Artists Ong Pei Yee and Hana Tan ruminate on childhood memories and cultures in their latest show 'Two Tales'

The fine arts graduates set out on a transcendent journey through identity and cultural hybridity in this joint exhibition.

The Possibility of Rock Paper Scissors by Ong (All photos: Two Tales/Rissim Contemporary)

Within the walls of the Two Tales exhibition at Rissim Contemporary in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, visitors are invited to embark on a profound journey through the corridors of memory, where the echoes of childhood resonate with poignant clarity. Each stroke of the paintbrush, each contour of the figure serve as a vessel for artists Ong Pei Yee and Hana Tan’s recollections and bring to life moments frozen in time.

Ong’s series serves as a poignant reflection on the passage of time and the enduring influence of childhood experiences. Delving into the recesses of memory, she contemplates the simplicity and joy of childhood games. From the playful melodies of lat tali lat to the strategic dance of rock, paper, scissors, she revisits these timeless rituals and explores the profound impact they have had on her personal growth.

Through her generous use of close-ups of hands and feet as well as plastic chairs, the bronze prize winner of the UOB Painting of the Year (2022) in the Emerging Artist Category captures the surreal and fragmented nature of nostalgia, inviting viewers to ponder the essence of childhood innocence through not-so-rose-coloured glasses.

“When encountering adulthood, I often find myself reflecting on memories of my younger days, which were simple and carefree. Observing the simplicity of childhood, I feel a sense of relaxation and happiness. Drawing inspiration from the games we played as children, I decided to focus my paintings on primary colours, particularly red, blue and yellow,” she ruminates.

She deliberately shows only cropped images of her subjects to allow viewers space for imagination. “I hope this series of artworks encourage reflection on life and prompt reminiscence of childhood memories. Perhaps viewers will question if the life they live now is what they imagined in the past.”


In 'Infinity Repeating', Tan juxtaposes traditional movement with contemporary domestic settings

In contrast, Tan’s series transports viewers to the liminal space of cultural hybridity and identity. Drawing from her own journey as a former tribe dancer, she intertwines traditional movement with contemporary domestic settings, challenging stereotypes and redefining the boundaries of cultural expression.

“I grew up in a place where traditional dances, rituals and beliefs were still practised. I began performing on stage at the age of four, with my mother’s unwavering support. She always signed me up for performances and competitions related to our culture. These experiences, from intricate hand movements to the nuances of body language during performances, as well as the details of costumes and stage lighting, greatly influence my approach to painting,” shares the artist, who lives and works between her hometown in Beaufort, Sabah, and Klang, Selangor.

Through her masterful manipulation of surroundings and everyday objects as props for her dancers, Tan creates a surreal and immersive stage presence, urging viewers to reassess their relationships with tribal and traditional pasts amid the backdrop of modernity. With each brushstroke, she underscores the fluidity and adaptability of cultural identity, prompting viewers to contemplate how interactions with different cultures shape and redefine their own sense of self.

“My paintings primarily focus on domestic scenes featuring females, reflecting my identity as a woman, artist and housewife. I weave everyday activities with my cultural influences. Moving from Sabah to Peninsular Malaysia inspired me to create a home that keeps me connected to my heritage, even when far from my hometown. Tribal dance is not just a form of celebration but also a means of communication, connecting dancers and audiences from different parts of the world. It serves as a recreational activity, uniting people in happiness and dance amid their daily routines.”

Tan employs contrasting flat planes and two-dimensional elements in her paintings to depict the coexistence of traditional and modern elements. Colour plays a significant role and despite unusual depictions of space, it somehow works. “Using an optimistic prismatic colour spectrum, I replicate the spotlight effect seen during performances, projecting light onto objects and surroundings, akin to a stage layout.”


Ong's throwback to musical chairs

In her paintings, Tan orchestrates scenarios where dancers manipulate objects and surroundings to seamlessly integrate traditional and modern elements into their routines. “My artworks often depict peaceful domestic scenes, showcasing the coexistence of differences through mutual respect and understanding. Through my life experiences, I hope my artwork serves as a catalyst for viewers to reconnect with their heritage and explore their identity formation.”

As observers navigate the labyrinth of canvases in Two Tales, they are confronted with the kaleidoscope of identities that shape the human experience. From the tender embrace of familial bond and childhood memories to the tumultuous quest for self-discovery, the artists delve into the depths of what it means to exist in a world of intersecting cultures and histories.

Through their artistry, Ong and Tan offer more than mere glimpses into their own lives; they extend an invitation for introspection, for reflection upon the threads that bind us all. In this exhibition, childhood memories are not just artefacts of the past; they are windows into the collective consciousness of humanity, mirrors that reflect the intricacies of our shared journey.

'Two Tales' by Hana Tan and Ong Pei Yee runs until May 4 at Rissim Contemporary, 30-2 Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar, KL. See more here

This article first appeared on Apr 22, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


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