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.