KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 24 — How does a culture endure? If we look at the local Peranakans, their unique heritage has been passed down the generations through food, language and customs. One Nyonya woman is doing her part to preserve her people’s culture… through her art.
An entirely self-taught painter, Sylvia Lee Goh is currently exhibiting at the National Visual Arts Gallery till September 29. A follow-up to her first solo exhibition at the National Art Gallery 17 years ago, Sylvia Lee Goh — Then and Now: The Enduring Heart offers art lovers a look into the world of a refined Nyonya lady.
One of the few senior female artists still active in the Malaysian art scene today, she has participated in 60 exhibitions locally and abroad including in Australia, China and Argentina. Her works abound with colourful flowers and gardens, Peranakan paraphernalia and kuih-muih, and Nyonya women at rest and at play.
“My paintings typically revolve around still life, the figurative and landscapes with lots of Peranakan influences,” says the lively 76-year-old. “I’m a Northern Nyonya. My great-great-great-grandfather came to Malaya from China in 1820. He landed in Alor Setar and married a local woman.”
Growing up in a conservative Peranakan home, Lee Goh was expected to learn to be a proper lady. She recalls, “I was good at art, but it wasn’t encouraged. I stopped after school and only picked up again later, after getting married in 1963. I had to find my own way.”
The acclaimed artist still considers painting a challenge. “Maybe I had a natural gift, but still it was difficult for me as I never went to formal art school. I started painting in earnest in the 1970s. I was looking for my self-worth, you see. I wanted to be more than simply a family woman, taking care of children, cooking and gardening. I wondered how could I ‘find’ myself. I turned to art, naturally.”
Lee Goh has been painting for the past 40 years. This second solo exhibition showcases a selection of more than 50 early and recent works from the 1980s till 2015. Older pieces that highlight Peranakan culture are contrasted with newer pieces that are more cerebral contemplations on the state of society today.
“I wanted to discover my identity as an artist,” she recalls. “So I decided to paint about my Peranakan roots. I remember my father bringing back to our ancestral family home. My grandmother was sitting in the hall, dignified and distant. She was chewing betel nut leaf slowly while sizing me up. She told my father that I was quite fussy as I didn’t eat all the dishes that was served!
From these colourful memories about life in traditional Peranakan homes, Lee Goh has painted scenes from a bygone era: Peranakan women in ornate kebaya Nyonya preparing dishes from scratch or a table weighed down by platters of delicate kuih-muih.
Nature is another major theme in Lee Goh’s work. Lotus flowers, in particular, are a recurring feature in her paintings. To capture their ephemeral beauty, she visited Tasik Chini, the famous lake in Pahang that transforms into a floating garden covered with thousands of lotus blooms every August and September.
She explains, “My late father loved nature and plants; maybe he passed it down to me too. My house is like a jungle — the lotus plants grow so tall that I prepare a ladder for my guests to climb up and look down into the heart of the flowers!”
Lee Goh has no compunction about veering from safe territory into the surreal. Her most celebrated painting, If Dreams Come True…, has a touch of magic realism to it. She says, “See how the woman almost ‘floats’ on a bed of flowers surrounded by tropical plants. It’s actually an embroidered floral bedspread. I leave it up to the viewer’s imagination whether this is in sleep or death.”
Another painting, Woman, Oh Woman, My Friend, My Sister, depicts a scene of intimacy: two Nyonyas enjoying an afternoon tea of kuih-muih are also close friends sharing secrets and confidence. Mundane slices of life like this are what interest Lee Goh the most as an artist.
Dedication to accuracy, even if only as sources of inspiration, led Lee Goh to travel all over the world. For her landscape of red poppies, Wait for Me There, she had to visit Turkey twice to look for the perfect field of poppies.
“Imagine a sea of red petals from one end to the other,” she enthuses. “The poppy is a humble flower: short, with a thin stem, it moves violently when the wind blows. Yet its strength is in its vibrant colour.”
She adds, “Did you know, in remembrance of the war dead during World War I, we celebrate Poppy Day on November 11 every year? The poor soldiers fell among the poppies in Flanders Fields. So, for me, this painting stirs up memories of first encounters, lost bittersweet love and second chances.”
Lee Goh has more contemporary works too, including a robust, almost violent abstract titled Are You My Red Moon?... Are You? She explains, “I just wanted to do an abstract after all the still life and landscapes. For me, the red moon in the painting is the symbol of somebody who will stick with you through thick and thin. My late father who passed away 25 years ago was my ‘red moon’ but these days I have ‘orange moons’, friends who care for me.”
After the work is done, Lee Goh considers it essential for all artists to review their work and be their own harshest critic. “Even the naming is a conundrum to solve. I’ll ask myself what does this piece mean to me, how does it make me feel, in order to get an inspiration for the name. Otherwise, I might have to name it Abstract #1 or #2, and that’s a bloody waste of time.”
One of her latest pieces of art is a triptych she did last year titled Trilogy of Questions. She says, “It came about because of our present situation. Something exploded in me and I had to get involved. I think we are drowning in questions with no answers to what’s going on in our society now.”
These days, the meticulous artist only paints one to two pieces a year. She is always looking for fresh inspiration. She shares, “I have two Chinese antique frames made from rosewood at home. They’re each no smaller than four feet in length. The question is: What do I fill them up with?”
Whatever Lee Goh paints next, her passion for her work ensures her considered, contemplative paintings will endure. “My work is me, all my feelings and emotions. I’m in every single one of them.”
Sylvia Lee Goh — Then and Now: The Enduring Heart
Gallery 2B, The National Visual Arts Gallery, 2 Jalan Temerloh, off Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur
Exhibition open daily from 10am-6pm until September 29, 2015