Malaysian artist builds a parallel universe with collages made from found objects

A close-up detail of Tan’s 'The Last Gathering' collage work, which uses material such as old photographs and books. Photo: Howard Tan

With the recent lifting of pandemic restrictions, it sounds like Penang-based artist Howard Tan will be back to wandering sleepy small towns and flea markets, with his camera in hand.

This IT professional-turned-photographer is an old soul who enjoys reminders of life in the 1980s, the days of his childhood. Tan likes looking at old architecture and dilapidated townhouses, sampling traditional dishes and snacks – and of course, stopping at a flea market or two, where he scours for curious bits and bobs to add to his growing collection.

He stays away from expensive antiques, preferring to collect “inexpensive items” like metal Chinese medicine boxes, black and white photos, old magazines and books.

Some of these items, after being taken apart or rearranged, find their way into his collage works, one of the art mediums he currently enjoys.

“I love using pages from old books or vintage book covers as a base for my collages. I use images from magazines as well as old photographs, maps and stained paper like envelopes. But ultimately, you can use anything to make a collage, from embroidery to even rusty metal sheets,” he says.

'The Social Distancing' collage work, inspired by the pandemic. Photo: Howard TanA work titled 'Engagement Photo', which shows that the flea market can be a good place for source material. Photo: Howard Tan

Tan’s venture into the world of collaging felt like a natural progression after years of dabbling in photography.

Before he was ever behind a camera, he was in front of it.

“I loved being photographed when I was a kid, during different occasions like birthdays, parties, picnics or while travelling with my parents,” he recalls.

Then when he was in secondary school, he borrowed his brother’s camera to take photos of his friends when they went on field trips or school events.

“For some reason, I believed that I took better photos than my friends. I learned how to be playful with the composition by shifting the object to the corner, experimenting with wide angle shots and blurry motion. These were things that I picked up from movies and movie posters.

A work titled 'Engagement Photo', which shows that the flea market can be a good place for source material. Photo: Howard TanTan's 'The Weightlifter' collage work. Photo: Howard Tan

“I suppose i was a fortunate child, I watched a lot of movies back then because my father took me to watch Chinese documentaries and movies, my brothers brought me with them to the Shaw Brothers’ kung fu movies and my sisters presented me with Taiwanese love dramas,” recalls Tan, 47, the youngest of 10 children.

Still, he never thought of becoming a photographer, not until he was presented with a “second chance” in his 30s.

“I was an IT consultant who was posted to Malta for a three month stint. I took loads of photos during my stay on this Mediterranean island.

When I got back from the trip, I showed these photos to my friend, Joe (Sidek, then-director of George Town Festival), who was running a monthly market called Little Penang Street Market.

Tan's 'The Weightlifter' collage work. Photo: Howard TanArtist Howard Tan (in blue), greeting the visitors to his solo exhibition at the Hin Bus Depot in George Town in 2016. Photo: The Star/Filepic

“They were planning to introduce a gallery section and he asked if I wanted to showcase some of my pictures there. This was how I officially started off as a photographer,” he relates.

From photography, Tan started to venture into other art forms and techniques. During the pandemic and various lockdowns, he found more time to develop and explore his collage work.

“Photography seems to be the easiest way to create an artwork, all you need to do is compose a frame and snap. But as I slowly picked up other techniques such as drawing, I felt obliged to explore other possibilities in art. I find that there is an overlap between collage-making and photography, especially since I like to work with old photos.

“I think my years of training as a photographer helps me with having a good eye for composition, which is very important to me in my collage making,” he says.

Artist Howard Tan (in blue), greeting the visitors to his solo exhibition at the Hin Bus Depot in George Town in 2016. Photo: The Star/FilepicTan''s 'Flyboy IV' collage work. Photo: Howard Tan

Since he wants to retain that unique handmade feel, his collages are what he calls “physical cut and paste” works, and never digital.

He has lots of quirky-looking creations, like his Birdmen series where every human figure struts around with a bird’s head.

Recently, he started using acrylic paint in his collage works.

Inspiration pops up in the most unexpected places.

“I have a series that is inspired by how people used to decorate their walls by gluing newspapers, photos, stickers, posters and other random objects on them. These are mostly seen in the old shophouses in George Town, or any other old town in Malaysia, where wood planks were used to partition rooms and people used posters or newspapers to cover the gaps between the planks.The more time I spend on collage-making, the more possibilities I see in it,” he says. Tan, who runs a shop (which doubles as his workshop) on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (Pitt Street, to the locals) in George Town notes that collage art is slowly but surely finding its footing in Malaysia, with more people expressing interest and appreciation for it.

Tan''s 'Flyboy IV' collage work. Photo: Howard Tan

“My collage exhibition Of Birdmen And Other Extraordinary Events at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Penang (2019) and a couple of other smaller exhibitions in cafes and fashion boutiques did quite well,” he shares.

In his shop are his artworks for sale, and also other products such as upcycled bags and pouches made from sugar and flour packaging, that are designed in-house. There are postcards, coasters and stationery with motifs from photographs taken by Tan, like close ups of wall tiles.

“There are also collectibles that I have sourced from all around Malaysia that are very popular with locals and tourists alike. I think these enamel trays, cake moulds, small furniture pieces, books and clocks are a perfect match with my photographic and collage artworks. After all, I drew a lot of inspiration from these vintage items,” he says.

This year, his artwork is also featured in the curated George Town Festival Store, which introduces a global audience to the Penang arts and craft community.

With domestic tourists flocking to Penang now after travel restrictions were lifted, it looks like Tan has stocked some new items in his shop, like vintage letter openers and cushion covers made from upcycled polyester bags.

“Splash-proof, good for poolside use!” it says in his recent Instagram post.

Talk about sea, sand and sun vibes.

More info here.

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