ERIC Quah arrived in Australia in 1972, at the tail end of the While Australia policy (which officially ended in 1975).
“You can imagine how difficult it was. In Malaysia, I was considered an up-and-coming young artist. In Australia, I had to wash dishes in Chinese restaurants to support myself and was called derogatary names like ‘Chink-Chong’ in the streets. It was like starting all over again,” he says, remembering the period when he painted Struggle (1976).
“But it was the right decision, I wanted to learn international perspectives, otherwise I would have become a local artist just happy painting kampung scenes.” (Returning Home, 1967, comes to mind.)
In 1976, the art faculty at the Caulfield Institute of Technology decided fail to him for his final year. What got Quah really angry was that halfway through his repeat year, he learnt a lecturer from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology had seen two of his paintings (including Struggle) and offered him a postgraduate fellowship. But his school withheld the news from him!
That year, too, his father passed away back in Malaysia. “I still keep the letters he wrote to me every week. The night he died, I dreamt so clearly of him sitting on my bed talking kindly to me,” he says.
“I repeated my final year quietly. The experience gave me a lot of strength and made me realise that everyone has a different opinion of art. If you fail, it doesn’t mean that you are no good. ”
Indeed, another hidden blessing of these tribulations was that it inspired him to paint Lady In Stress, which was awarded first prize by the Australian Contemporary Arts Society in 1977.
Eric’s Big Apple
“New York was a very fast city for me after slow-moving Melbourne,” says Quah of his arrival there in 1982.
“A poster goes up one day and is gone the next. I was helping to peel off so-called illegal posters from a wall outside my art school when I noticed how beautiful the colours underneath were, as layer after layer came off. From this I developed the technique of ‘decollage’.”
He met Singapore-born Margaret Leng Tan, known for her classical music played on toy pianos, soy sauce dishes and cat-food cans, and as a collaborator of the composer John Cage.
Tan commissioned Quah to do a collage of her, Sonic Encounter, which reflects the avant-garde nature of her music.
It was also in New York that he developed his love of painting window scenes.
“I am fascinated with windows. I regard painting as a balance of yin and yang.”
One hot summer afternoon, while looking out the window of his Soho studio, he saw a lady wearing a hat with the American flag, holding some flowers and singing loudly.
“I quickly captured the scene through a collage.” The result was the painting Soho Fashion.
In New York, he also changed his signature from “Hiang” (Quah Kee Hiang) to “Eric Quah”, a move symbolic of his shifting East-West balance.
In 2000, Quah undertook a journey in search of his “roots” – his mother’s relatives in Teochew, Guandong, China. He only had the name of an aunt and a decade-old address.
By combing through municipal records, birth/death certificates and with a bit of luck, he managed to trace his mother’s surviving elder brother.
“I met him and the whole clan. It was so emotional,” recalls Quah. “I then used my mobile phone to call my frail mother in Penang. It was their first conversation since the time she was sent off at Swatow harbour by her brother 65 years ago.”
Quah took photos with many long-lost uncles and aunts in Teochew restaurants and these were embedded in the canvas of over 20 collage works and then swept over (partially) with oil paint.
This series, Seeking The Roots, included the collage Good Earth, and the paintings Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, which depicts a resilient tree still standing outside his mother’s old house.
The work which stands out is Voyage Ahead, a painting that shows the window of his mother’s ancestral home and the winding road to the boat that would carry her to Malaya. – Andrew Sia
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