I can’t remember the first time I saw Sharon’s art. The more conversations we have now, the more I find out that I’ve known her works before knowing they were hers.
And I’ve not only known them, I’ve loved them from the doubled distance of outsider and audience. I remember engaging with the sculptural, interactive pieces of ‘Portable Sensors’ back in 2013, a difficult year as I was sure I would never recover from returning to a country that took the concept of ‘home’ away from me. The angry noises that screamed out of these buzz wire kits were relieving; contained electrical protests to match the claustrophobia I felt about my geographical predicament. An apt personal response to a work of art addressing the issue of banned books in Malaysia, of stories and voices forced into mutism or absence, of a system that aims to starve a space out of any indication that difference should be celebrated and not controlled. Engaging with these pieces made me feel closer to something I felt I hadn’t the right to address – a sense of locality within my own narrative.
There is a lot of giving in her works, without taking much away from subject matters or the artist herself – Sharon’s process is what I’d describe as an on-going creative exploration supported by its own life flow, providing support while branching off in a gentle but fierce growth.
– Dhiyanah H
Art Editor of Burning House Press
How did you arrive at the ‘graphic journalism’ style of working? You mentioned in our last conversation that you started drawing as a way to engage with your community – people you met in public places kept asking you to draw them. Has this influenced the way you work now, in the way you utilize art to amplify narratives?
I moved from Kuala Lumpur to Port Dickson five years ago – big city to small town. When locals find out I’m an artist, they almost always ask the same thing: “Can you draw me?” I thought: well, damn, I better learn to draw! I majored in sculpture, and after graduating, was doing performance, installation and conceptual work – basically anything but figurative art. I was an artist who believed she couldn’t draw.
My gateway to illustrated journalism was a great little digital magazine called Symbolia – it combined serious reporting with comics or illustration. Then I found out about Molly Crabapple’s work, which blew me away, and influenced me hugely. Another favorite journalist is Quinn Norton. They were producing a kind of journalism I’d never seen before – subjective and nuanced, but rigorously accurate, and gorgeous to look at.
I don’t see myself as an amplifier of stories so much as a someone who goes somewhere, observes, listens, and constructs a narrative that’s hopefully meaningful, first of all to the communities I’m writing about, then a wider public.
How long have you been writing and drawing?
Can’t remember. A lifetime.
What is your relationship to writing? Does it complement or contrast to your relationship with drawing?
At first, it was hard to figure out how images and words work together. It’s like riding two elephants at once! But if you get them to go in the same direction, they can carry a story in a way that’s incredibly powerful. Images tend to pour out of my brain like water. The thing is that it’s hard to trust this flow because it’s not… a logical or linear way of organizing thoughts, in the way writing can seem to be. I’ve learned to follow the images, and let words give shape and angles to the story. Sometimes – not often – it’s reversed: a sentence may suggest an image. Having two elephants is fun, and a lot of work.
How do you navigate personal and public spaces, as an artist?
Art is the chlorophyll of life – it’s a synthesizer, a binder. Everything that I am eventually ends up in the art, although it goes through a long process. I try to just let the process happen. Be like a leaf!
What are your thoughts on personal and collective narratives? Do they exist in equal significance, or is the one more important than the other?
By telling our stories we create the collective culture. The tiniest stream leads to the vast ocean.
Do you consider your work as social/political commentary? Do you think social/political art is the most relevant art form in Malaysia right now?
Yes to the first question, although that doesn’t account for all that it is. No to the second question.
Parts of Malaysia’s narratives are systematically hidden for the sake of an unstable power dynamic. The nation’s post-colonial trajectory has seen a diminishment in the people’s sense of selves, struggling with cultural dissonance in both the personal and collective spheres. Artwork, writing, and journalism that aim to highlight these dissonances are threatened by attempts of silencing through charges of sedition and enforced censorships (e.g. Medium banned in Malaysia, a local news portal was recently shut down). How do you think this affects the works that are being made in Malaysia today? How do you, in your works, reconcile with or challenge this tension attached to acts of creative self-expression?
Censorship is tough thing to tackle, a difficult subject to think through and uncover. I tried with my exhibition ‘SENSORS: Banned Books & Other Monsters‘ in 2007. This quote by Andre Brink still illuminates: “The totalitarian order depends for its very existence on a precarious equilibrium. Without the heretic, the rebel, the writer, the state crumbles: yet by tolerating him, the ruler equally well seals his fate. At least by implication, Big Brother’s mighty system disappears because he wanted to eradicate the dissident – but could not do without him.”
What are your views on the writing being done locally, about art? Do you think there is a lack in this, in accessible texts documenting responses or the process behind locally-based art/artists?
I’ve always said that artists should write about fellow artists, or at least, themselves. Non-artists should write about artists, like Art KL-itique. All the problems about art writing – not enough of it, too inaccessible, too uncritical, too biased, etc – can be solved by writing something, ANYTHING, about art. When you have a lot of people writing differently about art, then the stakes for writing are lowered, there’s more exchange of ideas, and voila! You get a vibrant, less-bitchy art scene.
These days, I write for friends, my fellow artists. If it helps other people relate to the work, that’s fine. But I don’t write for that. I write because it helps me think about and appreciate the work of my peers.
The general viewpoint is that there is a widespread absence of art appreciation in Malaysia/Southeast Asia. I once spoke to a New York-based artist exhibiting in Singapore who said the most interesting reaction he got was from those who said they had no reaction. He was very surprised by this, yet there are locally-based artists who would be surprised when there is a reaction to their works. What are your thoughts on this?
I think us third-worlders have a great appreciation of art, aesthetics, how to live life, how to die – look at our food, our gods, our textiles, our ruins. ‘I have no reaction to this work of art’ spoken in what I presume is a gallery setting, can mean alot of things, not the least of which is a subtle dissing of what’s on display.
Was there a significant difference in audience engagement when you exhibited ‘Weeds/Rumpai’ at APT8? Were you able to observe the reactions your works received there, what were they like?
People liked the work, they understood it. I wasn’t sure how the specifics would translate. But it’s quite straightforward work, although it condenses complex ideas – weeds from my garden drawn on Malaysian political party flags that I collected from my neighborhood before the last General Elections.
Do you think art in Malaysia/Southeast Asia is inaccessible to the majority of its local communities. If so, who then is the art made for? In contrast, how accessible is the art of this region to a global audience? Would it be the artist’s responsibility or the responsibility of art/cultural organizers to widen the access of Southeast Asian art?
Accessibility… responsibility… I don’t know. I’d like to stop thinking about audiences as some vaguely imagined crowd we have to educate and market to death to ‘reach.’ We are the audience. No matter what you do, someone will find value in it, so don’t worry about accessibility, just write/make what you think and feel!
Do it for love, do it for fun, do it for enough profit so that you get to keep doing it. Put your lifeblood in everything. Let that be your marketing strategy. Let your effort, your pain, your love, your messy human existence be the thing that reaches across the borders of this earth to touch someone. Trust that that’s enough, that that’s all there is to do.
How important is collaboration to you?
This year is the year of doing work with others! Everything is in the supporting role – I’m illustrating someone’s stories, designing someone’s film. I drew pictures for my friend Francis Wolf’s new album ‘The Surrogate Friend‘. But my working style is like my thumbprint. From sending emails to making drawings – there’s a pattern that’s mine alone. When the work goes right, whether on your own or with others, your pattern gets stronger.
It doesn’t always go right. I’ve had bad collaborations, lost friendships.
Do you think it’s crucial to have a creative support network, a group of art/cultural practitioners you can count on for constructive feedback and to challenge you creatively?
Yup, it’s essential to have a cohort that believes in you.
What has been the most difficult aspect of using art to tell stories?
It used to be the immense expenditure of mental and emotional effort, but as the years pass, it’s wear and tear on the body. All the sitting, the endless hours inking. It’s hard for your eyes, neck, back. This year I’ve been trying to be more active, also getting enough sleep. That’s a challenge.
What’s the strangest story you have found, and have you made any works on it?
For some reason I’ve always wanted to do a story about the history of avocados in Malaysia. On a totally unrelated note, my favorite Twitter at the moment is:
But my avocado obsession predates that discovery.
If the house was burning and you could only take one book with you, which book would you take?
Ursula Le Guin’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching.
Who are some artists or writers who have been influential to your growth as an artist?
Montien Boonma – a wonderful Thai artist who passed away in 2001.
Elizabeth Presa – one of my teachers in art school and a great artist. I’d call her work ‘tender anarchism.’
Chee Sek Thim – he gave me my first solo show in Malaysia.
Khai Hori – he gave me my first show outside Malaysia in 2006, then in 2013 was responsible for making ‘Mandi Bunga’ happen at the Singapore Biennale.
A. Samad Ismail – his short stories opened a door to loving and re-learning the Malay language.
Lynda Barry – her books ‘What It Is’ and ‘Picture This’ led me back to myself at a time I was at a bad place with my art.
Ursula Le Guin – her books changed my life.
Lao Tzu – the oldest anarchist.
Murray Bookchin – for thinking up a world I could live in, and thus, work towards.
Zedeck Siew – my dear partner in life and art.
You’re currently doing a three-months residency at Hotel Penaga (Penang, Malaysia) under Rimbun Dahan’s programme – what are you working on and what’s next for you?
I’m working on a series of linoprint illustrations for Zedeck Siew’s short stories about fantastic animals and plants. The residency’s been great – a solid block of time to work is always precious. There’ll be an exhibition of the prints at Run Amok Gallery at the end of July. It’s gonna be fun!
Sharon Chin is an artist living in Port Dickson, Malaysia. For more on her and her art, head over to her website. She can also be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. Sharon’s newest journalism piece, Pipe Dreams, was recently published on Medium, a site blocked in the country. The piece is now also available on her website and is part of her work documenting Malaysia’s water issue.