Renee Kraal is a deep thinker.

So profound that she herself struggles to understand her thoughts. When she finally does, the aha! moment strikes.

“Just when I think I’ve got it, it’s aha but later, it realise I haven’t really gotten it and the search goes on. The work is never complete. It’s frustrating and evokes a lot of fear, anger and hatred,” says the soft-spoken Kraal.

It’s these multiple thoughts and layers of frustrations that she pours out on canvas.

In her second solo exhibition, A-Ha Moments, currently taking place at Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Gallery in KL, Kraal presents artworks spanning nearly 40 years done in a variety of styles and mediums. There are over 60 works exhibited.

The pioneer Malaysian woman painter is the link to the nascent movement and consciousness of Malaysian modernity in art.

As an artist, the KL-born-and-bred Kraal has remained low profile though her drawings, paintings and batik, have been exhibited in Germany and Australia as well as in Malaysia. In 2005, she was featured as one of three women artists in an exhibition at NN Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.

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Kraal’s Dancer II (oil on canvas, 2015), one of her works from recent years.

Kraal, 73, was one of the pioneer members of the Wednesday Art Group (1952-1967) founded by Peter Harris, who was the Art Superintendent of the Federation on Malaya. Far from being a hotbed of beatnik idealism, the group held harmless weekly gatherings and instead of offering an outlet for self-advancement, it was a meeting of minds, with some life classes thrown in. The group is brought up whenever mention is made of the nation’s defining moments in cultural development.

A “completely overwhelmed” Kraal was only 15 then when her mother, an art teacher, enrolled her in the group.

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A gallery assistant getting a closer look at Kraal’s works at her art exhibition A-Ha Moments in KL. Photo: The Star/Shaari Chemat

“I watched them draw and looked at what they were doing. I became a copycat but with ears wide open from Harris’ instructions. I was too young to consider art as an avenue for expression,” recalls Kraal, who is of mixed parentage of Chinese, Indian and Dutch.

She was part of the group until she headed to England to pursue further studies.

“We were not rich and there was enough money for only a year of secretarial course. I also took night classes (strangely, it was also on Wednesdays) for life drawings where I was exposed to nude human figures. I could barely deal with the female body and I tried to divert my eyes but some male models were naughty. In knowing I was ‘raw’, they challenged me with their eyes!” she says, chuckling at the memory.

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‘There’s a purpose for what happens in one’s life. It took me a long time to discover that. I’m a slow learner’ says Kraal. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

Kraal stayed in London for seven years before she came home because her father missed her too much and would write regular letters to persuade her to return. She secured a job with UNDP but got bored soon after from the lack of challenge.

“Gathering enough courage, I decided to follow my passion and gave up my job to become a fulltime artist. How, I didn’t know.” Looking back it was a foolish decision but I did it. I was hoping my art would have a positive effect on others. Sometimes, we just need one person to do something to give permission for the next person.”

Human abstract

For six months, Kraal toiled and produced enough works for an exhibition.

“The creativity just flowed.”

She went knocking on gallery doors in search of opportunities but everyone said “no, thank you”, because her drawings were all naked figures. The only one that agreed was Sum Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. The art community raised their eyebrows and took note of the young, blossoming painter.

“I love the human body!” says Kraal unabashedly. “Journalists called me ‘the erotic painter’ but I painted nakedness, not nudity or eroticism. They are two different things. I got stuck in the minds of people and managed to sell some paintings. The ones that didn’t sell, I gave away.

“I don’t allow my left brain to operate because I wanted to explore the right – the intuitive. Eventually I tapped into the subconscious and that’s endless. Painting took a back seat when my need for spiritual development surfaced. I concentrated on working on myself and finding out as much as I could on spiritual healing.

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Man As A Partner Of Nature (batik, 1987).

“I rediscovered the wisdom of ancient beliefs and faiths, and was overcome by ecstasy that the seven Sacred Truths were embedded in the Seven Chakras, the Seven Sacraments and the Judaic Tree of Life. This led to more aha moments when I realised that these truths are lodged in our bodies and intrinsic in us.”

Looking at her works, it’s clear that they are symbolic, expressionistic, surrealistic, impressionistic, and more. Kraal journeys freely within the terrains of the subconscious. The works do not convey the artist’s message as much as the message conveys the artist.

For example, there is a batik painting of a figure being stabbed by three knives called Fear, Anger And Hate.

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Friends On Paper II (ink on paper, 1986).

Kraal explains, “It was my statement for a good friend who was back-stabbed by three friends. I absorbed her pain and needed to expel it. Some may call me feminist or anti-men but I was trying to change the disparity between males and females. I didn’t like how women were being treated.

“I can’t change everything or heal everyone but maybe I can give people the tools to change things. There’s a purpose for what happens in one’s life. It took me a long time to discover that. I’m a slow learner!”

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Insanity (oil on hardboard, 1982).

Beyond the comfortable

On the subject of this show, Ramli offers, “Renee does not paint pretty pictures. She is a denizen of the cracks and crevices between dialectical consciousness and wholeness, a wrath that moves through the brick walls of her mind to wrestle out conflicting emotions, visions and pathos, a ghost that confronts the angels and demons in her head and drags them out to be placed squarely on her canvas for all to see and wonder.”

Although she is confined to a wheelchair from a fractured leg and no longer paints, it is not difficult to imagine Kraal being deeply immersed in her works.

“My unconscious (self) was painting images which I was not even aware of, and now, years later, I have become conscious. I’ve done what I came to do and my need and desire to paint is over. However, I think about drawing and painting 24/7. It doesn’t stop. But, that’s it, my contract is over. I don’t have to beat myself up for not painting. I’ve found acceptance and that is a liberating feeling,” she concludes pensively.


A-Ha Moments is on at the Sutra Gallery, 12 Jalan Persiaran Titiwangsa 3, KL till July 8. Call: 03-4021 1092. Visit: sutrafoundation.org.my.