KUALA LUMPUR, June 29 — When Leon Leong visited Turkey back in 2011, he did not think he would end up holding a solo art exhibition (his first) four years later of paintings done in that country.
The exhibition features seven main pieces and seven studies depicting life in Turkey.
Leong fell in love with the country at first visit and made several trips back there; at one point, he lived in Istanbul for six months.
“The Turkish have the Asian inside them and European on the outside... so I’m playing with this idea,” said Leong.
The process begins with taking photographs, and then he would recreate the images into oil paintings; changing the colours, re-positioning certain objects, adding an item or giving it his own touch.
To Leong, painting Turkey was a way of discovering diversity and also learning about himself. He likens the diversity there to that found in Malaysia.
“Actually, Malaysia has a very diverse society and within this diversity, we can find a harmonious balance without having to change ourselves to fit into the mainstream. That is the part where I find Turkey interesting as you can be yourself and have this range of different cultures,” he said.
“Art and life is inseparable, I live for art. When I went to Istanbul, I fell in love with the place, I can’t explain it. It was also a stage of my life. When I was there I just felt this is a part of the world I have to see,” he explained.
When you see the paintings, maybe they will show you what he was thinking at the moment. His paintings make you ponder about things, get you curious about the scene he created and allow you to connect with the people in the painting.
“It is the process of finding ourselves, in a way. Finding myself. Seeing a new culture. Because when we look at something, it is the relationship between us and the person. The series is basically the people, the streets, whatever... all the things that I saw on the whole trip. I went back twice after the six-month stay. I used the photos as a base, then I augmented, altered or adjusted... but some I recreated exactly as it is,” said Leong.
“I want to alter reality but present it in a way that people can still relate to it rather than something too abstract. And with that, I tell my little story.”
The self-taught painter started to take painting seriously only in 2010. He had an open studio where people could come and view his work at his home. For his Turkey art project, there were two people who constantly gave him encouragement and support: his Turkish friend Banu Dichle who is a curator and art organiser and Australian Graeme Beavis.
“Art keeps me very alive, it keeps me curious and it is an enrichment process,” he said.
But why Optimistic Melancholics as the title of the exhibition? Leong says it was inspired by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk who won the Nobel for literature in 2006. Pamuk dedicated a chapter in his book Istanbul: Memories and the City to the melancholy of the Turkish.
“The thing about the Turkish is that they have a sense of melancholy, looking back, because the past is so glorious. If you go to the palace, it is like ‘Oh my God!’ and then the sad thing about it is that they are half gone or mostly gone. If you go to a house, they will tell you this house is 125 years old. The sad thing is half of it is gone and they still treasure it but you can’t really replace it. I think people don’t have the money or the means to fix it,” he said.
Leong’s personal favourite in the collection is Couple in Transition because it was the first painting that sparked off this whole thing. He also names two great painters as the inspiration for his work although their styles are so different: Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
What does Leong hope people will take away from his solo exhibition?
“To enjoy and also get a glimpse of what I enjoyed.” He feels that if people look at his paintings and realise that foreign cultures can inspire us to look at ourselves better, “then I would be very humbled. So, I think paintings enrich our lives and build more understanding.”
Optimistic Melancholics by Leon Leong
Richard Koh Fine Art, 2F-3, Level 2, Bangsar Village II, Kuala Lumpur
July 1 to 14, 2015