KUALA LUMPUR: For most artistic people, creativity can stem from feelings of joy, excitement, contentment, serenity. For some, however, it could come from a darker place – loneliness, rejection, and even sickness.
Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s artwork, for example, was largely inspired after a bus incident left her bedridden at home, giving her enough time to explore her creative side.
Like Kahlo, Kuala Lumpur’s own Alicia Lau, 28, was prompted to make art from the objects around her after being instructed to rest at home following a diagnosis of stage-three nasopharyngeal cancer.
Lau and fellow artist Khabir Roslan are part of Wei-Ling Gallery’s Incubator Young Artists Show 2023, an initiative aimed at nurturing and displaying the works of up-and-coming creatives. She applied in 2019 following a call for submissions for the programme.
Over the years, she and Khabir were mentored by artist Yau Bee Ling, who gave feedback and advice to the duo on their ideas and sketches prior to the showcase.
Lau’s experience has been anything but ordinary: her exhibition, “Diary of a Journey”, began from a place of isolation and shock upon learning about her condition.
What followed, she said, was “a period of pressure and tension, a hiatus from work, and repeated visits to the hospital”.
“I took some time off to rest and be at home. It was at that time that I really opened my eyes to the things around me, such as my colourful hair bands, which were like springs,” she told FMT during a recent tour of her exhibition.
Lau began to draw parallels between these items and her own situation, using them as metaphors. For example, “the elasticity of the hair bands was a reminder that if I could bounce back from any hardship I faced, I would be a stronger person”.
To that end, most of her artwork features her favourite hair scrunchies using the masking technique, where an object is applied to acid paper and spray-painted with different colours.
While radiotherapy or chemotherapy are conventional options for most patients, Lau turned to natural remedies, such as consuming turmeric and opting for healthier foods such as vegetables and fruits, “much to the chagrin of my doctors”.
“I began to ‘speak’ to the cells invading my body and gradually began to see them as beautiful entities. I’ve learnt to live with the cancer and comfort my cells that they’re all doing fine,” she said.
She also spent more time in the sun, which is what inspired her artwork “Sunflower vs Me” – a portrait of hair ties that resembles the eponymous blooms: yellow, bright and cheerful.
“I researched online for ‘hardy plants’ and was surprised to find that the sunflower, which can grow in any soil condition, was on the list,” she explained.
Two other artworks, “To Act or to React” and “Vent Holes”, are similarly made using hair ties but are in black and white, resembling magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans from her time in hospital.
And, while going about the house during her convalescence, she observed how sturdy her stainless-steel clothes pegs were. This became the foundation for her installation “WE”, an assemblage of steel clips that represent “holding on”.
“If you look at the arrangement from the outside, the pegs are organised,” she pointed out. “But look from the side and you’ll see how chaotic they are, the many connections they have to make.”
In the same way, she concluded, “everything in life is connected” and, under the right circumstances, can create a “cohesive support system”.
Alicia Lau’s artwork – part of the Incubator Young Artist Show 2023 – is on display at Wei-Ling Gallery until March 4, alongside ‘Changing Identity’, an exhibition by Choy Chun Wai.
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