Step into the Duoa: Eternal Duties exhibition and you will be confronted by some pretty unusual sights. Stools sticking out of the wall, mesh bridges over red sand and a row of shaggy wigs made from coffee strainers, each named after a uniquely Malaysian coffee mix.
These are some of the latest works by artists Bibi Chew and Dr Sharmiza Abu Hassan, now on show at the Hom Art Trans gallery in Ampang, Selangor. The exhibition is a return of sorts for both artists, who briefly left the art exhibition scene to devote themselves to motherhood.
“We used to be quite active in the art scene. We participated in many exhibitions, and even won awards, but after 2000, we both got married and had families. We had other commitments, like our careers as lecturers,” says Sharmiza, 43, a mother of four.
“But Bayu (Utomo Radjikin, Hom Art Trans director) approached us and said, ‘Maybe it’s time to come back. It’s been 10 years. Why don’t you show us your current work?’” she adds.
It is fitting then, that both artists have contributed works centred on their roles as mothers and mentors, which they consider to be their eternal duties.
The exhibition’s title, Duoa, is a combination of the English word duo (defining a two-woman show) with the Malay words dua (representing two common sources of inspiration from two individuals) and doa (prayer, representing their hopes, thoughts and deeds).
“A lot of women are mothers, but to be a mentor, it’s a very different thing. And it’s a challenging role, because we’re not just mentoring our own kids, but others too,” says Kuala Lumpur-born Chew, 46, a mother of three.
Sharmiza, a senior lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Mara Shah Alam, is an established artist who has exhibited abroad, including in Germany, England, the Czech Republic and Australia. Alegori Ledang, held in Kuala Lumpur in 2004, was one of her most significant solo exhibitions, focussing on themes like history and myth.
Chew, on the other hand, is head of the Fine Art department at the Malaysian Institute of Art in Selangor. In 2005, she was selected to represent Malaysia at the 3rd Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale at Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan. Her major exhibitions include My Country – Contemporary Art Practices in South-East Asia held at the Louis K. Meisel Gallery in the United States last year.
Chew’s Fragile – Handle With Care installation (mixed media, 2000) is also a highlight at the ongoing Recent Acquisitions exhibition at Kuala Lumpur’s National Visual Arts Gallery.
Meeting both artists for the first time, one cannot help but be struck by the close rapport between them. Both women, after all, have been friends since the 1990s. Their personalities are slightly different – Sharmiza is reserved, while Chew is more conversational.
Yet the two have bonded through their role as mother, mentor and artist.
This similarity applies to their artwork – mostly mixed media material – as well. Both artists, if you look harder at this show, concern themselves with different issues.
Chew delves into subjects concerning race, gender and environment, ultimately exploring fundamental questions of identity and what makes us human.
Taiping-born Sharmiza, on the other hand, deals with Malay-Muslim female sensibilities, infusing her artwork with elements of her personal experiences, history and Malay folklore.
Need a common thread linking both artists? Well, one recurring image in Duoa: Eternal Duties is the brain. This can be seen in Sharmiza’s Country Of Mind, which is a large sculpture that doubles as a map of a country and a brain. Sharmiza says it is the biggest piece she had ever done, and it serves as a metaphor for the process of discovery.
“There are magnifying glasses scattered around the surface of the piece. They represent a person’s continuous search for something,” explains Sharmiza.
Chew’s Pigmentation series, featuring four scans of the human brain, taken at different stages of development – infancy, adolescence, young adulthood and maturity – is far more than a cuddly nod to raising a child.
She notes that while a person’s mentality can develop (represented by the shifting colours of the brain scan), his/her physical attributes will always remain
“As you mature, your brain is still forming. Things change, landscapes change, your mind changes but the skin tone of a person can never change,” says Chew.
Metaphors reflecting the human body dominate Sharmiza’s art. Some of the artist’s works feature human organs juxtaposed with man-made objects to provide insight on the human condition. Open Your Heart: Go To Your ‘Nur’, for example, features a seascape within the chambers of a heart, representing the Islamic concept of nur, or the search for enlightenment.
Sharmiza’s most striking work in Duoa: Eternal Duties, is Bridging, a large work featuring wire-mesh bridges suspended over a bed of soil. The work is inspired by the Malay folk story of Puteri Gunung Ledang. The seven conditions of the Malacca Sultan from the story are cut into the mesh bridges in Jawi script.
The work, she reveals, is inspired by her experiences adapting to her studies in Australia (she received her Fine Art doctorate from RMIT, Melbourne).
“Being a Muslim in a foreign country came with a lot of challenges. And I felt it was quite a journey for me to stay there with a family. But I wanted to go through it,” says Sharmiza.
“Imagine the red soil is the soil of Australia. I’m crossing over,” she explains of the “conditions” in Bridging.
Also standing out is Chew’s Itu Malaysia: O, Kosong, Cam, Kaw Kaw, Biasa, Kurang, a row of “wigs” made from coffee strainers.
According to Chew, each wig features a word stitched on each side: antonyms such as pahit (bitter) and manis (sweet), betul (right) and salah (wrong).
“It’s all about how people ‘filter’ things, which I found fascinating,” says Chew. “Each one has their own name and identity. It can be interpreted in many layers.”
The artist hopes that viewers who come to Duoa: Eternal Duties will be able to draw their own interpretations of the works exhibited there.
“I do have my own intentions in creating art, but I prefer the viewer to look at it, and figure it out for themselves. Sometimes, when you look at something, it relates to your own background, and your own experiences. I prefer things to be more open-ended,” says Chew, bringing this illuminating interview to a close.
Duoa: Eternal Duties is showing at Hom Art Trans, 6A Jalan Cempaka 16, Taman Cempaka, Ampang, Selangor till Oct 3. Bibi Chew and Dr Sharmiza Abu Hassan will be at Hom for an exhibition walk-through on Sept 28, from 2pm-5pm. Admission is free. For more information, call 03-9286 7004, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or browse: www.homarttrans.com.