Contemporary artist Minstrel Kuik’s works are often multi-layered when it comes to a subject’s essence and details. Her new fabric assemblages are intricate but not flashy, grounded but not morose.
These 13 artworks at her solo show Memory Games For A House In Motion at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur, have wooden sticks and frames serving as an anchor, upon which swatches of fabric, transferred photographic cut-outs and personal articles of clothing are carefully ironed, stitched and arranged.
These layers are made up of the colours, shapes and stories of an observant soul in an ever-changing world.
Built with the transformation of the city of Kuala Lumpur in mind, it sounds like a project of epic proportions.
“I am thinking of the aftermath of May 13 and the implementation of Malaysia’s New Economic Policy, and how it has changed the demography of our country through intra and interstate migrations. Also, the 1997 economic crisis and how it affected Malaysian politics and slowed down the economic boom, which could be directly linked to the stagnancy of the real estate market and housing projects,” says Kuik, 45, who has built a career blurring the lines between photography and multimedia art.
But it is not necessarily as weighty as it sounds.
In her exploration of space and transformation in these works, what also emerges is an personal aspect that is as pragmatic as it is relatable. Memory Games For A House In Motion, which took two years to complete, is also her first solo show at Richard Koh Fine Art KL.
Idea of home
Raised in the fishing village of Pantai Remis in Perak, Kuik has since set up home – however temporary it may be – in various locations in her adult life, including Singapore, Taiwan and France.
She is currently based in Klang, Selangor.
“I think a key word here is adaptation. I am constantly adapting to new spaces, because of the need to adapt. Of course, in the process I also transform myself in order to fit into the space. But not to be pessimistic – while undergoing this transformation to adapt, I hope that I will gain certain insight to enable me to live with the space, instead of being totally controlled by it,” she says.
She notes that if we look at transformation simply from the perspective of trying to adapt, then it is too passive a process.
“But if we can negotiate which part of us has to adapt, we can decide who we can become and not simply let it be dictated by circumstances,” she adds.
It has not always been a walk in the park for her.
In 2009, Kuik moved to Brittany, France, with the intention of settling down in the region. That resolve was short-lived. When autumn came and brought with it cold wind and rain, she knew it wouldn’t work out.
“It was a tell-tale sign warning me that Brittany was no place to house a tropical soul. Shutting out the cold, I kept myself for long hours in the newly-furnished room, focusing on the production of my photo book RROSE – A Story of Two Worlds (2005-2009). The photo book bridged two places in my life, Pantai Remis and Arles, both close to the sea but sharing nothing in common in geography, history and culture,” she mentions.
RROSE was shown at the International Discoveries II at FotoFest in Houston, United States, in November that year.
Even her settling in Klang Valley was a tumultuous affair in its early days.
“The adaptation was so violent that I wanted to run away. And I did, once, but I had to come back. And when I did, I decided to put more effort into building relationships with people. What I have learned is that when you are in a space, you need to work at making it work, at making it yours. Or else you will eventually reach a tipping point and you will know that’s when you are going to leave.
“I believe that happiness is a state of mind, to be happy you either have to be very naive or you have to be very strong. Sometimes you need to be both. We cannot always have everything in life, but maybe we can have enough,” she says.
Quite fittingly, she draws on the works of veteran cartoonist Lat and the late contemporary painter Chia Yu Chian – both artists who are never short of everyday multi-racial scenes of Malaysian life in their art.
She says that unlike the official and grand narratives promoted by nation building, their works help her to reconnect with the place in a personal way by showing her the complexities and historical depth in the making of the capital city.
“They showed the reality of the city and its people, the labour behind what built the city. When we talk about progress, we seldom talk about the price we have to pay and who made it happen. Who are the people who relocated from their hometowns to the city? Where do the construction workers come from? What is the link between migrant workers, the real estate market and people like me, the end user? By looking closely at who built the city, I start to understand the infrastructure and urban space in a more tangible and concrete way,” she elaborates.
In The Merdeka Themes and A House Model pieces, Kuik works with earth tones like rust, burnt sienna, burnt umber and yellow ochre.
“I was inspired by the ‘Malaysian taste’, both male and female, and mostly working class. It is a pleasure to go to a fabric shop, to see how Malaysians dress themselves. I introduced some white, pink and floral batik patterns to suggest a feminine space in my works.
“For the songket fabrics, I chose motifs that are similar to weaving of attap or bamboo rooftops and walls in vernacular Malay architecture. The silver shining fabric is to highlight the shift in building materials of our modern houses, from the use of vegetal and timber materials to something more industrial like the zinc roofing sheets,” she explains.
In The Builder And Her House sub series, she used muslin, a plain-woven cotton fabric, as a nod to the long history of the cotton trade in South Asia and South-East Asia.
“When all the different elements are assembled, I hope they open up a sensory space where we can reconnect to our past, and at the same time, suggest a diverse and open society nurtured by its rich cultures. I wish people would look at our spaces with a more attentive eye,” she concludes.
Memory Games For A House in Motion is on at Richard Koh Fine Art Kuala Lumpur till Oct 24.
More info here.