Announcement: I started a newsletter called Smoke Signals:! It’s a brand new home for the Blog and News sections of this site.

I’ve been blogging (never as regularly as I liked) about my art practice on here for more than ten years. The site has become wild and sprawling, and updating it has felt like a chore for awhile now. I’m not abandoning it though! All the old posts will stay up, and I’ll continue to archive my artworks in the WORK section.

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This is the text of a speech I read at the book launch of ‘Salleh Ben Joned: Truth, Beauty, Amok and Belonging‘ by Anna Salleh, on 1 Dec 2023. The book is out now from Maya Press, available at all good book shops.

I never met Salleh. I know him through words. When I came back from studying in Australia, I was full of ideas. A bit of Baudrillard and Berger. A sprinkling of Said and Mcluhan. Not many women though. I had Ursula Le Guin, but she went further back, from when I was a young girl. I didn’t find many women to mother me in University.

So I came back, and I went looking for the Malaysian in me. I read some Latiff Mohidin, some Usman Awang. But it was Salleh that spoke to the wildness, a kind of horny, cracked madness in me. My tongue was broken, disconnected from my brain and body, darting here and there, speaking in weird tones, searching for a mother, a mother tongue. I read somewhere, I can’t remember where, Salleh said your mother tongue is the one you drank with your mother’s milk, and it healed something in me. My mother’s mother was an English teacher. She married and divorced 4 times, and ended her life as a Buddhist nun. That’s all I know about her. I don’t even know her name. My mother was an English teacher too, a lecturer in university. Her name is Maureen. Koh Mau Reen. 

If a mother tongue is the one you drank with your mother’s milk, does anyone know what a daughter language is? 

English is a daughter language of Old English, which is a daughter language of Proto-Germanic, which is a daughter language of Proto-Indo-European.

Malay is a daughter language of Old Malay, which is a daughter of proto-malayo polynesian, which is a daughter of proto-austronesian.

Every language is a daughter. 

I want to talk about daughters for a moment. When I met Anna for the first time, and she told me about this book she was writing, she was focused and intense. A woman after my own heart, a woman of action. I recognize a woman on a quest. We don’t choose the blood that flows in us, but we can choose our own course and what we take with us on that journey. A daughter on a quest can free us all. She changes the river she is descended from, she shows us where to go. 

Kebisuan langitmu tidak mengapa
Kerana rimbamu penuh kata-kata
Dalam sentiasaan cuaca hakikatmu
Kurasa suatu kebebasan yang baru

What matters if your skies are silent
For your forests are articulate
In the constant clime of your essence
I taste a new freedom

When I read these words of Salleh, from the poem ‘Di Detik ini, Di Sini’, almost 20 years ago, I didn’t read them as love poetry, in which said forests are almost certainly referring to those between fulsome thighs, south of ‘dua susu kemuncak gunung ledangmu’. 

I read the poem as the rediscovery of a home I hadn’t encountered yet. Of arrivals and deferred welcomes. I read it as a guide. My head was too full, my heart empty. The sky wasn’t speaking to me. I had to get to know the forests, the land under my feet. To me this poem was about fidelity, and the promise of freedom in staying put, and finding out what it means to truly come home. 

I raise my glass to you, Anna. To daughters, to all that they carry and have the courage to change. Death to the old ways. Long life to the new freedom pregnant in us, as we dare to sing the songs of our fathers (and mothers) in our own voice, in our own tongue.

Pages 178 and 179 from ‘Salleh Ben Joned: Truth, Beauty, Amok and Belonging’ by Anna Salleh, published by Maya Press.

If you liked this post, you might like to read: Bad Daughter, or, Where I Got My Feminism (2015)

The artwork featured in the book is from the ‘Benua Dalam / Inner Continents‘ series, part of my first solo exhibition Boats & Bridges in 2005.

Bintangor oh bintangor
Wangi-wangi di tepi laut
Pergi jauh masih mencari
Di sini saja tak teringin lagi

A little ode to the Bintangor tree at Monkey Bay, Tanjung Tuan. It blooms from April to June and October to December.

5 July 2023

1 Nov 2020

31 May 2023

5 July 2023

Practice Diary 4 – I wrote this on New Year’s Eve 2022, to Varsha, who had messaged me with a watercolor painting of her Tamarind tree in Baroda.

Art by Varsha Nair

It was low tide, and the small bit of shore in front of the tree was revealed. I went down there – it was like standing on the front porch of my home. A porch the sea was coming for, the tree being the house. I turned back to look at her, and from that point of view I finally understood the mystery of those exposed roots. Coastal erosion – allow me to translate the term: all of the intricate architecture of roots had once been covered by mud and sand, perhaps half a vertical meter or more lost to the sea. How long had she been like that, holding on to bare rock, with nothing under her feet? And how much longer would she be able to withstand the waves? I thought of things that I might do, like build stilts for support. It would be a good art project to propose, something about ecology and conservation, something about our dire straits. And even that would have been a gift from her – I once saw a branch washed up so that it was lodged just so under the one root that reached out towards the sea. The branch was so solidly placed that I couldn’t nudge it at all, as if an expert carpenter had put it there. It lasted a good 4 weeks, but one afternoon I visited and it had been washed away. Did I think I could do better? Yeah, I suppose so! A series of images of what I could try flashed through me rapidly; ideas are so pleasurable. But it faded quick. I couldn’t bear the thought of her propped up like a cripple, perhaps with screws or rebar – a picture to tell myself a story of human ingenuity and artful invention. Whatever I did I could not return the mud and sand, in this lifetime. My love could not return the land that had been taken. Here she was still standing on her own; she felt solid as a mountain under my weight – home, at last, for a lost child of immigrants – I was just another little snail nestling in a gnarled root. How did this place on the edge of the water become the center of my world.

September 2021

November 2021

April 2022

March 2023

Practice Diary 3 – Started 3 March, finished 8 March 2023

Behind every image lies feelings, memories, thoughts and emotions, pressing up like thorns, or a body… a body of thorns – their sharp tips push against the skin, threatening to puncture it. The screen is hard glass, but it offers endless images that are like skins. We perceive with our eyes, soft sacs of membrane and jelly. Behind every image lies feelings, memories, thoughts and emotions, pressing up like thorns, or a body… a body of thorns – their sharp tips push against the skin, threatening to puncture it. The screen is hard glass, but it offers endless images that are like skins. We perceive with our eyes, soft sacs of membrane and jelly. Behind every image

CW [Content Warning] – Blood, Gore: The images included after the mindmap below may be disturbing to some viewers. Includes photos of the author’s bloody face during a boxing match, and AI generated images (using CrAIyon) with the prompts ‘muay thai’, ‘female’, ‘asian’, ‘short hair’, ‘cut’, ‘bloody face’, ‘fight’, ‘oil pastel drawing’.

Practice Diary 2 – 28 Feb 2023

There is so much that I want to do. I want to collect all the red fabric that washes up on the beach and sew it into a mantle to hang around the shrine. I want to collect the fallen, tannin-rich leaves to dye an old bedsheet, and stamp it with a pattern of swirling grain speckled with star-like blooms, to leave this as an offering on a breezy day, when the sun is somehow both mild and bright. I want to push dozens of empty liquor bottles into the ground to mark a doorway. More than anything, I want to take the trash out of the sacred hollow and lay a curse on anyone who tosses so much as a candy wrapper in there again.

But the Bodhi tree is growing fine, nestled by garbage. Protected by garbage. Even the burned tree herself isn’t dead. A brand new trunk is somehow growing out of the remains, the leaves forming a perfect canopy above the hollow.

Every time I visit, I plan to do something. I want to a make a shrine. But the place says, in the tone of my old muay thai master and one I might have used myself, when teaching someone how to make a print: watch me first.

Practice Diary 1 – Mon, 27 Feb 2022

Tossing and turning in the chrysalis. Breaking down a dream. The images change but the pattern stays the same. It’s always a house I can’t leave. I think this is the first time I dreamt it as a Mall. It’s the one I grew up in – 1 Utama. I’m a ghost wandering down darkened thoroughfares, reciting brand names like I’m identifying plants in the forest: Watsons, NEXT, Laura Ashley, Somerset Bay, British India, Royal Sporting House, Dragonfly, ESPRIT, MNG, Topshop…

Nice to come home to my home on the internet. When did home become a place where no one wants to visit anymore? It’s warm in here, I lit a fire.


This image features a stock image vintage illustration of espalier, the horticultural practice of training trees to grow a certain way.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.

Drawing by Varsha

April 13, 2021
Dear Sharon

What I’ve always loved and wished for is a tamarind tree, and in late 2019 I met a grand old one, with a narrow bit of land attached. The tree commands the entire eastern side.

I’ve always believed you don’t own land and what stands on it, it’s just a contract of promise one makes to honour it whilst fulfilling a wish.

And, you certainly don’t own the tree – I told myself. The tree owns you. You owe it everything – your very being. The land and trees will be standing in one form or another well after you are gone…

What is ‘normal’, I ask. Are things the way they were, normal? Haven’t we been on our way to be gone for a while now? And what is the normal we hope to return to? The so-called ‘new’ normal? Pandemic or not, this tree springs forth shoots, flowers and offers tangy fruits as it has done for decades now and will continue to do so. Except not so with the talipot palm that grows nearby. Don’t know how old it is but this palm, also known as the shadow palm, tends to grow to be 70 or more with the knowledge that at the peak of its life, after it puts forth the largest single inflorescence ever and then scatters the fruit and seeds, it will start to die soon after. Its magnificent leaves will droop one by one covering the base like a faded old skirt until they all dry up. It takes a year or two – embracing death whilst still alive.

That too is normal. There’s nothing new about it.

“You have a preexisting health condition so don’t be reckless”, I am told repeatedly, “don’t be out and about unnecessarily”. Just like preexisting times – the ‘before’ pandemic ones – this preexisting health condition is not normal.

Going to visit the trees is….. very normal. Necessary even.

You introduced ‘your’ mangrove tree at your birthday gathering and I was so touched. There it was, a sure dark shape on my screen as the sun was setting into the sea lapping not far behind. They seem so fragile, mangrove trees, but so strong and stoic standing amidst a shifting landscape of sand, earth, movement of tide and time… and, this one with the refinery nearby belching out stuff. You did post photos of the flames.

Yes, as you so aptly put it, they endure and we feel compelled to visit for the reassurance they give. Especially in moments when all seems lost.

On one of these visits after last monsoon and during the lockdown, I planted some amaltas nearby thinking their golden showering flowers may be welcome. But they didn’t survive. That’s normal – in your mind you see budding bunches, in reality the sapling says: no, don’t like it here– and you learn from this – it’s not just about you.

I visited ‘my’ tree again today, and you tell me you visited ‘yours’. As you said, “You know what I mean when I say ‘yours’ and ‘mine’… not possessive, more like we belong to each other in a relationship, us and the trees.”

I want this to be set as the norm – that every human must enter into such a sacred relationship of visiting a tree or two as part of their routine.

What I also want is a courtyard at the far western end of the plot from where I can watch the changing light. And to see the tamarind blooming only to shed as it does seasonally, and continue to draw an expanding large circle underneath with a carpet of leaves and wilted bits.

I want to learn to draw this way – gaining by shedding.

… I want to be around to see days dawn…

I’d like for my knees to be strong enough so I can climb a bit into the lower branches and feel what it’s like to be in a tamarind’s belly surrounded by dense foliage. But I am not sure if I really want this – to climb. I mean, I do want strong knees.

I absolutely want the neighbour’s buffalos and goats to continue to poo around its trunk whilst they munch on the growing wilderness, and the visiting monkeys to chuck down pods from way up high.

Oh and I very much want for the solitude of the lockdown to return – the guilt free time of gaining much from going nowhere, doing little.

– Varsha Nair, Baroda, India

Image of Country Musik: Movements #13, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.