Like a boat returning to harbour, an artist settles back in familiar surroundings, ensconced by deeper perspectives.
APART from being racially abused, he had to count screws in a factory storeroom, mop floors at a ballet school and wait at a restaurant in Australia.
Now 65, Eric Quah will receive the ultimate accolade an artist can have – a retrospective exhibition featuring 45 years of his work.
“Eric Quah is one of the youngest artists ever to be accorded a retrospective by the Penang State Art Gallery, in recognition of his outstanding lifetime achievement,” says gallery chairman Datuk Tang Hon Yin.
(Artists accorded this honour by Penang include Yong Mun Sen in 1972; Datuk Tay Hooi Keat, 1980; Datuk Chuah Thean Teng, 1994; Yong Mun Sen, 1999; Khoo Sui Hoe, 2007; and Ismail Hashim, 2010.)
Quah has held a phenomenal 43 solo exhibitions – about one every year since he was 22!
His works used to sell for between RM20 and RM60 back in 1969. Nowadays, they fetch a hefty RM60,000 to RM80,000 each. Nevertheless, the jovial artist has not let success get to his head.
“I was playing Angry Birds till 4am on my iPad last night,” he says, during an interview at his second home in Kuala Lumpur recently.
Not only is he young-at-heart, he looks like someone in his 40s. “I have to show my IC when I want to qualify for senior citizen discounts,” he adds, laughing.
Perhaps his elixir of youth is the joy and passion he gets from his work.
Datuk Dr Tan Chee Khuan, guest curator for the retrospective, writes in the exhibition catalogue that Quah, an abstract expressionist, is arguably the best Malaysian artist working in collage today.
“Collage is a liberating experience for Eric. His technique includes cutting and tearing, using tools like scissors, knives, scalpels and, of course, his fingers.
“He may also squeeze paint directly from the tubes onto canvas like (Indonesian artist) Affandi, drip the paint like (American artist) Pollock or follow the splash-ink technique of (Chinese artist) Zhang Daqian.”
Quah says: “When I go to the cloth shop, I’m not shopping for new curtains. I look for ‘funny’ textiles as new art materials.”
He shows this writer his work, Welcome Home, which has fabric included in the collage of a window frame and then painted over.
“I can cut out a portion of my drawings, paste it onto another drawing, or paint on top of it ... The images, colours and brushstrokes all seem to flow in naturally. These are joyful moments!
Quah grew up in Penang, where he attended the Han Chiang Primary school and then Chung Ling High School. It was at the latter that he got into the arts through singing, folk dancing and photography, and learnt painting from Malaya’s pioneer artists like Lee Cheng Yong (1913-74) and Chuah Thean Teng (1912-2008).
“But I felt very lost because I was placed in the Science stream, whereas I wanted to paint. However my parents said an artist couldn’t survive. So I became a teacher.”
In the mid-1960s, as a temporary teacher at Kebun 500, a small town near Alor Setar, Quah would drive his father’s old Mini Minor back to Penang to take oil painting classes every weekend under the self-taught artist, Chia Hui Kiam (1940-85).
“Even till now, his influence is still traceable in my work,” he says.
In 1968, he was awarded a scholarship to Gaya Teacher Training College in Kota Kinabalu, where he majored in Art and Mathematics. The following year, he held his first solo exhibition of 90 paintings and sketches in oil, pastels, ink and wash and batik at the YMCA in the same town.
Quah continued rolling out a few solo shows while working as a teacher in Sandakan, Sabah, but having met many overseas lecturers at Gaya, he yearned to broaden his horizons. So in 1972, he flew to Melbourne and enrolled in the art school of the Caulfield Institute of Technology (which was later incorporated into Monash University).
““In those days there was no email and handphones. I wrote letters to arrange a meeting with the student council representative at the airport,” he recalls. “But nobody showed up. Luckily I found the bus.”
He says he “went through hell” for his four-year art degree, encountering racism and financial hurdles. In 1977, he became a high school art teacher.
“Some kids were from broken homes and would throw clay and splash paint at each other. The Italian and Greek kids would scold me when I could not pronounce their names properly.
“Of course today Australia has changed greatly. They serve sushi at official functions. There is less tolerance for racism.”
Quah came to know Carlotta Bush, and exhibited his works at her Young Originals Gallery in Melbourne. She eventually became his stalwart supporter through tough times.
In 1982, he was awarded a scholarship to the New York Studio School and the city’s frenetic, creative energies inspired further experimentation.
In contrast, when he received an international teaching fellowship at Nanjing Normal University, China, two years later, he found the city to be cold, grey and rundown. But that gave him time to go into sumptuous oil paintings such as his Spring In Jiangsu, which won the Swiss Omega Prize, one of several awards in his lifetime.
“Art awards and honours are fantastic but they don’t really matter as long as you are true to expressing yourself. I hope I can set an example for young artists. It’s not just about selling paintings. You are not painting pictures to please people.”
In Nanjing, he also learnt the finer points of calligraphy, which was incorporated, five years later, into his landmark collage series on the Tiananmen Square bloodshed in 1989, which included works like People Power.
In 1992, Quah decided to quit teaching and become a full-time artist. But fate struck a devastating blow two years later – Bush, his mentor, muse, soulmate, confidante and travelling companion of 22 years, passed away.
He was so gutted that he could not bear to remain in Australia, and retreated to Kuala Lumpur for a year, mourning her by painting his Flowers series, in memory of the roses she once planted in his Melbourne bungalow.
By 1999, he was painting cheerful sunflowers, ducks, butterflies in his To The New Millennium show, before embarking on his most heartfelt series, Seeking The Roots (2001).
In 2003, Quah decided to leave Melbourne and return to Penang permanently.
“Australia is good for a young artist,” he says. “But as an old artist, it gets very lonely. If I was married with children, I would stay there for their education. But as a single, full-time artist, I sometimes don’t see anybody for the whole week. When you phone up friends, they just chat for a few minutes or you just get their answering machines.
“That was when I thought I’d better go back to Penang. If I died in Melbourne, my body would probably be discovered weeks later!” he adds with a laugh.
So he sold off all his properties Down Under and bought a house and studio in Air Itam, where he had siblings living close by.
Since coming home, Quah has done two series of paintings, called Padi Fields (2007) and A Boat (2010).
“Being overseas gave me deeper artistic perspectives. I was like a boat which was previously drifting from one place to another. Now I have found my harbour.”
● Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng will launch ‘Eric Quah: Retrospective’ on Friday at 4.30pm. The exhibition is currently on show at the Penang State Art Gallery, Dewan Sri Pinang, until Nov 30.
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