Young artist draws inspiration from nostalgic scenes, family stories in Penang


Emerging artist Choong Guey Syuen seen with her painting titled 'Reunion Of The Flowers Of Gold'. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

Childhood memories are timeless treasures that warm the heart.

Just ask 2021 Spotlight Art Competition winner Choong Guey Syuen whose fondest recollections include the carefree moments spent at her grandmother’s former home in Penang.

The state-sponsored competition, organised by Penang Art District (PAD), seeks out new talent in Penang’s contemporary arts and culture scene.

Through her art, you see how Choong, 24, is fascinated by the cultural heritage of her home state and family stories.

With rustic structures, sandy surroundings and even an outhouse, she recalls her grandmother’s property in Bayan Lepas, which was distinctly old-world and belonged to a bygone era.

'Dreaming Encircled By Isolation' - the piece that won Choong the 2021 Spotlight Art Competition. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan'Dreaming Encircled By Isolation' - the piece that won Choong the 2021 Spotlight Art Competition. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

While the family moved to a modern housing development in Bukit Mertajam in her teenage years, those early memories live on and have a huge influence on her art.

“Old and vintage things were a key part of my life growing up and continue to touch me on a deeper level,” says Choong, who also teaches art.

This was evident in the 24 works featured in her debut solo exhibition, which was titled Instant Charms and held at The Art Gallery Penang recently.

They were done in a variety of styles and mediums, and split into six series – Personal Portraits, Scenery, Sculpture, Bride, Past Of Beauty Pageants and Past Of Golden Flowers.

Choong’s 'Vintage Bride #1' is based on her grandmother’s old bridal portrait. Photo: The Star/Jeremy TanChoong’s 'Vintage Bride #1' is based on her grandmother’s old bridal portrait. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

Choong’s passion for the picturesque past was evident in pieces like Grocery Shop Of George Town and Tea Time At The Carpentry. The former depicts an old sundry shop along her daily commute, while the latter is a scene from a wood workshop belonging to her father’s friend.

“With Penang being as developed as it is today, these old scenes are intriguing. They make me curious. I want to know more about their stories.

“Take the old sundry shops. There is stuff everywhere. Most people would consider it messy, but as an artist, it gives me a lot of detail that I can capture in my works.

“Art is my way of transforming memories into something tangible. I hope it allows viewers to reminisce too,” shares Choong, a fine arts graduate from a college in George Town.

'Signboard Roaring' depicts an old building in George Town, Penang. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan'Signboard Roaring' depicts an old building in George Town, Penang. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

Other pieces like Signboard Roaring captures the weathered facade of an old building in George Town. Meanwhile, Beauty Of The Wall and Wild Garden illustrate the young artist’s capacity to find beauty in the mundane – in this case from plants growing out of old walls.

Continuing the vintage theme is her Ballerina On The Furniture sculpture which she made from a discarded cabinet found by the roadside.

In the Vintage Bride paintings, Choong re-imagined old bridal portraits of her 84-year-old grandmother Cheah Gaik Hai, whom she remains very close to.

“My mum often asks me to do portraits of family members. One day, she gave me an old photo of my grandma in her wedding dress and I just experimented,” the artist explains.

 'Ballerina', one of Choong's self-portraits, tells of her love of dancing. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan'Ballerina', one of Choong's self-portraits, tells of her love of dancing. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

Several other paintings depict scenes from wedding ceremonies and spoke of Choong’s curiosity towards traditions practised by women in the past and how some of those persisted to modern times.

Reunion Of The Flowers Of Gold features a group of guests making small talk about the bride, something which still happens at virtually every nuptial taking place today.

Choong’s Personal Portraits offers a glimpse of her other creative pursuits beyond art, with Ballerina encapsulating her love for dancing.

Uneasy Lockdown highlighted the different emotions she felt during the Covid-19 pandemic. Notably, it was made with household materials as the closure of businesses prevented her from getting art supplies.

Choong used a discarded cabinet to create 'Ballerina On The Furniture'. Photo: The Star/Jeremy TanChoong used a discarded cabinet to create 'Ballerina On The Furniture'. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

In a strange roundabout way, the pandemic was what led to Choong’s success in Spotlight 2021. Her winning piece Dreaming Encircled By Isolation came as a result of the lockdown.

A clever reinterpretation of English artist Henry Wallis’ 1865 oil painting The Death Of Chatterton, it depicts the Penang artist falling asleep in a dark room while life flourishes just outside a window.

Her piece was the pick of 80 entries for Spotlight that year. The recent solo exhibition was one of her prizes for winning, alongside a cash prize and a mentorship programme.

The annual competition is organised by PAD to give aspiring and emerging artists aged 30 or below a platform to shine.

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