Malaysian artists with autism forge strong connections in Italy


The artist and support line-up in Turin, Italy (from left): Danial Kushairi, Ng Yi Shen, Stephanie Kam, Alice Chang and her son Leonardo, Alicia Lee and Rebecca Lim. (On ladder: artist Abu Zaki Hadri). Photo: Bonnie Yap

When Alicia Lee’s second painting was recently snapped up at an art exhibition in Turin, Italy, she was so overwhelmed with joy, she cried.

It was one of those heart-tugging moments when anyone witnessing Alicia’s reaction would have been moved to tears too.

“I am so touched by the people’s response,” she said beaming, her proud parents Ivy and WK Lee, by her side.

Alicia, 25, was representing a team of Malaysian artists with autism at the IM More: The Tigers Of Malaysia exhibition, previewed and launched at the Istituto Dei Sordi Di Torino on March 31. She sold both her acrylic and ink pen on canvas pieces, – Legion Of Warriors and Listen To Your Heart – to people she had never met before.

According to Ivy, getting to Turin wasn’t all easy.

“We had to help Alicia overcome her anxiety. She couldn’t sleep closer to the departure date because she just couldn’t wait to come to Turin. During the exhibition preview and launch, Alicia was naturally nervous as she didn’t know what the audience response was going to be like. So when both her artworks were sold, she was just ecstatic!”

Alicia with Alberto Dal Poz, the Italian who bought her acrylic with ink pen on canvas artwork 'Listen To Your Heart'. Photo: Bonnie YapAlicia with Alberto Dal Poz, the Italian who bought her acrylic with ink pen on canvas artwork 'Listen To Your Heart'. Photo: Bonnie Yap

Alicia, Ivy and Lee were one of five families who made the trip to Turin along with a team led by Alice Chang-Guerra, Chair of Italian ink dispensing company InkMaker Group (IMG) Foundation and founder of Lai Lai Art gallery and studio in Malaysia.

Chang-Guerra had organised the exhibition as part of IMG’s CSR initiatives to highlight that people with autism can not only contribute to society but have something “more” to add as they have an uncommon ability to see things differently.

The 20 artworks featured at the Turin show were by Alicia, Ong Yong Da, Danial Kushairi, Ng Yi Shen, Siew Zi Hong, Stephanie Tam, Yap Hanzhen, Kirtanraw Subramanian, Andrew Chew and Lim Yu Heng.

The planning and preparation for this journey began two years ago, Chang-Guerra said in her opening speech to a turnout of over 100 people, including friends and family of the IMG, as well students and caregivers from the Istituto Dei Sordi Di Torino (School of the Deaf), who had come to support the project held in conjunction with World Autism Awareness Day.

“Our Malaysian artists and their parents travelled over 10,000km to be here in Turin. What an amazing effort. I am so very proud of them,” Chang-Guerra said.

Olivia Cigna (left) is delighted with her purchase of Ng Yi Shen's 'The Warrior Princess', one of his childhood heroes. Photo: Bonnie YapOlivia Cigna (left) is delighted with her purchase of Ng Yi Shen's 'The Warrior Princess', one of his childhood heroes. Photo: Bonnie Yap

Along with Alicia, also present in Turin were Yi Shen, Danial and Stephanie, together with their parents.

Yu Heng, who wasn’t able to fly to Italy, was represented by his mother Lee Hui Ping and sister Rebecca Lim.

Valentina Cigna, human resources director at IMG, confirmed that seven paintings were sold during the launch preview and that the exhibition would continue at the IMG HQ in Italy until April 24.

“Obviously, we hope to sell more paintings during this time to give the artists the recognition they deserve for all the work they have put in.”

Cigna said that even though IMG is a manufacturing company, its aim has always centred around creating opportunities: “This project has been a tangible way for us to create opportunities for these artists to travel, discover a new place and be ‘stars’ for a few days.”

Danial, 20, saw one of his works sold in Turin, an acrylic and paint marker on canvas entitled Kampung. It was his way of taking a bit of Malaysia to the world.

Angie Yong, Yi Shen’s mother, said that both she and her son were fascinated with Italy’s amazing art and architecture, and thoroughly enjoyed venturing through the little alleys between buildings.

Alicia Lee (left) and Ng Yi Shen working on the jungle mural at the InkMaker Group HQ in San Gillio, Piedmont, Italy. Photo: Bonnie YapAlicia Lee (left) and Ng Yi Shen working on the jungle mural at the InkMaker Group HQ in San Gillio, Piedmont, Italy. Photo: Bonnie Yap

“Yi Shen loved walking around, and he enjoyed meeting and getting to know people. This was indeed a golden opportunity for him.”Yi Shen, who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, has had to deal with numerous physical and mental challenges over the years.

Nonetheless, at 31, he is full of enthusiasm and has participated in a number of art exhibitions, and continues to explore his abilities in abstract art.

Leaving their mark

As part of the trip, the youth were also given a tour of the IMG HQ in San Gillio, about 17km from Turin, where they painted a mural, assisted by Chang-Guerra and Malaysian artist Abu Zaki Hadri, who was part of the team. The artists came up with a huge, colourful jungle scene complete with tigers, large and small, (representing the Tigers of Malaysia!) and Malaysia’s rich flora, including rafflesias, jungle ferns and Monstera deliciosa.

Chang-Guerra explained that many Italians are acquainted with the idea of Malaysian tigers thanks to the fictional character Sandokan, created by Italian author Emilio Salgari. Sandokan’s adventures first appeared in publication in 1883, and he is said to have been known throughout the South China Sea as the “Tiger of Malaysia”.

The mural was indeed one of the highlights of the trip.

Danial (left) with Silwin Aw, who together with Luca Pignatti, took home the colourful and nostalgic 'Kampung' painting. Photo: Bonnie Yap Danial (left) with Silwin Aw, who together with Luca Pignatti, took home the colourful and nostalgic 'Kampung' painting. Photo: Bonnie Yap

“The chance to work on a collaborative masterpiece like that was so good,” said Hui Ping, artist Lim Yu Heng’s mother.

“Being in a group gave us a chance to connect with other parents and artists. Parents were able to share experiences amongst one another, while the artists got to make new friends, build connections and learn how to work together.”

Stephanie Tam’s mother Terisa Chen concurred, and added: “As parents, we are so grateful for this rare opportunity to accompany Stephanie to Turin and participate in this wonderful project. We believe that such experiences will only foster her confidence and growth. The exhibition and mural painting activities were deeply meaningful, and have left a lasting impression on all of us. Stephanie thoroughly enjoyed herself.”

For these young artists and their families, the trip to Turin wasn’t just about art, or travel, it was about seizing opportunities and growing together in a community that cares and supports people of all abilities and challenges, something they will always cherish.

It’s like one of the parents said: “This chance for our families and our special children to share in these experiences with each other and with others, even strangers from a distant land, has been nothing short of amazing. It has been priceless.”

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