The art of Winnie Cheng may resemble something that is ready to jump out of a fantasy book.
Women with fruits or flowers for heads, or cages where their bodies are, lurk within her artworks. All trapped behind gilded cages or stuck in strange circumstances.
It’s all rather whimsical. But the themes behind Cheng’s work are anything but trivial. Her illustrations convey stark truths about gender, identity, and society.
Her first solo exhibition, Mirror Mirror, is named after the famous words of the Evil Queen to her magic mirror in the fairytale Snow White. Quite appropriately, the show carries reflective themes, particularly on a woman’s place in society.
“A lot of the works involve inward reflection. In fact, when I created this series, I essentially stayed away from people for almost three months. I feel I work best that way! I’m highly introverted, so it helps my process a lot,” says Cheng, 36, who uses the alter ego ERYN.
“A lot of these works are reflections of what I read sometimes in the paper, with more focus on gender stereotypes and issues. My works are also very narrative driven and fantasy-based. My characters also go through a lot of reflection.”
Mirror Mirror is the 18th instalment of G13’s Project Room, a series established in 2016 as a platform to highlight new faces.
Cheng, who is now based in Penang, is no stranger to fine art, despite having a relatively late start to painting.
Born in Sungai Petani, Kedah, the artist moved a lot as a child, living in Muar, Johor for a while before moving to Brunei, where she lived for about 20 years.
Cheng, an arts graduate from the University of Toronto, Canada, started out with a graphic designing job for four years.
The job, however, didn’t feel fulfilling to her. Later, she took up a masters in fine art from the Universiti of Brunei Darussalam in 2013 before becoming a full-time artist.
She has since participated in several local art residencies such as Sembilan Art Residency Program (2015), Rimbun Dahan Art Residency Program (2016) and the Khazanah Nasional Associate Artist Residency Programme (KAAR) at Acme Studios, London, in 2018.
Cheng’s works take inspiration from classic tales such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Many of them feature detailed images and recurring elements. Bird cages, for example, appear heavily, as well as snakes, which represent danger and warning.
The artist’s trademark are her paper collages done in cut-out style, a process which Cheng describes as a very time-consuming one.
Each of her pieces tells a story of its own: The Dragon’s Servant involves a strange creature with the torso of a woman on each of its ends, against a background of coiled snakes.
“She is immobilised, she doesn’t have legs, only hands. She can only go back and forth. But inside her are all the pieces of a whole person, they’re golden. That’s the person that can take flight, if she can only fit the puzzle together,” says Cheng.
“A lot of women are uncompensated, or taken for granted. She has a big bowl, and tries to catch rice scraps and fish bones, but loses them just as easily on the other side of the picture. It alludes to the fate of young single young mothers, whatever she gets mostly goes away to the household.”
Works like Gateway and She Shed Her Skin And Took Flight speak of confinement and escape, while the twin works Echoes Of The Past and Visions Of The Future provide conversation on how women are sometimes weighed down by tradition or stereotypical gender roles.
Choices features a woman with two faces, acne on her face, carrying lipstick and a razor.
“There is a lot of pressure on women to change how they look like. Even now, men too, but historically, it’s something always addressed to women. She has two arms, and two faces. Which is the self that’s put out, and which is the side that’s put to hide?” she asks.
The artist maintains that the heartbeat of this exhibition is about inspiring hope.
“I hope they (the viewers) are filled with a renewed sense of hope. Yes, some of the artworks look a bit dark, but they are never hopeless. Maybe they can learn to look at their situations differently,” says Cheng.