and did stories on both. Those were easier, more immediate. I learned that the more time elapsed after an event, the more a story would turn into that dreaded shadow beast. Better to kill it quick, when it’s young and fresh and dripping life.


Draft I submitted just before the year ended



Sharon-2 was still a contemporary visual artist, no matter how much she disavowed the ‘art world’, no matter how hybrid her practice. In fact, 2015 marked a solid decade of making and showing art professionally.  While in university getting a parent-sponsored fine arts degree, she remembers flipping through the glossy pages of Art Asia Pacific and dreaming about the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, because Montien Boonma, an artist she admired beyond anything, had taken part one year.

In truth, although my love for Montien Boonma’s work hasn’t diminished, that dream does not occupy the same space it once did. I don’t mean a higher or lower place, as if on a ladder, but space – either I’m bigger, or the dream is smaller.

In any case, it was still something of a big fucking deal, and it’s stupid to say otherwise. Taking part in APT8 was fun, an honor, stimulating, profitable, problematic and hard, hard work. I made 10 WEEDS paintings in 6 weeks, and burnt out the muscles in my eyes, neck and right arm in the process.

I also made activity pages for the Kid’s APT publication, which was pure joy to do.

In November, I went to Brisbane for the opening of APT8. The walls of Queensland Art Gallery are fancy and beautiful. I thought about 2013, when the first series of WEEDS paintings were shown in a one-night gig/art party at Merdekarya. It was a grungier space, but no less beautiful, and certainly more beloved. Both, I thought, nodding to myself. That’s the challenge. The work has to hold up in both places. But what satisfied me most was that I’d made it for Malaysia first.




Top: Weeds/Rumpai Series I at Merdekarya. Middle: Series II in progress at home. Bottom: Series II in APT8



Sharon-3 was trying to reconcile -1 and -2, trying to knit the disparate threads together; prevent any notion of a harsh and foolish split. She tried all sorts of things.

She filled a binder with inconsequential drawings on foolscap paper and called them antidotes.

She wrote a thing, which, for the first time in her life, she was actually afraid to publish. She even read it out loud to a room full of people.

She made linocuts for someone’s stories, and together they pasted these up at bus stops along Jalan Pudu.

She sent emails.

She watched Mad Max: Fury Road over and over. She took her mother and father to watch Mad Max: Fury Road. She watched the greatest friendship of her life wither, then die. She watched the sunset, drinking whiskey to dull the pain of being an animal capable of feelings, hunger, loss, and muscle fatigue.

She wasted time on the internet. She wasted time worrying about wasting time, wanting every moment to be accountable, unaware that -1 and -2 were doing the same, and that was why the animal was tired, why it wept – it was trying to tell you only machines can use a moment more than once.



The first image (source) is a screencap from Whisper of The Heart (Studio Ghibli, 1995, dir. Yoshifumi Kondo). Zedeck and I watched it on new year’s eve. He wrote about it, and it says something about our hopes for 2016, better than I can.

Here is a bumper pack of antidote drawings I didn’t manage to post before the year ended. I made one for the first day of the new year, and it’ll be the last one. They’ve served me well, now it’s time for something else.


This was during the terrible slog of trying to produce the draft for a big illustrated story about my trip to interior Sarawak. I went through several more months of stopping, stalling and restarting before finally completing it, just as 2015 came to a close.



Mini-PSB’s name is hard to explain. I shall try: We had a dear cat called Penyu, who we lost a couple of years ago. There was a similar-looking cat – all white with an elegant face – around the neighbourhood, so we called her Penyu’s Sister. Then a tom cat starting hanging around Penyu’s Sister, so we called him Penyu’s Sister’s Boyfriend, i.e PSB. He was the blackest cat we had ever seen, and he had a furry stump for a tail. Later, Penyu’s Sister disappeared, but PSB started romancing another cat (Chicken’s Sister – another story, I won’t get into it) who came to us for food once in awhile. They had kittens, and the only one who survived was the one who looked exactly like PSB, so we called her Mini-PSB. True story!




Around this time I started getting chronic eye strain, which sounds like the lamest thing, but in my line of work, turns out to be debilitating.



I took a long trip to KL, and when I came home to Port Dickson, Mini-PSB was gone. I did a page of these drawings as a way to be sad (some of them made it into this story about Bersih 4), not really expecting her to come back. The next day she showed up, angry and demanding to be fed.



Happy new year! I bought boxing gloves and took up boxing again.

More on feeling the animal, and more on the internet wanting all your time.


Antid Oto – italian for antidote – was one of Leon Trotsky‘s earliest pen names. I also love the Malay word for it: penawar. A few months ago, I started taking regular walks and making drawings afterwards as a way to deal with worry, procrastination, hopelessness, writer’s block, internet rage, and digital distraction. 


This is an illustrated story documenting my time at Bersih 4, a street protest which took place from 2pm on 29 Aug 2015 to midnight the next day in Kuala Lumpur. It’s drawn in india ink on different kinds of paper, including a hotel letter and song sheets I saved from the protest.

The original artwork is being shown as part of Person(a): An Investigation into Self at Black Box, Publika, until 8 Nov 2015. I’m also showing documentation of ‘Mandi Bunga/Flower Bath‘, a project from 2013, which is based on my participation in the earlier Bersih rallies.

Thanks to Zedeck Siew who contributed to the text. Click images to enlarge in a new window.











Works installed in Person(a): An Investigation into Self at Black Box, Publika, 31 Oct – 8 Nov 2015. On the floor is documentation of ‘Mandi Bunga/Flower Bath‘ project, and on the left side of the wall are original drawings for the Mandi Bunga zine, both from 2013.