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Sunday August 21, 2011

Timely journey

During her years abroad, reminders and truths kept an artist attached to home. Now she’s back and knitting together the familiar threads.

AFTER packing up her suitcase and leaving to see the world 25 years ago, Kuala Lumpur-born Foo May Lyn has finally made the journey home.

Settling in Penang some 18 months ago after long stints in London and Paris, the former actress is slowly making her way back to the local arts scene with her first ever solo art exhibition, which opened in Penang yesterday.

“When I left home, I didn’t have a clear picture of where I was going. It was always, ‘Let’s jump off the train here and have a look,’ or ‘let’s kick this stone over.’

‘Selling my work is still a strange thing for me,’ says Foo.

“Life has never been a straight line for me,” says Foo, who started performing at 13 in Teater Kanak-Kanak Malaysia (Penang-based theatre icon Janet Pillai’s first experimental children’s theatre group).

She went on to work with personalities like the late Krishen Jit, Marion D’Cruz, Jo Kukathas and Ann Lee, as well as performing groups from Singapore, Belgium and Japan.

In the 1980s, Foo settled down in London for 11 years and then Paris for another 12, but kept in touch with family and friends back home while life took her where it would.

“I was involved in educational theatre in London but there came a time when I had to stop acting, for whatever the reasons were.

“Things happened in life and there was a point where I just had to say no. And it was very frustrating because theatre was the way I expressed myself best.”

After settling down in Paris, she started receiving religious talismans and amulets from home, which slowly evolved into a creative outlet for her.

“It was about 10 years ago and I was receiving a lot of fu (religious paraphernalia in Cantonese) from my mother back home. Though I was brought up with these things, I felt quite detached from them, even as a child.

“So, there was a kind of melancholia in receiving them and really wanting to wear them, which I did, but I felt that I needed to deconstruct them and retranslate them for myself.”

On Living And Dying by Foo May Lyn.

She created little creatures and dolls inspired by the talismans, along with accompanying books of text and drawings. Eventually, her home-made jewellery caught the attention of certain shops.

“At that time, I couldn’t pursue theatre and I had to survive, so, I ended up showing my works to a particular shop in Paris.

“Things snowballed, and some pieces ended up in the Elle Paris magazine but it started to become very complicated.

“There were shops that wanted the pieces to be sold at €200 and others that wanted them to be more affordable. The whole ‘art vs something commercial’ concept finally got to me.

“I ended up taking all the jewellery and hiding them in a suitcase,” Foo says, adding that she has yet to return to jewellery-making.

Cut off from another creative outlet, her hands, literally, began itching for something new.

“At this point in time, I started looking at things very closely and doing little drawings. It was like an extension of theatre or acting. It was as if I was creating little characters and stories from the drawings.”

The Ramayanesque Good Vs Bad

One thing led to another, or in her case, paper led to cloth.

“I have a passion for yarns, fibres, textiles, fabric and cloth. When I found that I could draw on cloth, it just felt like the next natural thing to do. It was really the same thing – just drawing with a needle and thread instead of a pencil or pen.”

She says her attraction to cloth creations “just didn’t stop” – clearly evident even during the interview, as Foo gently stroked her latest piece of work, which she quite frankly but endearingly told the interviewer she was dying to get back to.

The concepts and themes of her art stretch as far as her imagination allows. Foo says in some way, they are based on her personal truths.

“Everything is based on truth but in the translations, there are extrapolations on my part. It’s like a stage where I am the director, actor, producer, everything.

“No one tells me what I can’t do. That is the freedom, that is the joy,” she explains.

Her exhibition, titled Coming Home: An Introduction To Foo May Lyn, has 78 drawings and 82 cloth works which are very subjective and broach a variety of subjects and topics.

Created mostly in caricature-like fashion, some are light-hearted and childlike while others are laced with sarcasm and dark humour.

Never Trust A City With No Ghost

Foo says some of the works are based on world events, like the Iran-Iraq War and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, while others were created solely from her day-to-day experiences. Several come with text or sayings while others leave the interpretation open to the viewer.

“Friendship, world events, personal stories, cities and urban places as well as illness and death are the big themes in the exhibition.

“But the things I create are never done literally. I take something I hear, tie it with something else I know and make my own story. It’s a script with a lot of ingredients.”

Although she shies away from being called an artist, Foo is definitely an artist’s artist.

She is almost unconcerned with the titles given to her pieces, and even the number of exhibits, but prays that the people who purchase her works will have a strong connection with them.

“Selling my work is still a strange thing for me, although I have given some away.

“When it goes to someone I don’t know ... I suppose if someone is willing to pay for it, I think they will appreciate it enough and have a rapport with it.”

On coming home and stepping back into the local art scene, she says the time just feels right.

“It took so long to come home, mainly because the journey was being sidetracked all the time. But, I think in life, at some point, you go, ‘Oh, it’s time to go home’. It’s just time.”

Coming Home: An Introduction To Foo May Lyn is on show at Studio at Straits, 86, Armenian Street, George Town, till Sept 10. Opening hours are 11am to 6pm daily. For details, 012-482 8619.

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