If there is a description to sum up the irrepressible artist Anne Samat, it would probably be “dare to be different”.
She has, in many ways, an artistic career just as intricate and colourful as her works, the result of taking the roads less travelled in life. This defiantly bold attitude is illustrated through her art, which include installation works such as the Alpha And Omega, Tribal Chiefs and Huntsman series.
They already stand out at first glance: tall, elaborate wall sculptures with vibrantly-hued threads, woven with traditional styles and material such as pua kumbu (the Iban hand-woven textile from Sarawak) and songket (hand-woven Malay fabric). But take a closer look and you’ll notice familiar objects “hiding” within.
Garden rakes protrude from the back one work. Another sports car hubcaps, while some pieces feature pasta strainers, zippers and abandoned computer parts. One alien-looking item is revealed to be a bra holder.
These household items, usually ignored, somehow blend seamlessly into Anne’s works, transformed into “fibre textile” art.
“The mediums I use in my work are not typical materials like yarn. I still use them, but I mix them with unconventional materials like rattan sticks or metal. Whatever I can weave, I just put (the material) into my work,” says Anne, 46, with a laugh, during an interview at her home studio in Kuala Lumpur last month.
At the time, she was busy packing up for her three-month residency at the Hudson Valley MOCA, formerly known as Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, in New York. (She left for the United States in mid February.)
As chatty as ever, Anne was clearly excited about her busy year ahead. Her calendar, as she mentions, is rather booked out.
Apart from exhibiting at the Taipei Dangdai art fair at the start of the year, she was also part of the group show Art-Staged: No Booth in Singapore in January, where she presented her latest Ulek Mayang series. Through the recent works, based on the mythology of the Ulek Mayang dance, Anne re-examined the dance and its undertones of morality in today’s context.
Anne also has works at the ongoing Stories We Scare Ourselves With group exhibit at Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei, while she is in the line-up for the much-anticipated Spectrosynthesis II- Exposure Of Tolerance: LGBTQ In South-East Asia exhibition in Bangkok in late November.
There will also be shows in Oslo (Norway), Singapore and New York.
“Three shows on three different continents! That’s scary but exciting,” says Anne, with her eyes shining bright.
For a dash of recognition, she also made it on CoBo’s “20 Asians artists to watch list” in 2019. CoBo is regarded as the first Asian community platform for art collectors, and Anne was ranked No.2 on the list.
“I never wanted to be just like the other weavers. I wanted to try something else,” she says.
Hers has been a career built from talent, determination and loads of sass. In 2017, her works were shown at the Yokohama Triennale in Japan and Volta 13, the long-running satellite fair for Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland.
Many of Anne’s works are designed to hang on walls. Ironically, the life of the artist herself is rather off the wall.
Anne is the sixth out of eight children in a Kuala Lumpur-based family. However, she was born in Melaka.
“The story goes: my uncle was getting married in Melaka that day, and my heavily pregnant mother decided to attend. She said, ‘Oh I can make it, I don’t think I’ll give birth yet’. So she went for the wedding. But during the kompang ceremony, my mother said, ‘I think this baby wants to join the party as well’,” says an animated Anne, who is of Chinese and Malay parentage.
“So after the kompang, they rushed my mother to the hospital, and I was born. So there you go!”
Anne grew up and went to school in KL. As an intelligent student, she was the first in her family to make it to university. Her siblings all encouraged her to go into the science stream, saying it was the best way to make a living. But the precocious Anne wanted to study art.
“Back then in the early 1990s, nobody saw making art as a viable career. So I went to my now late father, who I was very close to. And he told me, ‘Just follow my heart’,” she recalls.
She then went to the Mara Institute of Technology (now UiTM), where she took up a Bachelor’s Degree in Art and Design (textile design).
Anne was good at drawing. However, she realised that there were many people out there with fine art backgrounds. Why did she want to be another?
Once again, Anne decided to try the unexpected. She decided to major in weaving: a subject she had absolutely no idea about.
“I had no clue about weaving. I figured, well, this is the time for me to either sink or swim. Worst case scenario, it would give me experience,” she mentions with a laugh.
It took a while for Anne to get used to the loom, but over time, she learned all the skills and styles of weaving. Gradually, she realised she could incorporate unconventional materials into her weaving, something that has become her trademark style.
After graduating in 1997, Anne was very eager to further her studies overseas. Unfortunately, the country was hit by the Asian financial crisis at the time. Anne applied for sponsorship from many places, but was turned down many times.
“I had offers from foreign universities, but I couldn’t say yes. My father was just a security guard, and my mother a full-time housewife, we couldn’t afford it. So I was really sad, I went home and cried,” says Anne.
Despite being unable to further her studies, Anne still wanted to start out with art. She worked as a gallery assistant at Art Case Galleries, under the guidance of artist/owner Raja Azhar Idris. It was also then that Anne took part in the 1997 PNB/National Art Gallery’s Contemporary Young Artists competition. Her work The Alpha And Omega series won the first prize.
The prize put Anne in the spotlight. To her dismay, however, some people were dismissive of her work, saying her weaving was not “art”.
“It was so difficult for me to develop as an artist in KL. People know nothing about weaving. For them, weaving is for old women in the village. They would look at my work and say it’s ‘craft’ and it hurt,” says Anne.
“I was using weaving techniques, but bringing it up to the new level by adding new techniques, new materials, so it was something more akin to fine art, not just a craft textile. But you try telling people that.”
The artist decided to try her luck overseas, and moved to England in 2000. There, she had a few exhibitions, but fate had other plans for her.
Anne became an F1 grid girl. The F1 race and touring lifestyle, she mentions, was glamorous, with parties aplenty, and lots of travel across Europe to attend different races. It was an exciting life for almost eight years. However, one day, Anne had an epiphany.
“It was a great journey. But one morning, I remember waking up in a hotel in Europe. I was a bit confused, I wasn’t even sure where I was. Deep inside, I was thinking, this was not me. It was time for me to go back to my real passion, which is art,” says Anne.
Missing her family, Anne returned to Malaysia in 2013. She resettled and began working on art again. The following year, she joined a group show in KL. From there, she was invited to exhibit her work at the Saatchi Gallery in London.
“So it was back to London! The response there was incredible. What the people there loved was seeing a new form of art before their eyes. “They appreciated that this art form was tied to culture and the old-fashioned styles of weaving from Malaysia,” says Anne.
“That’s why I tell younger artists, you can go crazy, you can try whatever you want. “But you must have your fundamentals, the foundation of your work. And my foundation is Malaysian fabric and culture. You can bling it up, put steroids whatever you want, but the core must be there.”
Anne had her first Malaysian solo exhibition Sultanate In The Eye, Monarchy At The Heart at Richard Koh Fine Art in 2017. The KL gallery also brought Anne’s art to international art fairs. Her artistic career has accelerated from there.
What’s next for this hard-working artist? Anne reveals she plans to work in a more abstract style.
“My new series is still going to have the basic elements of weaving, but it will be more abstract. In my works now, you can sort of still see a body, wings, the head. But for my new works, I want to just pick up the simple basic elements of lines … you will only see lines, the movement of lines. More simplified. My works are a constant evolution, a journey from one series to another,” she concludes.