Ono Kang attains artistic redemption through found and abandoned objects in solo exhibition 'Forged by Time'

The artist with dyslexia also explains how safe spaces are needed to cultivate creativity.

Kang: "Having access to a non-judgmental environment is incredibly empowering." (Photo: Ono Kang)

Options: Congratulations on your upcoming solo, Forged by Time. Tell us about it.
Ono Kang: There will be about 15 pieces of artwork exhibited, each crafted from a variety of materials, including scrap metal, recycled and upcycled items, and found objects. These are sourced from and around George Town, Penang, and encompass a wide range of artifacts, from furniture and household items to industrial machinery. They were collected at different times in my life and put together to tell a story about how ‘abandoned’ items are given a second life through art.

How did this solo come about?
I first crossed paths with [fashion designer] Datuk Seri Bernard Chandran at his ArtisFair exhibition in 2022, where I also had the opportunity to show some of my creations. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with him.

Under his guidance in 2022, I benefited from his keen eye for aesthetics and attention to detail. This collaboration has been instrumental in honing my skills as an installation artist. With Bernard’s help, I have not only refined my artistic abilities but also received valuable advice on how to build towards a solo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur. This approach has allowed me to understand how my work can be viewed as a cohesive narrative, rather than merely individual pieces.

His art residency programme, recently renamed Lumina, is truly a creative sanctuary, offering a safe and supportive space for artists at every stage of their career, irrespective of age or background. For self-taught artists like myself, who moreover face challenges such as dyslexia, having access to a non-judgmental environment is incredibly empowering and working closely with someone as inspiring as Bernard has been transformative. His boundless passion for creativity and ability to craft something out of nothing is contagious.

For the first time, I can envision numerous possibilities for my art and gain clarity on a future dedicated to doing what I love most and excel in.


'Oui! Che Meh Gu (Oui! I Am a Blind Cow)'

Tell us a little about your challenges as well as personal triumphs.
With dyslexia, I often feel disconnected from narratives conveyed through writing. But self-expression, I think, is an important part of being human. And while I struggle with the written word, art allows me to express myself in the way I hope to be understood.

You also cited travel as a great way for self-empowerment.
I have travelled a lot, backpacking to unexpected corners of the world, which gave me a different introspection on life. When travelling, I find it deeply rewarding to uncover beauty in the seemingly mundane, as noticing details that often go unnoticed by others offers a sense of triumph. Yet, like many artists, I grapple with logistical challenges, particularly concerning the storage of my collected items, which often are large objects.

Tell us also about your growing-up days in Penang.
I grew up by the jetties, where my family worked as junk ship sailors and coal traders. In fact, I have always wanted to inherit my grandfather’s junk to sail around the region, importing and trading charcoal. Alas, that never happened. As my dyslexia was not diagnosed earlier, leading to my dropping out of school, I began travelling at 13; first to Singapore and then farther and farther away. But no matter where I go, Penang is always home.

What are you listening to right now?
I love music as it serves as a bridge for me to transcend the limitations I sometimes feel with the written language, helping me foster a sense of kinship with the world around me. In the realm of sound, there are no barriers, just frequencies that resonate with our shared surroundings. I am particularly excited to announce a special performance during my month-long exhibition. On April 26 at 6pm, a talented group of sound musicians will take to the stage to interact with my sculptures, creating a unique experience that intertwines with the visual narrative of my artwork. I invite everyone to join us for this unforgettable evening where art and music converge to evoke a deeper connection with the world around us.


'Above All Else, We Must Learn to Control Our Breath'

What or where are your favourite sources of inspiration?
The scrapyard. In these seemingly forgotten places, I discover a treasure trove of objects waiting to be repurposed and given new life. I have always loved collecting old things, and making sculptures and installations is like building a diary using these ‘memory treasure’. I would call these artworks my ‘language’ and a personal tribute to my family, heritage and four decades of life. Each item holds untold potential and often surprises me with the stories it carries within. I find it extremely satisfying to discover beauty in unexpected places. The process of salvaging objects and breathing new life into them feels like a form of redemption, liberating them from their status as abandoned relics.

What do you want people to experience when they encounter your art?
To experience a new-found appreciation for everyday or abandoned objects that are often overlooked or dismissed as junk. I aim to reveal the unseen potential and beauty within these discarded items, inviting viewers to see them in a new light. In addition, my work serves as a visual diary, capturing and immortalising memories from different chapters of my life.

There are a lot of scraps and objects that tell vignettes of your life. If we could only see one work, which would be most poignant for you?
My favourite piece is the one named Oui! Che Meh Gu, featuring a vintage TV and rubber figurines. In Hokkien, it translates as “Oui! I am a blind cow!” Growing up dyslexic has been miserable, as my community had no awareness whatsoever of this condition. So, playtime was often spent alone with toys, finding a way to create my own narrative and a sense of belonging for myself.

Do you look up to any artist in particular?
I have to confess, I rarely visit any galleries or museums and may not be as exposed as I should be to the art world. The junkyard is my gallery. Finding beauty in the relics as mentioned and giving them a second life, that’s my process as an artist.

What are you working on now?
I am currently working on several metal sculptures in collaboration with Bernard for his upcoming wearable art exhibition. It is particularly exciting as he commemorates 30 years as a successful fashion icon. Being part of this milestone celebration is a tremendous honour for me.  

'Forged by Time', a solo exhibition by Ono Kang, opens on April 24 and will run daily, except on Mondays, until May 25 at Level 3, Fahrenheit88, Jalan Bukit Bintang, KL.

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


Follow us on Instagram