Context, people say, is everything.
This is especially true in the art of Alexdrina Chong, who draws the world in her personally unique here-it-is, engaged yet deadpan, unfiltered view of life.
The journey has been a demanding one for the Kuala Lumpur native, who produces art under the moniker Alexoid Luce.
From a turbulent childhood to a misdiagnosed mental disorder later in adulthood, she has come a long way to emerge on the other side as an advocate, an artist and a person waiting patiently to re-embrace the solemn child of her past.
In Alexoid Luce’s drawing Bullet-Proof, a lady stands in a relaxed pose wearing a nonchalant expression with a big, round hole in her chest while I Verses Me depicts a woman playing tick-tac-toe against herself, on her own face.
Laundry Day shows a girl loading faces into a washing machine and in Following My Instinct, a child is seen following a line drawn by a second version of herself – heading right over the edge into stormy waves.
Drawn to art at a young age but dissuaded from it, Alexoid Luce opted to study graphic design after secondary school; a choice she describes as the most “applicable” of the arts.
Studying first in a Chinese vernacular school in her parents’ hometown of Melaka and then a convent mission school, Alexoid Luce feels she never quite fit into the rigid formal education system that she found herself in.
“I was a very unhappy A student until I was a very unhappy none-A student. I spent a lot of time drawing and hiding my drawings under my textbooks.
“In primary school, I was always in the top three in class and whenever I started to decline a little, teachers would use my ‘waste of time on drawing nonsense’ as a reason for my academic decline,” she recalls in a recent interview.
Literature, art and philosophy, however, appealed to her greatly and in books she found solace.
“Thankfully, I grew up with my parents’ big bookshelves of literature, mostly in Chinese, from Nietzsche to Echo Chen.
My first memory of Picasso was from a library book my mum got us. I was blown away by the boldness of his ‘non-representational’ notion of art.
“In that very moment with Picasso I understood abstraction; that through abstraction we achieve a new form and new perspectives. Those were my private moments of joy,” she mentions. There and back again
After secondary school, Alexoid Luce left Malaysia and headed to Bowling Green State University in Ohio, United States where she obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design and subsequently, a master’s degree in education, specialising in media literacy.
Along the way, she was offered a full-time teaching position and made her first foray into the noble profession that she is still involved in until this day.
“With my first pay cheque, I bought myself a blender and got a haircut. When I decided to leave the university, my mentor – a Russian British architect who was heading the School of Art – said to me: Go, go, go do your thing, but please, always come back to teaching. You have that thing in you. Teach,” reveals Alexoid Luce.
Moving to Chicago, she then joined a digital start-up serving Hollywood accounts – a job, she stresses, sounds much more glamorous than it really was – designing websites and social media pages.
In 2008, with a mental health situation that was teetering, she returned home to Malaysia alongside family members from all over the globe to address a health scare her father faced.
“I took some time off when I got back to Malaysia. After a while, I started Social Collaboration (SoCo) in 2011, a small creative outfit offering creative services for clients. My focus though was very much driven by social design: creating solutions, mostly communication ones, with a social cause-driven strategy,” she says.
“It’s hard to put my career in a boxy description. No one told us back in school that there are so many things we can do with our lives and how curious the body and the mind can be. So, I continue to reinvent myself,” says Alexoid Luce.
Calming a chaotic mind
It was in her early 20s that Alexoid Luce suffered her first noticeable mental health episode.
Misdiagnosed as depression, she was put on antidepressant drugs that did her more harm than good.
“Most disorders are poorly understood, quick to label for a solution. At the height of my illness, I had muscle spasms caused by anxiety attacks. I was once hospitalised in Chicago because I lost the confidence in trusting myself to take care of myself.
“At one point of my life (after returning to Malaysia), I couldn’t function as an independent adult and I wanted little to do with anything around me. I thought that was it,” says Alexoid Luce, now 45.
Aided by the support of her parents who stood strong when the waves crashed around her and now, with a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder, Alexoid Luce acknowledges that facing her mental illness will be a lifetime battle.
“Bipolar type II is usually described as having a cycle of low and high moods. The inclination is more on the depressive side of the spectrum, usually, (and) after experiencing a heightened sense of excitement or elation, we sink.
“What I have learned from struggling with this illness for more than 20 years is to have a very honest relationship with yourself and also with your doctor.
“Understand what you are taking and understand that medicine is not the only solution. Lifestyle choices are crucial to managing a chaotic mind,” she elaborates.
Proper dietary choices, exercise and meditation have been essential to Alexoid Luce who accepts that good and bad times will be a part of her life.
“I have my independent life back but I still struggle. On my good days, I am who I would love to be most of the time.
On my bad days, I close the curtains and I wait for all the darkness to pass. The trick is not to be in any rush, but to gently wait and accept that this too is not permanent; this, too, shall pass.”
The Covid-19 pandemic that hit in full force in 2020 was a perfect storm for many mental health sufferers.
Confined and isolated while being torn from a usual routine and support system, mental health in general deteriorated among many in society.
Alexoid Luce happened to be back in Melaka prior to the announcement of the first movement control order in the country that began in mid March 2020.
“We had a family gathering in Melaka and did not expect to end up all living together for months – my parents and my sisters with their families.
“I eventually returned to KL and spent most of the lockdown alone at my apartment in 2020,” she says.
Alexoid Luce sank into a long depression in November and was back on medication, mostly to help her sleep.
In 2021, the lockdowns continued so in May, Alexoid Luce opened the first page in an empty journal and started to draw.
“I lost most of my commercial projects during the pandemic; a huge loss of income. In return, it gave me the space to figure things out. I did it with art,” she says.
One journal became four and counting and several strong characters emerged: a girl with a signature bob cut, a two-headed woman and a dark shadow.
“I don’t have a deep answer to this, but I think they are all me: all the stories, the fear, the disappointments, the ironies ... My drawings, especially the current series, address the duality in life. I didn’t plan for this narrative but it did surface as I progressed,” she says.
In November 2021, Alexoid Luce exhibited her pandemic works as part of the Pemulihan: Pembaharuan group show in Kuala Lumpur.
With her drawings done in an almost comic style, one can be forgiven to expect a child-like, innocent nature to the art.
That assumption, however, would be proved inaccurate when we are confronted with pleasantly-drawn severed limbs, reattached bodies and a dark entity – sometimes in the shape of a monster, other times in turbulent waters or dark thoughts – constantly lurking.
There is a melancholy in many of the pieces, with tinges of hope and self-acceptance in others.
One hundred of the drawings are now being made into a book entitled One Hundred Pages Of Solitude (a play off the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous novel) and is scheduled to be released soon.
“I will be launching a pre-order campaign for the limited edition of this book on Feb 13 (“Self Love Day” – a day before Valentine’s day) as the book is largely humouring about fear, anxiety, and self-love. Officially, I will launch the book at a bookstore (in KL) in May with paperbacks ready on the shelves,” she says.
“I might also be working with a local artspace/gallery to do a talk/launch of the pre-order campaign.”
Alexoid Luce has also toyed around with ceramics, exploring a story-telling method with the same characters in her journals.
“I have so much more in my head, from drawings to full-scale paintings, to sculptures, to wood sculpting, to completely letting go of this two-headed woman (in the drawings) and just making marks.
“I think the solemn child (in me) went away for too long. I want her back. I need her back. It is just the beginning of my journey, though art has been with me my entire life,” she concludes.
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