Eng Hwee Chu

Eng Hwee Chu- participating artist in the GMCA (Great Malaysia Contemporary Art)

GMCA logo
Written by : Zena Khan

Photography by : Puah Chin Kok and Artist Contribution




About the Artist

Traditionally, women artists produce autobiographical works, using reflections of self to express ideas and concepts. The surreal self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, photographs of Cindy Sherman and confessional art of Louise Bourgeois are examples of this.

Joining the cast is Eng Hwee Chu, one of the most prominent contemporary female artists in Malaysia. Her works are a visual narrative of her “inner struggle, culture, tradition and change, a celebration of her love and marriage to Tan Chin Kuan and an outlet to rebel and break free. They are also vehicles in her quest for the truth.” Not only does Hwee Chu explore her own personal issues through her work but also the wider issues of a woman’s experiences and role in society.

Born in Johor in 1967, Eng Hwee Chu graduated from the Malaysian Institute of Art in 1989, where she now teaches. Hwee Chu is the recipient of many major awards including first prize in the Philip Morris Asean Art Awards in 1994 and the Painting Award, Salon Malaysia 3 at the National Art Gallery in 1991. Hwee Chu has also exhibited locally and internationally most notably at the Osaka Triennale in Osaka, Japan in 2001 and the second Asia Pacific Triennale in Brisbane, Australia in 1996, as well as in Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia. In early 2013 Hwee Chu participated in “Women In Betweeen: Asian Women Artists 1984-2012” in Fukoka, Japan with her work “The Role of the Female”.

The term “Magical Realism” can be applied to Hwee Chu’s large-scale paintings. Art critic Franz Roh describes “Magical Realism” as faithfully portraying the exterior of an object through the realist style of painting, and in doing so revealing the spirit, or rather inner magic, of the object to the audience. One sees key icons repeatedly employed by Hwee Chu to intensely explore reality in this style, perhaps the most prominent of which for her is the rocking horse. Tragic: People Image on Rocking Horse is one of Hwee Chu’s major early works that employs and introduces both the rocking horse icon as well as the black shadow figure that features prominently in several of her later works.

tragic people image on rocking horse, acrylic on canvas, 102x102cm, 1989

Tragic People Image on Rocking Horse, acrylic on canvas, 102x102cm, 1989

Explaining the origin and significance of the rocking horse in her paintings Hwee Chu tells us “Having lived in the kampong, I was not exposed to the modern invention, like the wooden horse. I was in awe when I first saw it in town, and wanted it so badly. Unfortunately I was too big to ride on such a small horse. The golden rocking horse symbolizes the things which I cannot possess.” A sense of longing pervades the canvass as Hwee Chu uses the Golden Horse to discuss unfulfilled desires and things out of her reach but the works are not necessarily melancholy. The black shadow figure is a representation of her inner self. In Tragic: People Image on Rocking Horse Hwee Chu is beginning a search for her inner self, questioning who she really is. At this point in her life, Hwee Chu is not certain of her core identity, so the black shadow is vague and unclear. Tragic: People Image on Rocking Horse is such an important work as it paves the way for Hwee Chu’s celebrated Black Moon series.

In the vein of artists who create autobiographical works, such as Frida Kahlo, Hwee Chu uses her art as a means of visualy expressing and documenting her thoughts and journey, much as in a diary. The Black Moon series which was produced DATES continues Hwee Chu’s search for her identity and inner self. Throughout this series Hwee Chu is exploring what she terms “the outer world”, which is society at large versus her “inner self”, that is, her personal feelings and thought process. Hwee Chu is expressing the view of a hostile outer world where the philosophies and principles are at odds with her own, and uses her painting as a means to try and decipher a reconcillation between the two contrasting worlds.

1989 brought about the painting Black Moon 4, which sees the creation of another key icon that Hwee Chu implements until today, the Red Figure. In this early painting, the Red Figure does not have a clear identity, present solely as a symbol of pure emotion. However as Hwee Chu developed her identity as both an artist and a woman she gained confidence, and slowly the Red Figure comes to represent her, the artist, in the paintings, but a more mysterious or confident version of herself.

Black Moon 4, acrylic on canvas, 148x214cm,1989

Black Moon 4, acrylic on canvas, 148x214cm,1989


Black Moon 3, acrylic on canvas, 157x147cm, 1989

Black Moon 3, acrylic on canvas, 157x147cm, 1989


Another sign of Hwee Chu’s growing confidence in the 1990’s is the development of her painting style into an even finer form of realism. Paintings from 1995 such as “Treasure” or “Prospect” exemplify her increasing self assuredness, which is demonstrated in her realistic colour palatte, highly defined figures and the new inclusion of truly representational self portraits. It is definitely the critical successes that Hwee Chu was piling up by this point, exemplified by her major awards, that contributed to her creative buoyancy, but 1995’s The Holy State of Matrimony offers an insight into one of the most significant milestones in Hwee Chu’s life, her marriage to Tan Chin Kuan.

Prospect, acrylic on canvas, 223x152cm, 1995

Prospect, acrylic on canvas, 223x152cm, 1995


As a fellow acclaimed contemporary artist, Tan is able to not only provide Hwee Chu with backing on a personal level, but also critique her as an artist. Tan and Hwee Chu have similar ideas and directions, but the differences from their gender identities lead to different methods of expression. Hwee Chu credits Tan with giving her a support system that allows her the freedom to fully express her inner desires and how she feels her true self should be represented on canvas. This further allows Hwee Chu to push the painterly boundaries of her detailed narratives without restrictions. We can parallel Hwee Chu and Tan’s relationship with that of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in the sense of two strong successful artists coming together and being equals professionally while maintaining a n home life, which is an interesting insight into the value of emotional support for these female artists who subsequently produce paintings that speak of their essence as women and their ensuing role with the traditional framework of society.

A fascinating artist, Hwee Chu creates painting that utilize her advanced abilities as a realist painter to perfectly encapsulate her inner reflections in a body of work when traced in it’s entirety forms a visual journal of sorts, leaving her audience with an almost greedy anticipation for the paintings that are still to come.


Born 1967, in Batu Pahat, Johor, Malaysia



Diploma in Fine Art, Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA),Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

2012 – Women In-Between: Asian Women Artist 1984-2012, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum,
Okinawa, Tochigi and Mie Prefectural Art Museum, Japan.
2010 – Negaraku: Nationalism & Patriotism in Malaysia Contemporary Art, Galeria Sri Perdana, Melaka.
2009 – Iskandar Malaysia Contemporary Art Show, Danga City Mall, Johor Baru.
2008 – Archive, Eng Hwee Chu and Tan Chin Kuan, 12 Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.

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