At first glance, the paintings hanging now at the Richard Koh Fine Art gallery in KL have a hush about them.
They’re focused on spaces, from the contemporary façade of the simply titled Water Building, to the two pieces focusing on different views of St Mary’s Church, its stained glass turned into fractal jewels – all in Libreville, Gabon.
But spend a little time with the 17 acrylic works that make up Melissa Lin’s First Light exhibition, and you’ll realise that there is life, movement and meaning in the meditative stillness – in the spaces between things, as much as the things themselves – which whisper connections into being.
“I feel like Gabon has gifted a certain boldness and vividness, an appreciation for what animates life, and the vitality that pulses through everything,” explains Lin at the gallery.
First Light was born of the two years that KL-based Lin lived in the country on the west coast of Central Africa. Its name is homage to a moment of clarity she experienced in a moment by a river.
“It was a moment in which I felt like I had opened my eyes to the world for the first time. Places change you, just as you change them.”
Artist and astrologer Lin, 36, has spent her life searching for connection and meaning, using art to forge a bond. As stars wheeled overhead, she crossed the globe – Egypt and France and Tunisia – and crissed back again.
Then she heard rainforest-scented stories of Gabon, a small country on the west coast of Central Africa, and the seeds of a journey, geographical and spiritual, were planted.
Gabon has been called “the last Eden” in the world, because of its lush and ancient rainforest; it’s also referred to as the African continent’s version of Tibet, said Lin, for its medicinal and visionary ceremonies, which are deeply connected to the natural world.
It naturally called to a woman who had always been interested in shamanic practices, particularly in their connection to the healing powers of plants.
“In this age of capitalism, technology and greed, I think we are cut off from the world, to our own peril,” she mentions. “You need to honour that part of you that remembers it is in a relationship with the earth, the sun, the moon, the people around you.”
So in 2015, Lin took a leap, and moved to Libreville, Gabon’s capital. Her journey coincided with her exploration of new directions in her work, which included working with watercolours instead of acrylic paint – just as she immersed herself in local practices, which saw a spiritual rebirth.
“I started going outside in Libreville to draw as a means of connecting with, and deepening my experience of, this new city that I found myself in,” she explains. “It was so alive, noisy, sensual, overwhelming!”
In this vibrant land, she had conversations with strangers and found out more about their lives, daily rituals and spaces.
A growing collection of small sculptures and watercolours drew on these experiences, many focusing on the spaces she found herself in, or sought out. When it was time to return home to Malaysia, Lin’s watercolours found themselves translated into large acrylic pieces, for this first exhibition to grow out of her Gabon experience.
Lin’s relationship with art has always been an integral part of her life.
“Art is multivalent, and for me has taken on many different dimensions,” she explains. “It has been a therapeutic tool, a means of exploration and learning, expression and cultivation.
“It has brought intimacy and an incredible happiness that people describe as ‘being in the flow’ – and it has also been at times very challenging and even frustrating, but you get the whole bag!
“Ten years ago, my work was very much about my internal spaces, these new pieces were conversations with my environment, making sense of where I found myself,” she adds.
Whereas before she was feeling into a void from which life, ideas and experiences emerged, her works in First Light are observational. “They were a way for me to engage with the physical, tangible places that I was at, and it was very new and rewarding.”
There’s a sense of worlds-within-worlds in many of her pieces, of an intersection of various stories, particularly in the works in which she moves indoors, such as A Living Room, which depicts the living room at the Ebando Cultural NGO and Ceremonial Center, a room of which became her studio for several months, and Rocks And Roles, which crystallises the living room of her own home.
In these, it feels like the people who live there have merely stepped out of the frame for a moment.
In the former, a photo of the centre’s founder Tatayo and his son adds an element of untold stories, and a painting by visionary artist Olga Ditengou Toumilovitch is propped on the table nearby; in the latter, colourful textured stones lie on a coffee table, picked up by Lin on one of her walks in the Akanda National Park.
This slice-of-life, experiential approach is hallmarked by a decided lack of exoticism.
“I’m very aware of the need to respect boundaries, of what belongs to indigenous cultures especially,” says Lin. “I don’t want to plunder this remarkable energy, vitality and aesthetic confidence that you find there – it’s an honour just to be able to participate in it.”
“For me, it was about listening, and following the cues of the people and places I went to, learning about what was appropriate and what is not.
“I am grateful for those who took me by the hand, invited me into their space, to sit and eat with them, and pulled me to join them, in singing, ceremony, dancing and communing.”
Moving forward in her exploration, Lin sees her growth as an artist as a non-linear process – more a spiral than a straight line. “My hope is that it keeps deepening and spiralling out into brighter and more interesting places.”