Heritage area in Alor Setar given a splash of colour by veteran Kedah artist’s murals

  • Malaysia
  • Friday, 05 Jul 2019

Are they sisters? Close friends? Who are they? Veteran artist Lee Choon Kooi is not revealing anything about the two women featured in his first mural series in a Alor Setar heritage area.

One is a peaceful, idyllic image of two women in headscarves at rest on a wooden bench and the other shows them together, posing against the backdrop of a kampung (village) setting and coconut trees.

Another work shows the women hauling up fishing nets and mending them by a boat near the riverbank.

Both women have no names, but they are fast becoming Instagrammable public murals to visit in Alor Setar.

Are they sisters? Are they close friends? Who exactly are they?

Veteran artist Lee Choon Kooi is not revealing much about his first mural series in a Alor Setar heritage area.

Both women are the subjects of three new murals painted by Kedah-born Lee at Caffe Diem, a pre-war shop house turned into a specialty coffee place in Jalan Penjara Lama, Pekan Cina in Alor Setar.

"I will leave it up to the viewer's imagination," says Lee about the identities of his subjects.

The 69-year old self-taught artist, based in Alor Setar, says he had been approached by the cafe owner to paint the murals last year, but had originally been unsure about doing so.

One of Lee's murals, portraying rustic life in Kedah, features two women mending a fishing net. Photo: Tosha

“I was not confident at first. I’m new to the medium, I have never done a (public) mural before!” says the artist, who has over 40 years of experience in Chinese ink painting.

Lee’s works are keen reminders of the classic Nanyang style, a mix of forms and techniques from Chinese pictorial traditions and Western influences. His challenge was to recreate such works on a public wall.

"This is very different from a gallery show. The works had to be sizeable (for the walls). In the end, I was convinced to give this a chance. I’m happy with how it turned out!” says Lee in recent interview.

These are not the only works of art by Lee in Caffe Diem. The building also features a space called The China Room, where Lee’s paintings fill up that space. The works exhibited depict mostly Malaysiana scenes.

At first, Lee wasn't sure he could take on a mural project. But slowly and steadily he grew in confidence, creating three murals bearing his signature style. Photo: Tosha

The building, originally a prison during the British colonial area, was built in 1896, as commemorated by the road’s name Jalan Penjara Lama.

Before the Japanese occupied Malaya during WWII, the prison was relocated to its current premises at Jalan Sultanah. The shop house was later sold to a private owner from Penang, who lived there and rented out the rest of the space as rooms or shop lots. The building was then left abandoned for the past 30 years.

In late 2014, Kedah-based property developer Encomas Sdn Bhd started off months of painstaking work to restore the beauty and nostalgia of the derelict building.

Today, the restored building, with a more than 120 year old history, aims to educate the community on heritage conservation and preservation.

In creating his new murals, Lee sketched them first and measured the task ahead by visiting the blank walls. He spent two weeks on them, working alone.

Each of the three mural shows a scene of kampung life with the two women as the focus. One particularly unique thing about his works is that they were painted using calligraphy brush strokes.

Lee working on one of the murals during the early stages of its design. Photo:Tosha

The kampung backdrop is an obvious reference to Kedah being known for its traditional villages and rural charm, while the mural of the two women fixing (fishing nets), says Lee, is inspired by an old Chinese saying that Kedah is a land with plentiful fish.

“I have always enjoyed painting peaceful kampung scenes. My art reflects a big part of my life and my home state,” says Lee.

For heritage enthusiasts, the hanging Perahu Kedah series (three wooden row boats) is also a permanent fixture and highlight at Caffe Diem. The boats, nearly 90 years old, are suspended from the glass ceiling.

Apart from Lee's murals, the public is welcome to walk in and admire the intricate architecture and the various unique exhibits housed within Caffe Diem, specifically The China Room, The Tunku Room and the hanging Perahu Kedah.

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