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Who’s your daddy? Chuah Thean Teng@BSLN

Posted by on Saturday, 14 March, 2009 at 2:59 PM. Filed under: Reviews

Chuah Thean Teng: An Appreciation
Balai Seni Lukis Negara
extended until 31 March 2009

Chuah Thean Teng passed away on 25 November 2008, just months before the opening of his retrospective at Balai. This makes the viewing of his works especially poignant, above and beyond the sense of nostalgia that runs throughout the show. I felt I was looking at a Malaysia I had never known: I can’t recognize myself in his scenes of pastoral kampung life, and the people he lovingly depicted at work, rest or play are strangers to me.

Breast Feeding, 2001, Batik, 91.5cm x 61cm, Collection of Yahong Gallery


Teng’s Malaysia is a storybook Malaysia. The story is of a land at the birth of nationhood. People work the land, living in harmony with its rythyms and with each other. Everywhere there is joy, optimism and a sense of shared purpose. I believe Teng held on to this vision till the day he died – works as recent as 2001 (“Breast Feeding”) and 2006 (“The Cat Like Fish”) show no signs of either diminshed idealism or growing cynicism.

For this reason, his works have the sort of timelessness that belongs very much to the period of modernity and nation-building. In their curatorial essay, Tan Sei Hon and Lim Ai Woei say as much: ‘with his passing, we witness the closing of an era’. They don’t define specifically what that era is, but I gather it was one when a chinaman born in a village in Fujian could come over to Malaysia (then Malaya) and find the full flowering of his artistic expression in the most traditional of Malay crafts. He could depict Malay women baring their breast to nurse a child. He could be a national painter, commissioned to create murals for public buildings. Is it any wonder that I see little trace of today’s Malaysia in his work? Where is the Malaysia that accused Yasmin Ahmad of ‘mencemarkan budaya Melayu’ because she made a film about a Chinese boy and a Malay gadis falling in love? Where is the Malaysia that banned a book on breast-feeding? How about the Malaysia of equal opportunity, but more equal for others some of the time and not for all most of the time?

Di Bawah Pohon Palma, 1965, 90cm x 66cm, Collection of the National Art Gallery (BSLN 1965.069)


We Malaysians have a particular penchant for playing ‘who’s your daddy?’. Tun Abdul Razak – Father of Development. Abdullah Arif – Father of Modern Malaysian Art. And the biggest daddy of them all, the Tunku – Father of Malaysia. Teng was known as… what else? ‘Father of Malaysian Batik’. Chuah Thean Teng was a pioneer and innovator. He was a truly outstanding artist whose sense of composition and color, as well as grasp of batik technique, gave us some of the most enjoyable and distinctive works in Malaysian art. That has no bearing on the fact that it’s time we unpacked this patriarchal nonsense of always needing a father, a godhead, a source. Perhaps that’s the greatest difference between Teng’s generation and ours: fathers are defined most of all by a sense of duty. And us, their children, expect to be led by their dreams and visions. The burden falls both ways.

Teng’s vision of Malaysia has not come to pass. But it was the act of dreaming itself that left us such an incredible body of work – rich, accomplished, and utterly unique. Generations to come should not bear the responsibility of fulfilling the hopes of our fathers. Instead, what we need to hold on to is their ability – their freedom – not only to dream, but to make possible. This is what Teng has left us: not a vision of Malaysia that never happened, but of one that could have.

And with that in mind, I urge you to catch Chuah Thean Teng: An Appreciation at Balai before it ends. The show has been extended to 31 March. An excellent publication accompanies the exhibition, as well as a fairly good, if rather shallow, documentary video. I was told that not all of his best works are represented, but there are some outstanding ones just the same. The highlight of the exhibition is the gigantic mural ‘Malaysian Agriculture’, on loan from Universiti Malaya.

To learn more about Chuah Thean Teng, visit Yahong (meaning ‘coconut wind’) Gallery in Penang www.yahongart.com

More images of the show at Balai’s blog (they have a blog!)


Left: Malayan Culture, c.1957, Poster colour on paper, 72cm x 82cm, Collection of Yahong Gallery
Right: Malayan Culture, c.1957, Poster colour on paper 72cm x 82cm, Collection of Yahong Gallery
(Note: these were mural designs commissioned for parliament building, but never realized)



Malayan Agriculture, 1960, Mural, 270cm x 600cm, Collection of University of Malaya



Welcome, 1967, Batik, 91.5cm x 61cm, collection of Yahong Gallery


All images from Teng: An Appreciation exhibition catalogue, published by Balai Seni Lukis Negara


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  1. Simon says
    14/03/2009 4:16 PM

    A little anecdote from Sei Hon, the curator of the show, on Teng’s ‘Welcome’, 1967.

    “Anyways, the work ‘welcome’ is a rude gesture, kinda like giving a middle finger.

    The story was told to us by Siew teng, Chuah Thean Teng’s eldest son. His dad told him about the story of Nixon paying a formal visit to Malaysia during the 60s. Tunku (Malaysia’s first Prime Minister) was there to greet him and they were in this motorcade greeted by both well wishers and also protestors against America’s involvement in Vietnam. The protestors were making those gestures at him la.. so Nixon asked Tunku what does it mean??? And Tunku didn’t want to embarass his guest, told him that it was a local gesture for welcome. So Nixon stood up and returned the same gesture to the crowd lo..”

  2. Eva says
    16/03/2009 2:03 PM

    Hi guys,

    Glad that you wrote on this show. I went to see it at the weekend. I am a fan of Teng’s work which I think is very important both stylistically and socially. However, what frustrated me was the organisation of the exhibition itself. There was a lot of work that just did not need to be included especially the newer pieces which I felt over crowded and detracted from the really powerful earlier images. Too many quotes saying the same thing and material that was not adequately captioned made for a frustrating visit. Framing and sensitive curation is so important and so much more could have been said both in terms of the political/historical/art historical concepts of the ‘then’ and also quite a powerful commentary could have been inserted about the ‘now’. I think its great that Balai are doing solo retrospectives of senior Malaysian artists, and it was a glowing and much deserved tribute but so much more could have been done!

  3. Sharon says
    18/03/2009 12:07 PM

    I agree with all your views, Eva. What was there was good. Alot more could have and should have been done.

    However, I also know the sort of bureaucratic ridiculousness and lack of human resources that surrounds any show at Balai. I don’t want to be in the habit of making excuses for why something couldn’t have been better, but the reality of the institution is that it is crumbling.

    It seems that in order to move forward, they need to continue doing what they are doing to the best of their abilities. It is then up to the wider art community to fill in the critical gaps.

    I thought the publication was very good. It was a good move to reproduce several texts (in English, Malay and Chinese) from his iconic 1968 show.

  4. Daniel says
    19/03/2009 11:54 PM

    I wish the Balai exhibition had the same title as yours Sharon ;)

    Been to busy for exhibitions but here’s what I remember about the several pieces of CCT’s I’ve seen:

    – he loves big boobies

    – its understandable how Western artists like to exoticize Asia but its funny seeing him and some of the pioneer modern Chinese artist exoticized Malaya and Bali life. I’m not sure if they were trying to score points with the locals or is it some form of idealization of the “natives”. Totally opposite in spirit to the social realist chinese painters of the Emergency period

    – if you had no idea about the nature of traditional batik painting, you might mistake the crackled and crinkled effects on the skin as the broken surface of a porcelain doll or varicose veins. It’ll be awesome to make a Bizarro Superman piece with this technique ( http://tinyurl.com/cse8ws ).

    – his repertoire is limited but it’s hard to find such good compositioning skill these days. Most are doing the “all over” approach.

  5. ARTERI | Interactions with Art, Life & Culture | Pasrah mesra memblog says
    28/12/2009 5:38 PM

    […] Chuah Thean Teng, popularly known as Teng and the only Malaysian artist to be world-acknowledged to have founded an […]

  6. Mike says
    02/12/2011 2:13 PM

    I was in Singapore in the sixties with the RAF, and the Straits Times published a large calendar of Tengs’paintings. I had them framed and carried them round with me on various postings. Eventually they deteorated, and I have never been able to find out where I can buy prints of his work. If anyone knows if and where they are available, please let me know.
    Have tried the Straits Times without success.

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