Malaysian's artwork about endangered sun bear selected for global competition

  • Living
  • Monday, 28 Oct 2019

Diong with a soft toy she received as a gift for adopting a Malayan sun bear under the BSBCC’s Share Bear Adoption programme. Photo: The Star/S.S. Kanesan

Malaysian designer, artist and illustrator Diong Swee Gaik couriered her artwork to Britain a day before the closing date of a competition, half wondering whether it would reach on time.

When it did, she was much relieved. The next thing she knew, her entry had made it to the top 100 artworks – selected by a panel of leading wildlife artists – for the Explorers Against Extinction: Sketch For Survival (SFS) UK Tour 2019.

“I was in Jakarta for the Asean Kendo Tournament when I saw my name in the top 100 list selected from 450 global entries,” shared Diong, 48, who goes by the name Swee Diong.

Sketch for Survival is an initiative of Explorers Against Extinction, a UK-based Trust dedicated to promoting the conservation of rare and endangered species, and the protection of their environments.

In April, Diong was in Sabah to visit the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sepilok, Sandakan. In addition to learning more about the Malaysian rainforest and its endangered animals, she was inspired to do her part to protect sun bears.

When she learnt about the Explorers Against Extinction competition from a friend’s Facebook post, Diong felt the urge to participate and highlight the Malayan sun bear’s plight to an international audience through her art.

Diong’s This Is My Home artwork draws attention to the plight of the critically endangered Malayan sun bear. Photo: Diong Swee Gaik

Her piece, entitled This is My Home, depicts a sun bear sitting on a bird’s nest fern on a treetop canopy with a distant look, as if asking, “What does the future hold?”

Diong highlighted two issues through the artwork – the endangered sun bear and the need to protect our Malaysian rainforest.

“I was looking for a cause to support and found that the Malayan sun bear didn’t get enough attention (unlike the hugely popular Malayan tiger),” said Diong, who also adopted a sun bear named Montom under BSBCC’s Share Bear Adoption programme.

Her artwork will be on tour alongside professional artists and celebrities in the SFS Invitational Collection. In previous years, celebrities like Dame Judy Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry and Sir Ralph Fiennes have donated their own sketches to the Trust for display and auction.

The exhibition is currently touring Britain until November and thereafter, the works will be sold to raise funds for the Trust. Diong is also up for three awards: SFS Introducing 2019 Artist of the Year, The Leisure Painter’s People’s Choice Award and The Artist Award.

Pursuing her dream career

One of the T-shirt designs done by Diong featuring the Malayan sun bear. Photo: Pagoda Kingdom

Ever since she was young, Diong has loved to draw. Her father, too, used to paint for pleasure.

“I would draw Disney characters and cartoons,” she recalled.

Then from the age of 13, Diong aspired to be a fashion designer. In Form Five, she took part in a nationwide fashion design competition.

“After my design made it to the semi-finals, I convinced my father to send me overseas to pursue my studies in fashion,” said Diong, from Petaling Jaya.

She then graduated with a degree in fashion design from Kingston University in Britain. In her final year of studies, she also won the coveted Best Womenswear Design award in the UK Student Graduate Awards.

Diong continued to pursue a career in fashion, assuming the roles of assistant merchandiser for a homegrown lifestyle brand, business development manager for a South Korean athletic shoe and clothing company, and design specialist for an American fashion brand.With all the experience gathered, Diong then decided to start her own independent children’s designer clothing and lifestyle brand.

The label’s designs are inspired by eastern kingdoms and feature exclusive hand-illustrated prints about the beauty of each land, including the Land of the Rising Sun, Pearl of the Orient and the Spice Islands. Among others, Diong has illustrated animals such as the Malayan sun bear and proboscis monkeys for her label.

The talented Diong’s other passion lies in martial arts. She has been an Aikido exponent for 20 years and took up Kendo six years ago.

A second Dan black belt holder, she recently returned from Jakarta where she was part of the Malaysian women’s team that won silver in the Asean Kendo Championships in August. Last year, she also represented Malaysia in the World Kendo Championships in Korea.

With a fierce fighting spirit, Diong believes that through hard work, determination and a dream in hand, nothing is unachievable.

You can view Diong’s artwork at initiatives/sfs-introducing/. The closing date for voting in the People’s Choice Award is Nov 10.

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