People often say that art, especially contemporary art, is difficult to understand. Justifiably so. If we consider art a language, learning a new one takes some effort.
But Kua Chi Chi, better known as C C Kua, wants to speak in a way that anyone can interpret her works any way they like. Still, stepping into All By Myself, her latest solo exhibition, one can easily be left nonplussed.
Among the first works you might see is Monkey Butt, inspired by a musing that the human derrière resembles a monkey’s face. Next to it sits the exhibition’s poster piece, Do You Like My Straight Hair, accompanied by an explanation that she has curly hair which she never combs, but it grew and grew and began to resemble a mop. On the right is a painting of a leg and a mosquito. Titled Hold Your Breath, it comes with the note that if one makes big gestures when trying to swat the mosquito, it will be alerted to your presence even more.
One can imagine how Kua’s art can confound the adult, intellectual mind. Conversely, children who have visited easily dove into the random humour and colourful imagery of her pieces. The provocative British artist Damien Hirst would consider that a mark of success, having once declared that “art is childish and childlike”.
But the 29-year-old graphic designer by training would probably just shrug and say “also can” if people want to judge her works purely on colours and strokes, good or bad. As one will come to discover, Kua marches to her own beat. With All By Myself, she invites us into her world.
That said, while she adopts a nonchalant air about the whimsical tone of her art, there is a certain deliberateness at play here, an almost defiant determination in allowing the imagination free rein. It is a practice of how an artist plays in isolation, she says.
Curator Sharmin Parameswaran puts it this way: “It is giving yourself room to just be, to go with the flow.”
It feels particularly pertinent today, especially since the works were produced during the Movement Control Order. “I was talking to a lot of artists during that time, and when I reached out to C C, she was in the middle of an artist’s residency programme at Rimbun Dahan, where she stayed an extra month alone when the lockdown took place. What I found was that she was very productive still,” says Sharmin, adding that it inspired her to curate the show.
With more than 100 works to sift through, and it still being the lockdown period, she first encouraged Kua to apply for Cendana’s Create Now grant and put out a digital work. The result is an e-magazine, Hello How Have You Been, which is a bit like a visual diary of her time spent in Rimbun Dahan in rural Kuang, Selangor, with doodles, paintings, writings and photo illustrations.
All By Myself is a follow-up showcase, with Cendana’s approval, though the works in the exhibition are entirely different, albeit no less imaginative and spontaneous.
On one wall, Sharmin has curated a series of works related to Kua’s experience during the residency itself. We see paintings of moments such as Angela’s Garden Tour, given by Rimbun Dahan owner Angela Hijjas. In another, a young girl sneaks out at night, and Kua questions where she might go.
We revisit her experience through the sights, sounds and smells of our imagination, coloured from her perspective.
“I think with CC, she takes the day-to-day and looks at it differently. It is something we all might be able to do, given the time and space. But, in our busyness, we tend to miss out on a lot of things,” observes Sharmin.
The idea of All By Myself is to embrace each moment of isolation, warts and all, and make the best of it. On another wall, we see Kua’s somewhat unsuccessful attempt at making paper (she turned them into sculptures), along with accounts of her moments of reflection. There is a family portrait rendered in monochrome, a clear contrast to the more colourful works. She does not explain why, saying only that maybe it was created during a sad mood.
In a funnier scene, she either observes or imagines a picnic scene of a cheeky private moment between lovers. In Making a Wish upon a Lightning Conductor, humour takes on a more profound tone, as she makes the point that wishful thinking is foolish.
Most revealing and yet enigmatic are the works that embody the artist’s emotions. The small section of monochromatic and black-and-white drawings are particularly compelling, their rawness something we can all relate to in our darker moments. They also offer a more layered look at Kua’s artistic philosophy.
Our conversation on her motivation comes to mind. “I think my work always questions what a human is. We are often locked into a daily routine, but you don’t have to always follow a certain way (at least not in our imaginations),” she notes.
We come to her largest work so far, a girl on a motorcycle riding through a grass field, while a smaller-sized girl enjoys a stick of Solero ice cream at the back. “Do you feel the wind? I couldn’t go out too, like everyone else. But I imagined going to makan angin, without the helmet, and eating the ice cream,” she describes.
The yearning for freedom and simple pleasures is universal. But, more than that, for Kua, it is a state of mind that she tries to embody in her art. She compares the attitudes of Chinese philosophers Lao Zi and Confucius. “I prefer Lao Zi. He taught about just being present. We don’t have to find meaning or teach a lesson in every turn. I grew up in the normal, Chinese school-educated way; I’m trained to have a logical mind. Even though I like to play, I’m actually not a very free person. But my art allows me to travel, in my mind.”
Asked what she enjoyed most from her experience in solitude, Kua launches into another story instead. “I saw a wild boar. It’s so magical. You know, I was just working one day in my studio, on a rainy day, and it ran past. It [felt] like a meteor, so elusive.”
To take a page from Kua’s book, maybe we all need to learn to see the wild boar moments, to allow for interruption, to unlock the key to the art of imagination.
'All By Myself' is on until Aug 9 at The Back Room, first floor of The Zhongshan Building, 80A Jalan Rotan, Jalan Kampung Attap, KL. 016 660 2585. By appointment only (Tuesday to Friday), noon to 6pm (Saturday and Sunday). Free admission.
This article first appeared on Aug 3, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.