Malaysian textile artists weave personal stories in 'Intimacies' show


Ang's artwork titled 'Wasting Time (March 1969)' crafted from domestic textiles in 2024, draws inspiration from family archives, photographs, and cherished memories. Photo: Ang Xia Yi

Often overlooked as an art form, textiles have long had the ability to capture the fluid and indistinct quality of memory.

In Inventory of Intimacies, The Back Room gallery's latest group exhibition, textile enthusiasts and art lovers get the chance to view the similar, yet disparate works of artists such as Ang Xia Yi, Cheong See Min and Nia Khalisa (who goes by Lisa).

The show in Kuala Lumpur, which runs until this Sunday (June 23), features textiles, found fabrics and fibres used as a means of recording time and history on a more intimate scale.

At the gallery, you’ll find a range of mediums, including pictorial patchwork quilting, weaving and batik drawings.

According to the show's curator, Ellen Lee, textiles have a long history as a craft. However, it is only recently that they have gained recognition as an art medium and become more commonly exhibited in KL.

Cheong's handwoven textile with linen piece 'Untitled (What A Wonderful Day)' from 2018. Photo: Cheong See MinCheong's handwoven textile with linen piece 'Untitled (What A Wonderful Day)' from 2018. Photo: Cheong See Min

“As a gallery, we try to keep a pulse on what is contemporary and we thought that it would be nice to do a textile show as we haven’t shown textile pieces in the gallery for a while,” says Lee.

The Back Room’s last exhibition involving textiles was Insistencia/Resistencia: 3 Contemporary Artists From Guatemala last May.

Textiles also have a very intimate connotation, because of how people form personal relationships with their textiles, how evocative their texture and feel are, how close textiles lie to the skin," says Lee.

“We brought together Xia Yi, See Min and Lisa because we felt that their practices share an appreciation of the intimate and the human. They make works that capture fleeting memories, impressions, and experiences against larger historical narratives,” she adds.

Getting to know nostalgia

Ang's exhibited pieces are part of an ongoing series of textile works, crafted as sewn patchworks from found fabrics sourced from household stockpiles accumulated over generations or discovered in vintage fabric shops.

“I grew up surrounded by textiles, having parents who are in the business of textile production,” says Ang, 28, who balances her work as an artist and archivist.

“My fondest childhood memory was when I would sit in my mother’s room with a pair of fabric scissors cutting scraps of fabric and playing with Pantone colour swatches while she worked. Textiles will always be a medium most comforting and familiar to me,” she adds.

Ang has no issues working with found fabrics, which adds character to her art.

Ang says her fabric pieces, inspired by her grandfather's old photographs, are comforting, but at times confrontational, and has only left her with more unanswered questions. Photo: Amani AzlinAng says her fabric pieces, inspired by her grandfather's old photographs, are comforting, but at times confrontational, and has only left her with more unanswered questions. Photo: Amani Azlin

“I found most of these materials out of convenience, yellowing and moulding from our tropical humidity for the past 25 to 30 years. They would be considered trash to most, but I believe that is when you stumble upon the best sort of materials,” she says.

Her art pieces also represent a family scrapbook, which has been "updated" with fabric material.

“They are reinterpretations of disjointed memories in reference to photographs taken by my maternal grandfather, Goon Kok Woh, in the late 1960s to 1970s. Each work depicts scenes of different places my family had spent their time in – the office, the departmental store and various parts of home," says Ang.

Nature in suspension

Getting the opportunity to study batik in Surakarta, Indonesia in 2019 was what first sparked Lisa’s interest in batik craft.

“Batik is such a treasured form of craft that is rooted in our regional culture,” says Lisa, 29, who also works part-time as a project coordinator in the arts.

A close-up of Lisa's 'Paya Sebelum Golf Course' from her 'Bayang Wayang' series (2024). Photo: Nia KhalisaA close-up of Lisa's 'Paya Sebelum Golf Course' from her 'Bayang Wayang' series (2024). Photo: Nia Khalisa

“After practising batik for several years, I thought of delving into the traditions of wayang kulit to further explore the possibilities of my batik craft by turning the textile into a more rigid piece.”

In Lisa’s works for the exhibition, she pieces together chains of fabric cutouts made from "batik tjap", or stamped batik, that are cast in resin, which are then hung from the ceiling.

Resembling the mobiles used to lull babies to sleep as they lie in their cots, the suspended pieces cast hypnotic shadows on the gallery’s walls and floors.

The inspiration for her intricate stamp designs, which are custom-made based on her own drawings, come from the creatures, plants and patterns around her.

Lisa reflects on Langkawi's rapid transformation from an idyllic, nature-filled, mystical cultural destination to a bustling tourist island in her works. Photo: Nia KhalisaLisa reflects on Langkawi's rapid transformation from an idyllic, nature-filled, mystical cultural destination to a bustling tourist island in her works. Photo: Nia Khalisa

Having lived in Langkawi on an art residency programme, it’s no wonder that her fondness for the island is reflected in her art – the batik mobiles are a continuation of her ongoing Bayang Wayang series, where she utilises motifs drawn from the island’s surroundings and cultural heritage.

However, the pieces are not only an homage, but a critique, as they touch on issues that presently afflict the island, namely the conflict between development, tourism and the natural ecosystem.

Playing with loose threads

In Cheong’s artworks, she plays with a sense of "incompleteness".

Two new woven pieces are presented in the exhibition, along with a few smaller, earlier works that are suspended in the space so that viewers can view the works’ front and back. Much of her works are finished with loose threads at the back, showing a picture of soft and tantalising disorder to contrast the rigid locked fibres at the front.

'Birds On Bird' by Cheong, which is a handwoven textile artwork with natural-dyed cotton, silk and metallic yarn. Photo: Cheong See Min'Birds On Bird' by Cheong, which is a handwoven textile artwork with natural-dyed cotton, silk and metallic yarn. Photo: Cheong See Min

“Textiles have always fascinated me, not only because of its rich history, but also because of the wisdom and culture that is passed down through generations after generations, and how this reflects the ever-changing relationship between humans and their surroundings,” says Cheong, 30, a multidisciplinary artist who currently divides her time between Malaysia and Taiwan.

She carefully selects yarns through research and experimentation, using natural pigments from native South-East Asian plants like pomegranate, gambir, and turmeric.

“Through my pieces, I try to express themes of memory, identity and emotion – each piece is a reflection of personal and collective experiences, often drawing on themes of loss, remembrance and healing," says Cheong.

“The motifs and textures I create – like the loose-hanging tassels at the back of some of my pieces – are meant to evoke a deep, emotional response, encouraging viewers to connect with their own memories and feelings,” she concludes.

Inventory Of Intimacies is showing at The Back Room gallery, the Zhongshan building in Kuala Lumpur until this Sunday. Free admission.


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