Written by Zena Khan
Eng Hwee Chu is one of the most prominent contemporary female artists in Malaysia, known for her painting-based practice that acts as a visual journal of her life. Filled with key icons that are repeated throughout her works, such as the rocking horse and red and black figures, Hwee Chu uses her art as a vehicle in her quest for truth, as a way to work out her own personal issues and a platform to discuss women’s issues. Her latest painting Beyond Border exemplifies all these traits, while depicting a turning point for the introspective Hwee Chu in her personal life.
At first glance, Beyond Border might appear strikingly similar to Hwee Chu’s past works, but closer inspection shows several disparities. Viewers will note the re-emergence of several of her key elements: the rocking horse, the red and black figures, symbols of Chinese culture and detailed side imageries framing the centre visual. The artist comments that Beyond Border is a personal review of sorts of the last fifteen years of her career as she prepares to enter a new phase in her life. The first clue to a happier state of mind for Hwee Chu comes from her colour palette, and is further bolstered by the absence of tied-up figures which have previously appeared in her paintings. The lack of constrained figures points to a freedom, both artistic and personal, for Hwee Chu. Reviewing other symbols in Beyond Border only serves to strengthen this analysis.
Perhaps the most fundamental of all symbols for Hwee Chu is the rocking horse, which first appeared in Tragic: People Image On Rocking Horse. Hwee Chu’s recurring portrayal of stunningly pretty horses points to their role in her life as a symbol of aspiration. Derived from a childhood memory of a toy horse she could not possess, the horse previously signified loss, longing and all that she could not possess. In Beyond Border, Hwee Chu shows herself on horseback via the red figure which has been central to her past works as a representation of her true self. Viewers familiar with her paintings will understand her penchant for working in self-portraits in the guise of this red figure, which portrays her perception of herself. The red figure usually appears in anguish or uncertainty, as in Black Moon 4 where we see her crouched over, cradling her head in her hands. Beyond Border shows a stark contrast to these usual depictions however; now she is shown confidently galloping across the canvas on horseback. This newfound ability to ride the horse represents a shift in the metaphorical relationship: now the horse is her partner. Through all her years of struggle and uncertainty, she has emerged victorious; her life today filled with all of the personal and professional achievements she dreamed of. The allegorical conquering of the horse can be equated as a representation of quelling the demons and insecurities of her past.
A second self-portrait of sorts also appears in the form of the black figure that represents her inner self, that is her inner feelings and workings. Again this figure is shown in a new light in Beyond Border, chasing after the red figure who rides away rather than appearing as a dark looming figure in a heavy or frightened stance. A closer look reveals the figure is not solid black either; Hwee Chu has layered several colours over each other to create a textural finish that imparts an impression of black.
Anchoring the central background is a derelict, albeit beautifully painted, staircase, in the style of Nyonya architecture. Two Chinese stone guardians flank either side of the staircase. This mix of Nyonya and Chinese influences reflect the cultural blend of Malaysian society, the use of traditional artefacts reflects the traditions of society. In the distance lies a desolate, uninviting landscape. Several stern-faced people crowd together to the right of the canvas; for Hwee Chu, they are depictions of a general society who have held her back. As she rides away, with her inner self trailing closely, she leaves behind a difficult environment, with no intention to return to the invisible shackles of society.
In the tradition of female artists, who are known for their penchant for self-reflection, Hwee Chu consistently produces introspective works, which when studied in an entirety tell a tale of her life. Beyond Border is the closing of a chapter for Hwee Chu. Where she tended to express angst in her autobiographical paintings, now viewers are treated to a strong expression of joy. After the difficulties of struggling as an artist and raising a young family, she finds herself in an enviable position of being established, personally and professionally, which brings about the contentment expressed in this new canvas. Hwee Chu’s unparalleled painterly skills have yet again encapsulated her inner reflections, radiating hope and anticipation for the next phase of her life, and leaving impatience within her audience for what will come next.
Title: Beyond Border
Artist: Eng Hwee Chu
Size: 154 cm x 224 cm
Medium: Acrylic on Canvas