Unbounded and Unstoppable: Women then, now, and tomorrow.
By Elizabeth Low Sue Mei
Upon reflection and analysis of the works featured in this exhibition, there is a sense of pride in seeing the diverse response delivered by the individual women artists to the theme “female relations”. We share the same gender and have similar experiences. Yet, our individuality and uniqueness shine ever so brightly in the stories and perspectives we choose to share with the world. Affirmatively, the name of the showcase alone, Women Unbounded, suggests a compelling narrative of its own: that women are not bound to the fate we have been handed, and are not confined to roles fixed by societal norms.
Womanhood… there is so much to be said about the experience. From the roles we were (and for some of us, still) expected to play, to the roles we have redefined through the ages, it is clear that strength and resilience is part of our DNA. Undoubtedly, women today have defied the mentalities of our forefathers with everything we have gone on to achieve, from being a working mother, to being CEO, and president. Yet, the core of the traditional roles of being a mother, daughter, sister, granddaughter, and so on, still, and always will hold weight. It is true that we see the world differently; but different is not necessarily wrong. Our experiences gained through the roles we have taken on merely provide us with an alternative perspective and understanding. Perhaps what may be perceived as our weaknesses, is the key to our strengths.
Women, Roles, and Relationships
Since gaining our National Independence in 1957, women in Malaysia today have not only received greater access to areas such as education and employment, but have also gone on to achieve roles that allow us to participate in power-sharing and decision-making developments. Today, we hold seats in parliament, run our own businesses, and hold CEO positions. Basically, we get to chase our dreams and be anything we want to be. While, no doubt, there is still much to be done in terms of reaching gender equality and safeguarding women’s rights and status, our role and place in society have evolved from the time of our grandmothers. Most of us are presented with greater opportunities than of our mothers, and have had the chance to choose our paths.
Familial, platonic, and intimate: the word relationship is vast and multi-layered, extending across multiple roles as a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover, and so many more. There is a variety of dimensions to the relationships we maintain and hold as women today. On the topic of the roles played by women, the nature of the relationships we share with the people in our lives continue to evolve drastically, like our status and role in the employment sector, where gender roles in some of our relationships have been challenged and redefined.
There are still expectations and stereotypes tied to our position as a woman, especially in more traditional families. Take for example, the notion of a mother as one who educates and nurtures her children, or maintains the household, is still a role widely expected by most traditional families. That is not to say that it is beneath a woman to do so, rather perhaps it is a responsibility to be shared between partners in a relationship. While there is no shame in choosing to take on these responsibilities, the imposition of what a woman’s “duty” is to her family is something that has been challenged and redefined over the last couple of decades.
The term ‘relationships’ also extend to our relationship with ourselves. While there is a long road ahead of us, the formidable stigma surrounding mental health in Malaysia has garnered respectable attention and awareness as of late. Addressed by artists, public figures, institutions, and the media, the concept of nurturing a healthy relationship with ourselves is slowly, but surely, being acknowledged and practiced. Both men and women today have their own challenges, and struggle with defining their roles in society today; however, with this being a showcase by women artists on female relations we shift our focus to women and our relationships with ourselves. I find that the need to take care of everyone besides ourselves is a common trait in women. Some say its part of our DNA to be nurturing and empathetic, others claim it a result of centuries of living in patriarchal society. Needless to say, whatever your opinion is on the matter, we take better care of our loved ones when we take care of ourselves. Most importantly, we would lead a much more contented and meaningful life by making time and space for a relationship with ourselves.
Women as Artists
When we talk about art history, naturally the conversation gravitates towards western art history - at least at some point. First published in 1971, the essay “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists” by Linda Nochlin is said to be one of the greatest contributions to feminist art history. By looking at the title alone, one might find that to be contradicting. However, this piece of literature presents to us all the reasons why there have been no “great” women artists by the superstar standards of Michelangelo, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock. Instead of bringing up or “uncovering” hidden female artists in the history of great artists, Nochlin identifies the problem in a very realistic and logical light. The lack of female accomplishment in history of art has little to do with our capabilities as a gender, but rather the obstacles that prevented women from such achievements due to the educational and institutional system. Among some of Nochlin’s arguments included the prohibition of access to nude models for any budding women artists (nude models were essential to the development of an artist’s skill between the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century), the inability to take part in opportunities that would advance their skills, and the insistence against a woman excelling too well in one thing. The latter had to do with the opinion that intellectual attainment would distract a woman from her true responsibility and role towards the welfare of her family.
Nochlin’s point? Despite every obstacle faced, it is by far a miracle that we have still gone on to achieve as much as we have today. Thus, the question of “why are there no great female artists?” has nothing to do with the female incapability, but everything to do with our capabilities in spite of the odds. From the institutional structures themselves, to the questionable social order they imposed on women through the ages, there is a sense of rebellious pride in being a women artist today. We are united by our struggles, our perseverance, and by our habit of defying the status quo. To all women artists, bravo for choosing to look ahead, and redefine the role of great female artists in spite of what history has told the world.
Diving in to Female Relationships through work of arts
Women Unbounded features eleven, incredibly talented female artists. Including both emerging and established artists in the creative industry. Their chosen medium of expression ranges from printworks, to paintings, and assemblages. Coming from a varied background in terms of education, age, and influence, all participating artists found common ground in identifying the different relationships and roles they take on as a woman.
Based in United Kingdom, Malaysian born Alexandra Hon is best known for her elaborate interior spaces; part of a larger narrative, the scenes she creates explores complex accounts of human interpersonal relationships. Her featured work, The Matriarch (2021) is a linocut print work inspired by her relationship with her husband and her role as a wife. Coming from what she describes as an “egalitarian style” familial upbringing, growing up there was minimal gender-role associations for Alexandra. For her husband, coming from a traditional Punjabi family, the structure of responsibilities and roles in a household for him differed from the one she grew up in.
The global lockdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic had made room for the chance to restructure gender roles in her marriage. In that light, Alexandra reflects on the role of her mother in the family, and the growing parallels she sees between her late mother and herself. Having retired from her job in her 40s, her mother took on certain responsibilities at home, out of choice rather than obligation. Her mother was essentially the de facto matriarch and the head of the household as income was not the defining position of authority in her family. Depicting the dynamics of the artist’s marriage, The Matriarch (2021) illustrates her role as a woman, an artist, and a wife, all while staying true to her relationship with herself.
Educated at University Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Amy Nazira is best known for her distinctive style of portraiture. The cartoon-like inspired features of her characters tend to evoke a sense of freedom and genuineness in expression, through Amy’s blatant disregard to imitate the “correct” proportions of the human anatomy. Helianthus (2021) depicts a girl, donned in a yellow dress and hat, who I find resembles the children book and television series character, Madeline. Known for her wit and craftiness, the outgoing fictional French character shines through the girl portrayed in Amy’s painting. She carries a painted white and blue pot of sunflowers, possibly resembling a close relationship to nature and art. Traditionally, receiving flowers have long been associated as a token of a romantic advance. Yet perhaps, Helianthus (2021) may just be a self-portrait of the artist; the potted sunflowers a gift to her herself, an affirmation towards her self-love and worth.
A trademark of the Manchester School of Art’s graduate, Haz Yusup, the faces of the two nude female figures in Between Love (2021), are concealed by a white cloth. Inspired by the “Death of Lucretia”, the story of an Italian girl who took her own life with a dagger after she was raped, Haz Yusup’s Between Love (2021) reanimates the story with an alternate ending. A dagger lays mere inches away from the woman on the left who reaches out fondly to the other figure. It is clear that the woman closest to the dagger resemble “Lucretia” as the sexually abused victim between the two. Yet the dagger is pointed away from the body, suggesting hope in the fate of said victim, in her pursuit to heal from her past wounds and learn to trust again. In this context, perhaps the hidden faces of the figures imply a state of uncertainty and self-doubt in the midst of overcoming and moving past the trauma. Between Love (2021) is evidently a portrayal of a woman’s relationship with intimacy, post distressing and invasive events.
Highly influenced by feminine themes and metaphors, Janiz Chan received her formal art education at the Malaysian Institute of Arts (MIA) in 1989. In Duet (2019), we are faced with two women engaged in contemporary dance while surrounded by a majestic array of flowers and a hint of peacock feathers. Attempting to demonstrate women who have broken free from the chains of societal pressures imposed on to women, the two identical dancers in Duet (2019) seem to move freely with great grace and strength.
With commitment towards actively shining light on Malaysia’s rich heritage in her works, Janiz often incorporates both traditional dance, and contemporary responses to cultural dance in her works. Choosing to embrace her Malaysian roots and culture, Duet (2019) appears to illustrate the dancing figures as women liberated from societal norms, while still maintaining their ties and pride towards their culture and heritage.
Graduate of Dasein Academy of Arts, Joy Ng, portrays a young girl amidst a crowd in the city. In hues of blue and pink, the vision is almost dreamy almost as though one is floating subconsciously through the motions of life. Joy relates the scene of Longing (2020) to every time she’s in a street full of people. Seeing them for more than what they appear to be, the artist finds that her sensitivity and empathy towards every passing individual is heightened. Consciously, she recognises that every person she passes by, albeit briefly, are people who are rich with their own stories full of pain, laughter, desires, and so much more. She acknowledges this unexplainable relationship and connection towards anyone in her vicinity as a trait derived from what she identifies as her feminine attributes as a nurturer.
From engaging in traditional mediums of visual expression such as painting, to using found materials in creating figurative objects, Liew Sze Lin works across a range of different mediums. In her featured works You Can Cry Here I (2021) and You Can Cry Here II (2021), the Dasein Academy of Art trained artist explores the relationship between herself and other women. Utilising red onion sacks as her main material, Sze Lin weaves the red wires into the once utilitarian material. The repetitive patterns created by weaving is meant to reflect routine intertwined in to the daily lives of women.
A graduate of the National Academy of Arts, Culture & Heritage (ASWARA), Marisa Ng, remains to be one of the handful of abstract expressionist artists in the local art scene. With strokes of red and pink, amidst the storm of greys and darker colours, the diptych Happy to See You (2020) is part of ongoing series entitled “Love Letters”. Marisa shares about her struggle with self-love; through “Love Letters”, she works to nurture appreciation and care towards herself. Essentially, each painting is a love letter to herself, painted to express not only the warm and the fuzzy, but also the sad and the pain in reflection of the ups and downs in any relationship. In her journey of courting and falling in love with herself again, Happy to See You (2020) displays an excerpt of the artist’s relationship with herself.
Caution, (2021) by Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) graduate Nor Tijan Firdaus, is a self-portrait made out of an assemblage of discarded plastic toys on a wooden panel. Inspired by the Malay proverb “Tangan yang mengayun buaian dapat mengoncang dunia”, Tijan talks of how mothers are able to contribute innovation and ideas to the world even from their love and guidance at home. In between the hope and concerns for her growing children, she recognises that the role she plays in their life could help shape them in to future leaders. It starts from home, and Tijan believes that her relationship with her children puts her in the position to impact their development and spirit.
Having pursued her formal art training from the Malaysian Institute of Art, artist Ong Xing Ru conveys notions of feminine traits such as elegance and grace through Morning Melody (2021). The scene is set in what appears to be a garden with a glorious arrangement of plants; a figure can be found playing the piano with a number of animals, both domestic and wild as neighbourly occupants. The harmony of the various elements indicates a serene and relaxed setting. What Xing Ru hopes to show through her technique, is the delicacy and care in her handling of details in her painting. It is apparent, that her gentler and refined nature is present with her depiction of a pleasant morning. In Morning Melody (2021) Xing Ru illustrates her relationship with nature, and perhaps her pride in her what she considers to be a vital part of her feminine identity.
In Bila Celik (2021), Raimi Sani illustrates her relationship with her child as a mother through an oil painting of a stuffed bear in the arms of a sleeping toddler. In conversation with her, the Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) alumni reflects on the Malay proverb as quoted by her grandmother during birthdays growing up: “pejam celik, pejam celik dah setahun tua". It is a fond and nostalgic expression toward how quickly time goes by and how swiftly we grow up, most especially from the eyes of our elders. As a mother herself today, Raimi finds herself savouring every moment awake with her child. Bila Celik (2021) shows us the first scene she is greeted with in the morning.
Be Yourself (2021) by Trixie Tan explores self-acceptance in a community where expectations tied to one’s gender, run deeps. She talks of her identity as an artist, and how she chooses to tell her stories through her creative expressions. In Be Yourself (2021) the artist talks about being your true self, in spite of the stereotypes and societal pressures imposed on us.
Formally trained at Dasein Academy of Arts, nature and the female presence appears to be a constant element in her repertoire of work. Surrounded by nature, the young girl in the painting is identical to the less vivid and muted figure behind her. This potentially suggests two versions of one person, and the internal battles that we all face in truly being ourselves.
Breaking Glass Ceilings
Women Unbounded engages in an ongoing conversation on women, and the roles we play in the various relationships we engage in. Every featured artist has shown a display of their rich individuality; it is thrilling to see the variety of perspectives, and the unity in embracing what makes us a mother, a daughter, a woman, and most importantly, as a human being. We have taken big strides in our achievements, and have gone above and beyond in paving the way for our daughters tomorrow. There is still much to be done, but for now, we can stand proud knowing that we have broken the glass ceilings faced by our grandmothers, and mothers before them.
Oil on Linen | 90 x 78 cm | 2019
Nor Tijan Firdaus
Plastic toys on wood panel Coated with epoxy clear matte 2k Resin | 91.5 x 61 cm | 2021
Trixie Tan Lu Man
Oil on canvas | 121 x 91.5 cm | 2020
Oil on canvas | 100 x 151 cm | 2020
Oil on canvas | 75.5 x 105 cm | 2021
RM 3,800 | Sold
Oil on canvas | 70 x 70 cm | 2021
RM 1,500 | Sold
Oil on curved canvas | 35 x 50 cm | 2021
RM 2,500 | Sold
Ong Xing Ru
Acrylic on canvas | 106 x 68 cm | 2021
RM 4,600 | Sold
Happy to see you
Oil on canvas | 80 x 160 cm dyptich | 2020
Edition 1 of 15
Linocut on Zerkall | 57.7 x 41.2 cm | 2021
RM 1,200 | Sold
You can cry here I
Liew Sze Lin
Onion sack and wire | 45 x 42 cm | 2021
RM 1,200 | Sold
You can cry here II
Liew Sze Lin
Onion sack and wire | 45 x 42 cm | 2021