They say that home is where the heart is. But what happens when a person’s “home” changes? What happens when a person leaves the place he or she is born, to seek greener pastures abroad?

Are they still connected to the country they left behind, whether out of love or obligation? And why should a place where someone is born, something determined by fate, play such a major role in one’s life?

KL-based artist Phuan Thai Meng’s latest solo exhibition, Hey Malaysian, Something You [ ] Leave Behind, explores these questions, with exhibits centred around issues such as belonging, identity, social responsibility and migration.

“The project started from my thoughts on shifting, on moving from one place to another. It was just like my family, who now live all over in different towns, different countries, only meeting during Chinese New Year. I was wondering, why do people move?” says Phuan, 43, during an interview at the Our ArtProjects gallery in Kuala Lumpur, where his exhibition is taking place.

Phuan, who was born in Batu Pahat, Johor, lectures at the Malaysian Institute of Art. His previous solo exhibitions include Mapping Homeland: We Are Proud Of You (2011), The WE Project (2010) and Made In Malaysia (2009).

Phuan Thai Meng

Two of the pieces from Hey Malaysian, Something You [ ] Leave Behind: The Peoples Voices on the wall and part of Reclaimed Land exhibit on the floor. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

In Hey Malaysian, Phuan presents a series of hyperrealistic paintings and installations, all tinged with biting social commentary and a sly sense of humour. His exhibits play fast and loose with form, using popular items such as postcards and newspapers to accentuate the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of national identity.

His I See (C) Project, for example, uses the unmistakable image of the Malaysian identity card. At first glance, exhibition visitors might mistake them as the real thing. But look closely and there are subtle differences. For instance, Phuan’s ICs include the holder’s past, present and future places of residence, together with a map of a place created from a composite of all these places.

In creating his artwork, Phuan engaged in a series of interviews with his family, as well as various other people, to hear their thoughts on home and leaving. His piece is also interactive. Each IC containes a QR code which, when scanned, takes the user to a video or text.

Phuan Thai Meng

‘The project started from my thoughts on shifting, on moving from one place to another,’ said artist Phuan Thai Meng. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

“Normally, we always hear the thoughts of scholars, or politicians, on issues. But what about normal people? How do they feel about their homelands, after they shift? Some people dream about going overseas when they retire. I wanted to know why,” says Phuan.

Visitors will also notice little plants growing from small clumps of earth scattered all over the gallery. No, these are not decorative exhibits. Instead they are part of Phuan’s installation series called Re-claimed Land. Examine the shape of the soil which the plants are growing on, and you will see they correspond to the maps on the I See (C) Project. The plants are perhaps a metaphor for migration and diaspora.

Phuan Thai Meng

Part of ‘Reclaimed Land’ (2017)

“I like the meaning of using a plant. If their leaves are dropped anywhere, they can grow,” says Phuan with a smile.

Not everything in this show, however, is bleak. One of the most striking works is a large mock-up of a postcard, with a poignant message on it.

“You may be only one person. But you can do something for your country, or your hometown, or your family. Even just by telling your story. Start from yourself. You don’t need to do something big, just start with something small,” he sums up.


Hey Malaysian, Something You [ ] Leave Behind is showing at Our ArtProjects, Zhongshan building, 80, Jalan Rotan, off Jalan Kampung Attap in Kuala Lumpur till Sept 16. Admission is free. The gallery is open on Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11am to 6pm and on Sundays by appointment. For more information, visit www.ourartprojects.com or email contact@ourartprojects.com.