Cheong Kiet Cheng paints a world where humans and nature live in harmony

Cheong Kiet Cheng’s Somewhere Only We Know hangs on the wall, grand and imposing. The three-panelled acrylic painting takes up an entire wall at Brickfields’ Wei-Ling Gallery, with its surrealistic themes of a utopian wonderland.

The magnificent artwork, one of the eight displayed at the Kuala Lumpur gallery now for Cheong’s Sing To The Land Of My Heart solo exhibition, is an interesting exploration of a harmonious world where humans, animals and well, Mother Nature, coexist in a happy and peaceful symbiosis.

The Kuala Lumpur-based artist’s imagined Eden depicts a tranquil paradise bursting with lush trees and familiar wild animals, the humans clad in what looks like dried leaves. It is a natural habitat untouched by modernity, pure and virginal.

“I love nature. I usually go for nature hikes or mountain climbing. I’ve been to Bali, Lombong and even Mount Kinabalu. I am inspired by the beauty of the natural world and with this inspiration, I converted the reality into a world of my imagination,” says Cheong in a recent interview at the gallery.

However, the sense of familiarity with the painting only lasts for a moment.

Cheong shocks the viewer with a very big human head, with its mouth wide open, joined to a tree bark. The head strangely bears a striking resemblance to Cheong. This she says represents the Mother Goddess archetype.

Somewhere Only We Know (2014).

The fantastical doesn’t stop there. Pay close attention to the painting and what you may have assumed to be tiny squirrels climbing the gnarly tree roots are in fact miniscule humans who are also part of this paradise. A couple of them are seen taking flight atop two birds while another is seen playfully sliding off the back of a crocodile.

“They are the villagers of this paradise,” adds Cheong.

The Dasein Art Academy’s fine art diploma graduate shared that growing up in a small Chinese town in Ampang, she was surrounded by trees and rivers. But the green landscape there slowly disappeared with development projects.

Picking through the store of her childhood memories, Cheong conjured romanticised versions of our world, where she says divisive politics and the effects of modernisation (like congested roads and pollution) will not be found.

This is not the 34-year-old’s first stint at Wei-Ling Gallery. In 2012, Cheong was part of a group exhibition called Precious Little Pieces there. She made another group exhibition appearance at the Measuring Love show held at the gallery’s other space in The Gardens Mall in Kuala Lumpur in 2013.

Cheong’s first solo exhibition, called Jojo In The Wonderland, was at White Box, Publika in Kuala Lumpur in 2013. She shared the space with her Penangite husband Hoo Kiew Hang, also a contemporary artist, for a double bill exhibition. His was called Paradise Of Gods, a pop art installation series.

We Have No Happy and Sad (2013) depicts two contrasting scenarios in regards to our relationship with the natural world. On one hand, we appreciate them while on the other, we end up eating them. The artist used almost near extinct animals like the orang utan and tiger to fortify her point.

If anything, Cheong’s Sing To The Land Of My Heart show is a forest coloured in vibrant hues. She understands the value of a signature look.

A stunning piece in this new exhibition, named Breathing Of Particle, looks like something out of a Guillermo del Toro movie. Cheong used a darker palette for this painting but it is this conscious choice of colours that truly brings out the magic and primitive allure of this piece.

The central figure is a young lady, who also looks like Cheong. She seems to be bathed in an ethereal light. In the background is a forest and in the distance, a rocky mountain and a full moon crowning its crest. Animals like foxes, squirrels, a small zebra and some strange looking creatures drape this woman’s body gracefully to form a wild and fashionably primitive gown.

“We are all part of the animal kingdom, we are also creatures of this world. I wanted to show that in this painting, that we are all united. That is why the animals form this woman’s dress,” the expectant mother points out.

Movies like Avatar and Japanese anime classic Princess Mononoke also influenced Cheong’s works. Besides Somewhere Only We Know, Fly With Wolf is the only other painting from 2014. The other six paintings are from her 2011 and 2013 collections. Fly With Wolf is an elegant new painting that shows a girl in a shy pink dress, sitting demurely on a wolf, on top of a mountain. Her pale skin, almost monochromatic, is contrasted with her blushing cheeks, her hair swept by the wind.

In this version of paradise, the wolf and the girl are gigantic figures. And flying around them are frogs, an octopus, tiny people and even a whale. The painting forces the viewer to think about a world where every inhabitant, humans and animals, live harmoniously. This work hangs on the wall as a hopeful dream.

Sing To The Land Of My Heart, as an exhibition, also brings considerations that interrupt our enjoyment of Cheong’s new works. As you walk through the gallery, you have to pause and interrogate such apparently simple beauty. Between the surreal and whimsical, you have to find your own conclusions behind the meanings of these paintings.

Indeed, the artist hopes that her paintings will not only stir the audience to love and appreciate the natural world, but also think about the peace and harmony that is possible, if only we could return, in our heart of hearts, to the purity and innocence of paradise.

Sing To The Land Of My Heart is on until Feb 28 at Wei-Ling Gallery, Jalan Scott, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. Free admission. Open on Mondays (10am to 6pm), Tuesdays to Fridays (11am to 7pm) and Saturdays (10am to 5pm). For more information, visit www.weiling-gallery.com.