PETALING JAYA: In a world filled with injustice and frustration, people have to find ways to cope and voice their discontent. For award-winning contemporary artist Eng Hwee Chu, her paintbrush is the weapon of choice.
A native of Johor, Eng is often hailed as the Malaysian counterpart to famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. And she continues to captivate art enthusiasts with her latest exhibition, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”, at the Suma Orientalis Fine Art gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
The 56-year-old’s artwork is a reflection of her upbringing as a Chinese Malaysian woman. Her creations go beyond visual aesthetics by serving as a vehicle for social commentary and advocacy.
Through her powerful imagery, she addresses issues such as gender disparity, women’s rights, and the struggles faced by marginalised communities, encouraging viewers to challenge prevailing social constructs.
“Each new piece I create is inspired by issues that matter to me. I hope that through my art, people can see the portrayal of inequality, be aware, and spread the message,” she told FMT Lifestyle recently.
The acrylic paintings in her third solo exhibition are the culmination of Eng’s creative journey over the past few years, with some completed in 2018 and others more recently.
Look closely and a recurring signature emerges: a red-skinned nude female figure that appears in almost all the paintings. “She is a character that represents a genuine, honest person who bears her heart,” Eng revealed.
Asked about the colour red, she explained: “It is a person’s true emotional state. Although the Chinese are accustomed to using red for auspicious occasions, it’s also connected with anger.
“So, to me, red represents a person’s loud cries of pain when they are hopeless.”
This red woman takes on various forms in each of Eng’s works, guiding viewers through the different stages and facets of womanhood. In the painting “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”, she is pregnant, accompanied by a dark shadow figure that features a cross-section view of her foetus.
One may notice the recurring motif of the foetus in her other works, such as “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall”, and “Saving Myself For You”, situated at the top and centre of each painting, respectively.
Indeed, Eng highlights the womb with meticulous detail. It represents the process of human development, she said, the emergence of female identity, and the profound anguish yet triumph associated with childbirth.
And, as a mother herself, Eng deliberately includes items associated with children, such as toys, or babies in distress.
“I am worried for our children. They are the most defenceless and in need of aid, yet they are often denied basic rights,” she shared.
The presence of a wooden horse serves as another notable element, a metaphor for Eng’s nostalgic yearning for lost childhood experiences.
In “Someone to Watch Over Me”, the horse raises questions about the transition from childhood innocence to adulthood, in a painting imbued with the themes of death, family, and cultural heritage.
In addition, masks feature prominently in her paintings, often to signify there is more than meets the eye.
For instance, in “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall”, surgical masks worn by the elderly reflect the challenges of the pandemic, even as the red-skinned woman takes centre stage.
Similarly, in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, masks adorn a group of white-dressed children seemingly in joyful performance, while figures remain shrouded in shades of blackness. This work invites contemplation on the masks we wear and the nature of politics and power in society.
Eng concluded that, through her art, she would like to see “a greater sense of urgency in the community around the problem of mistreating the defenceless”.
“I hope that those in authority understand and act on the subjective meaning behind my artwork, which I have been advocating for since the start of my career,” she said.
‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ runs at Suma Orientalis Fine Art until July 23. Learn more by visiting the gallery’s website here.
Suma Orientalis Fine Art
The Five @ KPD
B-3a-1, Level 3A, Block B,
Jalan Dungun, Damansara Heights,
50490 Kuala Lumpur
Business hours: 10.30am-6.30pm (closed on Mondays and public holidays)