They say a picture is worth a thousand words. A single image, after all, if properly used, can create a thousand feelings or sensations more effectively than any written description could.
The works of local artist Liew Kwai Fei, however, show us that the saying’s reverse may also be true: sometimes, a word can evoke a host of images, ideas and concepts as well. Just take a look at his latest exhibition, Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah?, which is showing now at Richard Koh Fine Art gallery in Kuala Lumpur this month.
Most of his paintings there feature words and phrases from various languages, which Liew uses to explore current issues in an offbeat, often highly satirical manner.
“It’s not like I love to play with words. Blame it on broken language. My English is quite broken, I don’t my Malay speak very well, and my Chinese also can be better. So I use this background for my work,” says the artist candidly in a recent interview at the gallery.
Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah? comprises 20 paintings, many of them humorous and critical, thought-provoking and striking, all at once. Liew’s works are all brightly coloured, with a larger-than-life, almost cartoonish style to them, and explore various forms of ideology and symbolism with appropriation, derision and wit. Many of them are even interactive, with flaps or detachable components, allowing viewers to engage with his artwork.
Liew, 37, is a well-exhibited artist, who was trained at the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), with a diploma in Chinese ink painting. He has contributed works to many local exhibitions and participated in various residencies in Malaysia, Pakistan, India and Australia.
Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah? is the Kuantan-born artist’s seventh solo exhibition (his first, The Rhythm Of Doing, was shown at KL’s Valentine Willie Fine Art in 2008). If you can recall, Liew did feature at the group exhibition I Am Ten at Richard Koh Fine Art last year, while his contributions to the Pulau Melayu – Lost and Found group show at Lostgens’ in 2014 proved rather popular to collectors and art rebels.
His works, which include paintings, drawings, multimedia pieces and sculptures, often explore the construction of meaning through cultural symbols and mono or multilingual textual references, and are instantly recognisable due to Liew’s signature DIY aesthetic.
The Kajang, Selangor-based artist is also part of the independent art collective called Run Amok in Penang.
This KL exhibition’s quirky title comes from Liew’s years in secondary school, where he had a Malay teacher who had a quirky sense of humour. According to the artist, this teacher had turned tong sampah (the Malay word for dustbin) into a Chinese name, and used it on his students.
“It was fun but as the years passed, I realised it was actually quite rude and racist, too. It made fun of Chinese names,” recalls Liew.
The artist’s works in Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah? are heavily layered and loaded. You can come away with several interpretations.
Wordplay is common: the minimalist slogan “Less Is More” is twisted into “Rest Is Mall” in Shopping Class, which is Liew’s take on contemporary mall culture. In Lady F, the artist explores sexism in society by making references to one of the rudest words in the English language. The Malay words for dog and pig are combined in the pointed piece I’ve Hungered For Your Touch, which deals with cultural taboos.
“I’m inspired by a lot of things … our surroundings, the people around me, current affairs, the things reported in newspapers,” says Liew.
There are allusions and metaphors abound as you investigate Liew’s art. Pop culture references are also not forgotten.
Seni x Batang, for example, is drawn in a style paying homage to classic Dragonball comics, while Kisah Misteri Di Jalan Bukit Lima Bintang Episod 505: SOS Dari Lubang Ke Lubang is Liew’s reaction to the huge sinkhole that appeared along Jalan Bukit Bintang in KL last year.
The most riveting piece of work in his show, however, is probably the work Lu Siapa Mana Kampung Mana Mau Pergi, which is suspended from the ceiling in a cradle-like manner. This, Liew said, is to replicate “the scaffolding and support pillars in construction works”.
“This work was inspired by the MRT construction projects in Kajang. The French words on the side are the name of the painting, which is borrowed from the French artist Paul Gauguin,” explains Liew.
However, does Liew see his works as being political?
“Making art is politics. Your life is surrounded by politics. It’s not just about being a politician. Every choice you make is sort of a political gesture.”
For certain, Liew wants visitors to look at his works, and perhaps, be able to laugh and understand them in the process.
“The paintings are like jokes. I hope they can enjoy them, first of all. Some of the issues in them are very serious, but they are done here in a humorous manner,” says Liew.
“A sense of humour is very important, especially when we live in a world like this. It’s not about being cynical, or laughing at everything. But when people laugh at something, they can also think about it, and see how it affects their lives,” he maintains.
Siapa Dia Tong Sam Pah? is showing at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur till March 31.