Penang-based artist Ch’ng Kiah Kiean highlights elegance of orchid in latest exhibition

He timed the show around the Lunar New Year celebrations as orchids are believed to bring good fortune.

For this exhibition, Ch'ng chose a deep antique tone for the paper since this helps highlight the colours of the orchids (All photos: Ch’ng Kiah Kiean)

Comprising more than a tenth of all the world’s flowering plants, the orchid (Orchidaceae) is one of the world’s largest plant families, identifiable by its bilaterally symmetrical flowers with the lip being the most prominent characteristic. Almost every region is home to a unique collection of orchids adapted to the environments they grow in. Orchid diversity is especially high in the tropics; despite Singapore’s well-publicised relationship with this bloom, Peninsular Malaysia clocks up quite an impressive number of native orchids, with about 1,000 species.

In a 2017 tally, at least 144 species were recorded on Penang Hill, and the Penang Botanic Gardens hosts an annual orchid exhibition. Artist Ch’ng Kiah Kiean was out for a walk at Penang Hill last year when he accidentally came across this event. His interest was piqued by the unique blooms, especially their undulating shapes and bright colours. He was at this time looking for ideas to flesh out a new exhibition for George Town-based arts space Hikayat; its owner Gareth Richards had seen Ch’ng’s previous works and invited him to showcase a few in its small gallery space.

“Actually, I’ve known Kiah Kiean since at least 2011 when he first exhibited his Line-Line Journey artworks, which have since gone through several iterations,” Richards clarifies. “Just before Covid-19 struck, I conducted half a dozen interviews with him to write a monograph about him. That’s still there, but the pandemic and its pressures derailed the time I’d set aside for writing. Honestly, I think he’s one of the most exceptional artists and thinkers about art in the country.”

Richards and his co-founder Bettina Chua had always toyed with the idea of displaying art in Hikayat, but it only had 100 sq ft of space between the main bookshop and Gerakbudaya’s fiction section. Inspired by its diminutive size, the duo named it Tiny Gallery. “It’s nice and bright with very high ceilings,” Chua describes. “I’d seen one gallery in Taipei that was the size of a phone booth and thought, ‘Perhaps this can work; perhaps this would be good for artists who wanted to stage smaller, simpler shows that didn’t have to cost so much.’ We installed a simple but effective hanging system, put in some good lights, painted the walls white, and we were in business.”


Dendrobium Taurinum

Covid hit soon after Tiny Gallery was established, but with things having gone back to normal, Richards and Chua are hoping to organise a full schedule of exhibitions. The first was a showcase of Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson’s artwork for the food memoir To Nourish with Love, which Chua co-authored, and now, it is Ch’ng’s turn.

“When Gareth asked me to show some works at Hikayat, I was immediately keen because the idea of showcasing my works in such an unconventional gallery space seemed like a cool idea,” Ch’ng says. “The challenge for me was to then figure out what I should focus on. The choice of flower was an accident; it was only because of that walk during the exhibition that this series came to be.” Ch’ng bought orchid plants from the exhibition — “I asked the salesgirl to find me the ones that don’t die easily” — and took them home, observed them carefully and then started to paint.

The Penang-based Ch’ng frequently uses his colourful home state as inspiration for his paintings. Last year’s Penang Series, for example, brings to life a combination of recognisable landmarks such as the Acheen Street Mosque and obscure settings such as the Nibong Tebal fishing village in his signature Chinese brush painting style, although his preferred choice is graphite rather than ink. In subsequent series focusing on birds, turtles and other flowers, Ch’ng combines graphite and watercolours for more vivid depictions of his surroundings. If you can stomach it (pun intended), one of his series also depicts a roasted duck hanging by its legs, a common sight on the kopitiam-riddled streets of George Town.

With the Orchid Series, Ch’ng went back to his tried-and-tested formula of graphite and watercolours but opted for a different type of paper, which he says better highlight the bright colours and unusual shapes of this flower.

“For this series, I chose a deep antique tone for the paper since this helps highlight the colours of the orchids, especially the white ones. I lightly dampened the paper, then scraped the water-soluble graphite with an oil painting knife and used a freehand technique to deal with the background texture first. I then decided what kind of orchids to lay out. The final result is a mixture of background abstraction — the empty or negative space — and botanical realism. Overall, the calligraphic lines and empty space comprise one of my signature styles, drawing on the spirit of Chinese ink painting.”


Oncidium Sphacelatum

In his research into orchids, of which he observed hundreds to create the existing series of seven artworks, Ch’ng learnt a great deal about this plant and likens its delicate nature and tenacity to the human spirit — how we are all a little bit of both too. “I prefer wild orchids,” he muses. “I like the way its overgrown roots and sometimes rotting leaves sit together with the flowering bloom. To me, this is very lifelike and very interesting.” Ch’ng is already planning a second series, with orchids as the star, but he wants to research the use of other types of paper first.

Ch’ng timed the exhibition around the Lunar New Year celebrations as orchids are believed to bring good fortune, symbolising wealth, fertility and abundance. After all, Confucius was an admirer of this flower and paid homage to its quiet strength when he observed that “the orchid grows where others cannot”. What about Ch’ng’s own orchids that he bought on a whim at Penang Hill last year? He laughs. “They are surviving, lah!”

'The Orchid Series' runs until Feb 19 at Hikayat, 226 Lebuh Pantai, George Town, Penang. Opening hours are from 11am to 6pm. Call 04 261 9001 for details.

This article first appeared on Jan 23, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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