Art is not about capturing how something looks, it is about capturing how something makes you feel.
Veteran artist Sylvia Lee Goh tells me this as we slowly walk around one of the halls of the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, taking in many of her paintings on display.
Her work – spanning 1986 to 2014 – is the subject of the Sylvia Lee Goh: Then And Now – The Enduring Heart retrospective.
“If you want to paint a portrait, of somebody else who isn’t you, that person has to mean something to you. You don’t go and paint a model. But even if you do, you have to base that model on someone who means something to you,” says Lee Goh.
It is a maxim that this 76-year-old Penang-born artist from Bukit Mertajam has certainly taken to heart. She is one of the few elder female painters still active in the Malaysian art scene today. That’s quite an achievement for the self-taught artist who ventured into painting at the relatively late age of 29 as a way to keep herself occupied.
The thread that connects most of Lee Goh’s work through the years is her deep love for Peranakan heritage (customs, food and fashion), while personal friendships also form a big part of her subject matter.
Just like other self-taught artists here, namely Patrick Ng Kah Onn (1932-1989), Dzulkifli Buyong (1948-2004) and Zulkifli Mohd Dahlan (1952-1978), there is a strong emotional resonance to Lee Goh’s art that goes beyond any academic background usually required in art.
Then And Now brings together 50 of Lee Goh’s works, featuring still life canvases, landscapes and portraits from a career that has spanned over four decades.
“My work has always been a search for identity,” she mentions. “I’ve always been a people-person, so they’re about bonding and relationships. They’re about memories, the re-examination of life, bearing in mind how fragile our mortality is.”
Dressed in a white kebaya, bangles around her hands, Lee Goh speaks with an eloquence and a measured cadence that is almost dowager-like. Her eyes light up with each painting we pass, as another story comes rushing back from the annals of her still-sharp memory.
“This was painted in Lake Chini,” she says as we pass her landscape series, Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.
“The first time I came here (Pahang), there were no lotuses in the water at all! There had just been a big flood. I had to come again to paint them!”
The artist has an inborn love for nature. “Sylvia”, she tells me, is Latin for “from the forest”.
Her portrait After A Thousand Tears (1987), on the other hand, captures a more emotional time in her life.
“My young son had to go back to Australia. We were at the Subang airport, and he turned to go into the transit lounge. I suddenly burst into tears. It went on for three days,” recalls Lee Goh. “But I said to myself, I can't continue crying, I have to do something positive. So I painted this for him.”
According to the artist, all her still life pieces such as Chinoiserie In Blue (2013/2014) and Chinoiserie In Yellow (2013) took inspiration from personal objects. Many of them, such as Nyonya Tray Platter (2013/2014) and Nyonya’s Secret Recipe (1990) pay homage to her culture, which Lee Goh is fiercely proud of.
The artist can trace her Peranakan lineage to Alor Setar, Kedah, where her great-grandfather was the private secretary to Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Mukarram Shah (the 23rd Sultan of Kedah).
Elsewhere, many of Lee Goh’s paintings such as her Introspection: In The Silence Of My Heart series (2008) and works such as Nocturnal Lure (2015) and The Lost Years (2014/2015) feature women bonding in a verdant forest setting.
Another work of interest would be a piece called Red Runs My Blood, Yonder The Golden Streak Of Hope (2014). It is part of Lee Goh’s most recent paintings – three abstract pieces – which offer up her emotional take on the country’s inner turmoil now.
One of the artist’s favourite works is Woman Oh Woman II, which depicts Lee Goh having a meal with her dear friend Maimun Din (1942-1991), who was the first woman to be appointed secretary-general to a Government ministry. (Maimun became the secretary general of the former Justice Ministry in 1991, but died six months later from an illness).
This exhibition, if anything, is a lovingly done tribute to Lee Goh. It features the National Visual Arts Gallery’s collection of her works as well as pieces from private collections.
“This show reaffirms what we already knew and love about her paintings; that she paints with affection and sincerity, but most importantly, she paints from the heart,” says Tan Sei Hon, the exhibition’s guest curator.
Despite being featured in many local and foreign exhibitions, this is only the second solo exhibition for Lee Goh. Her first solo exhibition, Two Decades Of Art From The Heart, 1978-1998 was held in the Penang State Art Gallery in 1998.
Then And Now may also be her last solo show. The artist said she was not sure if she had it in her to have another exhibition. However, Lee Goh said she would keep on painting.
“I will have to continue painting. I still have a dozen sketch canvases, and maybe more than 100 tubes of paint still left at home,” says the artist with a laugh.
Sylvia Lee Goh: Then and Now – The Enduring Heart is on at the National Visual Arts Gallery, 2, Jalan Temerloh, off Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur until Sept 29. The exhibition is open daily from 10am-6pm. Admission is free. More details at www.artgallery.gov.my.