Novia Shin wants to magnify the importance of local heritage with her art

A close-up of Shin's heritage-inspired miniature work 'Not So Far Away', as seen through a magnifying glass. Photos: Novia Shin

Looking through the works of local artist Shin Pui San is like taking a trip in a very adorable time machine. Many of her drawings depict local heritage scenes, done up in a distinct cartoonish style that is both whimsical and detailed.

One of her most well-known works is an illustrated tale of the tale of Yap Ah Loy, done for the heritage tour organisation Kaki Jelajah Warisan (which she co-founded) in 2015. The artist spent half a year on this project, which depicts the story of Kuala Lumpur’s founder.

It sounds hard to believe, but Shin (who also exhibits under the name Novia Shin) wasn’t always so passionate about local heritage. It was an appreciation that came to her late in life. When she was a student, she even used to fail her history exams.

“I used to think that history was just a lot of names and dates. I didn’t see how to connect it with my life. But after learning from a lot of friends and teachers, I began to see how important it really was to us,” says Shin, 29, during a recent interview at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) in Kuala Lumpur.

Shin’s award-winning Not So Far Away series, featuring seven dioramas, can be viewed at the KL Biennale at NVAG. Magnifying glasses are available to help visitors get a detailed look.

At NVAG, her works are presently featured in the inaugural KL Biennale’s Be Loved (Heritage) section. She was also a part of the trio show 3Belas, a satellite exhibit, which wass shown recently at NVAG’s experimental Creative Space.

The artist is now a passionate activist for local culture. Part of the reason for her artworks, she says, is to preserve important heritage moments. They are also to tell the stories behind buildings or communities in an interesting way.

“You never know, but even the stones next to us may be something significant. For example, I never knew you could find fossils behind Batu Caves until my friend recently showed them to me. There could be things everywhere, right under our noses. But we don’t know about until we look for them, or stumble upon them,” she elaborates.

Shin was born in Ipoh, where she grew up mostly under the care of her grandparents. Her mother worked in a restaurant in England, while her father’s job was in Kuala Lumpur. Shin was the only person in the family with artistic inclinations.

‘If the subject matter connects with the masses, you don’t need to worry about the size of the works,’ says Shin. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

“My family didn’t always understand my (artistic) passions,” she reveals.

“But they were always supportive of me.”

Shin would later attend Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, where she studied Multimedia and Graphic Design. After she graduated, she worked as a designer and teacher for the Harvest Centre, a local foundation for underprivileged children (now the Dignity For Children Foundation). While she enjoyed doing graphic design, it was art that was truly Shin’s passion.

In 2012, she decided to participate in the Nando’s Peri-fy Art Competition. In this open competition, the young artist emerged the grand prize winner. She also held her first solo exhibition in KL, fully sponsored by Nando’s, called Not So Long Ago in 2013.

Shin’s interactive work Not So Long Ago (watercolour on paper and wood, 2013), which features downtown KL streets, seen at Ilham Contemporary Forum (Malaysia 2009-2017) last year. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

Since then, Shin has never looked back.

Her portfolio is extremely diverse, with the artist having created illustrations, paper art, miniatures, comics, animation and installation. There doesn’t seem to be a medium which the petite, bubbly young artist doesn’t like.

Shin’s illustrations have been featured in The Star and Sin Chew Daily.

She also did the cover of the Chinese version of the novel adaptation for the movie The Kid From the Big Apple 2. Last year, she also contributed animation art for the documentary Purge: Documenting The Labours Of Penang’s Night Soil Workers. The historical documentary, produced by Lee Cheah Ni, highlights the hard-working migrant labourers in Penang who contributed to the island’s public sanitation.

Some of Shin’s cartoonish work might also be deceptively cute, but make no mistake, she has sharp messages to convey.

Shin’s art was used for the documentary Purge: Documenting The Labours Of Penang’s Night Soil Workers last year.

As for her profile in the broader art scene, things have also been progressing rapidly.

Shin had a memorable high last year when she won the joint first prize award at the Young Contemporaries Award Exhibition 2016 at NVAG. Her work was also featured in group exhibitions at Ilham Gallery and the Malaysian History and Heritage Club.

Her current project is a comic with a Taiwan-based art magazine Monsoon. There Shin tells the story of how she and her friends spent 24 hours living on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, chronicling the events that happened around them.

In a gallery space, it is not easy to spot Shin’s work. Take her award-winning Not So Far Away series, which can be seen in various corners of the NVAG. They are, quite possibly, the smallest works featured at the KL Biennale.

In this Not So Far Away series, Shin’s work takes the viewer to various places around the country. These include traditional medicine shops and grocery stores in Penang, a soy sauce factory in Gopeng, and even Tambun rock art in Ipoh.

A close-up view of one of Shin’s Not So Far Away works, which won the joint first prize at NVAG’s Young Contemporaries Award Exhibition 2016 last year. Photo: NVAG

A magnifying glass is provided to view Shin’s seven miniature works, all featuring sizeable detail.

“KL Biennale visitors might even walk pass my works! They will be surrounded by the other big art pieces in the gallery. But if they do spot my works, they can see that size doesn’t matter. They can magnify the works and view them with greater intensity,” she says.

“Everything is small, including the artwork and also the stories that live within the assets. Without enough patience and observation, one is unable to look into the story, but just the size of the artwork,” she adds.

Shin also reveals that creating these little works was a very peaceful, therapeutic process.

The artist, who is part of Kaki Jelajah Warisan, is also an adventurer at heart, preferring to visit places forgotten. Hers is a passion to encourage people to discover the history of older communities in Malaysia. Some of her favourite historical places really go way back.

Shin mentions a particular favourite like Gua Tambun in Perak, when the masses can view the ancient cave paintings there.

“I prefer to visit different places, not just the very famous historical places. Malaysia still has so many secret destinations.”

What fascinates Shin most about a particular historical place is usually not the story of the buildings, but the stories of the people there. This which is why, the artist adds, many of her works involve lots of people.

“I try to make every character distinct with a story of his or her own,” she notes.

“A lot of the time, when we read history, we see the stories of important people who are named. But there are a lot of people there, common people like nightsoil workers, whose names and history we don’t have. So I feel it’s my job, to capture all of them, their details and their faces. To give them as much character as I can to respect them,” says Shin.

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