Malaysian illustrator Tuan Nini, based in Romania, shares her art journey


Tuan Nini has lived in Bucharest, Romania, for 18 years, having moved there to pursue a fine arts degree at the Bucharest National University of Arts. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

As an illustrator, Tuan Ninifarhana Tuan Kob (who prefers to go by Tuan Nini, or just Nini) believes that it’s her job to “fill in the blanks” and enrich the story that’s being told.

In Dear Brother, a middle-grade graphic novel written by New York Times bestselling author Alison McGhee and illustrated by Nini, she got the chance to do that and more, exercising her visual storytelling muscles.

Described as “Diary Of A Wimpy Kid gets a little sister twist”, Dear Brother tells a tale as old as time – the rivalry (and love) between a brother and sister – through letters shared between the two.

The graphic novel has been a hit since its publication in August 2023. It has been selected for the Gold Selection award by the Junior Library Guild in the United States and was featured in an exhibition of the best children’s books in 2022-2023 at the Society of Illustrators in New York.

“I would say that this was the first project I had of this scale – I enjoyed being able to weave a story within the story and reveal what was not necessarily told in the text through my illustrations,” says Nini, adding that there had also been instances when she suggested to include additional text to help readers better understand what was happening in the story.

Tuan Nini recently returned to Malaysia for a short holiday and a series of bookshop events, including a stop at Lit Books in Petaling Jaya to promote 'Dear Brother. Photo: The Star/Azlina AbdullahTuan Nini recently returned to Malaysia for a short holiday and a series of bookshop events, including a stop at Lit Books in Petaling Jaya to promote 'Dear Brother. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

“It’s quite rare for a book illustrator to be able to come in and suggest making some changes to the text, so I’m glad that the team I worked with was open to that,” she adds.

Nini, who was back in Malaysia recently for the Raya holidays, says that the book’s art director had reached out to her after viewing her Instagram and website, which features her professional portfolio of commercial illustrations and animations, as well as what she calls “journal comics”, which are illustrated snapshots of her personal life as a Malaysian living in Romania, from slice-of-life vignettes to her innermost thoughts and insecurities.

“When I asked the art director why she had reached out to me, she told me that they had been looking for an illustrator with strong visual storytelling skills and that my style – which I’d describe as ‘warm and cosy’ – was the right fit,” she shares.

Freedom to choose

Nini, 37, currently resides in Bucharest, Romania, where she has lived for the past 18 years since she moved there to pursue a fine arts degree at the Bucharest National University of Arts.

Tuan Nini’s illustrations bring sibling rivalry – and love – to life through a series of letters in bestselling US author Alison McGhee’s latest book 'Dear Brother'. Photo: The Star/Azlina AbdullahTuan Nini’s illustrations bring sibling rivalry – and love – to life through a series of letters in bestselling US author Alison McGhee’s latest book 'Dear Brother'. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

“People often ask me what informed my decision to study there, but honestly, nothing informed my decision – I was just a young and restless 19-year old,” says Nini, when she tells the story of how she ended up in Romania.

“I had a friend who was studying in Bucharest while living with his family, as one of his parents had been posted to the Malaysian embassy there.

“He told me there was a 200-year old arts school in the city and said I should come study there. I figured that it must be a good school to have existed this long, so why not, and off I went, with not much knowledge of Europe.”

Since graduating, Nini has worked as a freelance illustrator, where she revels in the freedom to pick and choose what she works on.

“I did work at an ad agency for a short time before I graduated, but it’s too short to count,” she waves off with a laugh.

“If you work for an agency, you often won’t get the chance to say yes or no to a project, so I do think it’s a privilege for me as a freelancer. Not that I’m saying one is better than the other, but it’s important to me to have that ability to choose my clients or projects. The downside to that, of course, is that sometimes I’m left wondering whether I’ll get any jobs in the next month,” she explains.

Tuan Nini says she likes to ‘inject a human, down-to-earth and humorous quality” into her work. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah Tuan Nini says she likes to ‘inject a human, down-to-earth and humorous quality” into her work. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

Despite the unpredictability of freelancing, Nini says she loves being able to explore doing different things. “I don’t like doing the same work over and over again, so being a freelancer allows me to try my hand at different kinds of projects.”

In a recent commissioned work, Nini was tasked with condensing an anthropological research paper about the New York City practice of giving tap water for free.

“I’m starting to see more projects where researchers try make their work more accessible to the public by communicating through visuals. I hope to get more impactful projects like this – it’s fulfilling work for me, because I like the challenge of taking an idea, a message and translating it into a visual form that is clear for readers,” she says.

From nasi lemak to ciorba

Born and raised in Subang Jaya, Selangor, Nini confesses that she had left Malaysia “as a rather sheltered child”.

“When I first arrived there, I had no idea what to expect. Western European countries tend to get more immigrants compared to Eastern European countries like Romania, so you might think there’s some resistance against foreigners, but most locals tend to be curious and interested in learning more about Malaysia when I tell them where I’m from,” shares Nini, the youngest of three siblings.

Nini created the key visual for the 2021 Animest, an Oscar-qualifying international animation festival hosted annually in Bucharest, Romania. Photo: Tuan NiniNini created the key visual for the 2021 Animest, an Oscar-qualifying international animation festival hosted annually in Bucharest, Romania. Photo: Tuan Nini

“Compared to Malaysians, Romanians tend to have their guard up a little when meeting new people, but once you get close to them, they can be very friendly!”

Learning Romanian has definitely helped Nini in adapting to living in a country and culture that’s vastly different from her own – especially when it comes to working with local clients or making new friends.

“Nowadays when I speak with locals, they’ll say that I speak Romanian quite well, and I’m glad I learned it. Romanians have this sense of humour that you miss out on if you don’t know the language.

“Luckily, Romanian is written as it’s pronounced, so it’s relatively easy to learn,” she says.

When it comes to food, Nini admits that nothing beats Malaysian food, but adds that Romanian dishes like ciorba – a sour soup consisting of a variety of vegetables and meat, such as chicken, beef or fish – aren’t too bad.

Learning to take up space

As an introvert, it’s not the easiest thing for Nini to put herself out there. So in 2021, she joined a workshop in Bucharest aimed at encouraging more women to pursue careers in illustration and animation.

A view of Tuan Nini's artwork in 'The Food That Makes Us' book in 2017 (by Foong Li Mei and Szetoo Weiwen) which is a collection of Malaysian stories, home recipes, photography and illustrations. Photo: HandoutA view of Tuan Nini's artwork in 'The Food That Makes Us' book in 2017 (by Foong Li Mei and Szetoo Weiwen) which is a collection of Malaysian stories, home recipes, photography and illustrations. Photo: Handout

The workshop was organised to help counter the gender imbalance in the animation industry after a study revealed that while the ratio of female and male students studying animation in university was balanced, it quickly changed after graduation, where 90% of those who went on to pursue a career were male.

“Taking part in the workshop changed my frame of mind from being aware of taking up space and thinking that I’m bothering people to owning my space and showing what I can do.

“It has taken me a while to put it into practice, but on this trip back to Malaysia, I was able to take the initiative to reach out to people and offer to talk about the comic and my working experience,” she shares.

And indeed, these past few weeks have been a flurry of activity – Nini has done sharing sessions with students at the Malaysian Institute of Art and The One Academy, as well as book signings at local bookstores and stationery shops such as Lit Books and CzipLee.

Besides sharing the more nitty-gritty, technical aspects of her work, Nini also imparts some advice to those who hope to build a career in illustration and animation – “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”

Nini was commissioned by documentary comics magazine POC to make this comic featuring anthropological research on water. Here, Nini illustrated a story about an anthropologist’s journey in discovering the phenomenon of free tap service in New York. Photo: Tuan NiniNini was commissioned by documentary comics magazine POC to make this comic featuring anthropological research on water. Here, Nini illustrated a story about an anthropologist’s journey in discovering the phenomenon of free tap service in New York. Photo: Tuan Nini

“Lecturers have told me that this generation of students seem to be more afraid of failure compared to their predecessors – they need confirmation from the lecturer that they are going in the right direction before they even pick up a pencil and draw a sketch.

“I wonder if this new reluctance to try things for themselves is a result of seeing process videos on social media where it’s just a smooth process from start to finish. But a big part of the process when generating ideas is testing them, and making ‘mistakes’ is a crucial part of developing one’s judgement and taste as an artist,” says Nini.

So rather than doubting your abilities, she encourages budding illustrators to simply “enjoy the process”.

“Art making isn’t sustainable if you only train yourself to enjoy the end result. At some point it will become unbearable and lead to burnout, because the time you spend on the process will always be much longer than the afterglow of the ‘success’. So make mistakes, enjoy the process and be sure to make some time for personal projects, too,” she concludes.

Dear Brother is available in all good bookstores.

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