Malaysian artist Sean Lean discusses conflict between Eastern principles and appeal of Western popular culture in 6th solo exhibition

Themes of cultural heritage, personal identity and societal perceptions also permeate his show called 'Colored'.

Lean’s latest body of work offers an examination of cross-cultural understanding (All photos: Wei-Ling Gallery)

Options: Congratulations on Colored, your latest solo exhibition at Wei-Ling Gallery. What do you want people to walk away feeling or thinking after visiting?
Sean Lean: Colored is an exercise in reconciling the inherited with the acquired. Speaking from a cultural standpoint, it addresses a sense of dislocation in post-British colonial Malaysia as a consequence of mainstream or Western-style upbringing [and a journey] to find a form that expresses the sentiment of descendants of immigrants.

This is your sixth solo. What have been some of the high points of your career?
It is always exhilarating to show works and be recognised through it all, but for me, the process of making art is the reason I chose to be an artist. All of the high points of my career happened in my studio. There are too many to single out and probably too banal for someone else [to read about].

Why do you think humans always revert to looking at race, colour and other divisive factors? What do you think the world needs in order to achieve more harmony?
I reject the premise that those are divisive factors; they have the potential to be but not necessarily so. There was a time when differences were celebrated. Difference is also the very reason why we travel, read and converse. We do so in order to experience ‘The Other’. There is a tendency for quick judgement, while understanding is an investment rarely made nowadays. On occasions of complete exhaustion of patience, we can always fall back on tolerance.

What are some of your favourite sources of inspiration?
Colored is part of my Motherland series, which I started in 2007.  It was inspired by my parents. As long as I address the question of cultural heritage, they will always remain the source of my artistic inspiration.

What are you reading right now?
The last book I read was probably American Gods. But in the process of making Colored, I was reading a lot of journals of missionaries, merchants, soldiers and foreign ambassadors to China. I am still in the middle of a few of those, but I have just begun Talking About China: An Ever-Changing and Complex Community by historian Hsu Cho-Yun. Reading it also serves as a palate cleanser after all those Western perspectives.

What are you listening to right now?
I have a downtempo playlist of mostly instrumentals. I like Bonobo’s style of electronica, downtempo, nu jazz, trip hop and world music as well as multi-instrumentalist French Kiwi Juice, who goes by the abbreviation FKJ.

What will you be working on next?
Colored is a two-part series. I’m working on the second part right now. After having options, I’ll need to spend some time narrowing them all down. Anyway, I think I have a backlog of ideas enough to last a few lifetimes.

There are so many new galleries, museums and art fairs. Which would you recommend someone visit if they wish to expand their knowledge and appreciation?
Using literature as a point of comparison, I like to think of museums as non-fiction, galleries as novels and art fairs as magazines. So pick your own reading material.

And which of the above do you tend to gravitate towards?
I am very lucky that I have a fourth option: my studio. It is undoubtedly the best place in which to expand my knowledge and appreciation by repeatedly failing.

What was your original childhood ambition and what path would you have pursued if art hadn’t intervened?
I knew I wanted to do something with or in art since Primary One. And seeing that I got pretty close to being accepted into Taylor’s Business School, I would probably have ended up doing sales or insurance, maybe, the thought of which is enough to give me the shivers. No shade to insurance agents, though. They definitely make more money than I do but I am good with being broke.  

'Colored' by Sean Lean is on now until June 1 at 8, Jalan Scott, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. Viewing by appointment only. Call 03 2260 1106. See more information here.

This article first appeared on May 13, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.



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