KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 13 ― Despite having lived in Scotland for more than 45 years, Malaysian artist Hock Aun Teh still holds fond memories of his childhood in Taiping, Perak where he lived as a true-blue kampung boy.
That sense of nostalgia has provided the core inspiration for his second solo exhibition at the National Art Gallery, titled Kenangan Zaman Kanak-kanak (Childhood Memories).
Teh was born and brought up in a village called Sungai Gedong that was surrounded by paddy fields, rubber plantations, and rainforests.
“I grew up playing with all the village boys. We caught fish in the paddy fields, swam in the muddy river, and climbed to the treetops to look for bird nests.
“This exhibition is about my passion and love for kampung life. My wild and free childhood experience has helped enrich my imagination as an artist,” the artist told Malay Mail.
Teh has made a name for himself in the art world by blending Eastern and Western styles of art together in his paintings.
His work marries the graceful elegance of Chinese calligraphy with the vivid, punchy colours of
American abstract expressionism, resulting in a loving union between two different cultures on canvas.
Each painting ― with its elaborate brush strokes and bright hues ― brims with the same
free-spirited energy that the artist himself exudes in real life.
The names of the artwork, among them “Chasing An Owl at Dusk” and “Being Fearful of Snakes
While Looking for Grasshoppers”, conjure up images of a playful and idyllic childhood spent in
the Malaysian countryside.
“I’ve been able to meld the essence of two great cultures ― the East and the West ― in my work. And once I have the essence in me, I paint according to my heart."
The multi-talented artist will also be showcasing some of his sculptures made out of materials such as bronze and scrap wood at the exhibition.
Teh has garnered international acclaim over the stretch of his career, hosting exhibitions in cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Beijing and counting Hollywood icons such as Sean Connery of James Bond fame and the late British actor Richard Griffiths as fans of his work.
Now, the painter is ecstatic about returning to his motherland with an exhibition that will resonate with Malaysians who, like Teh, find familiarity in scenes of kampung (village) life.
“I think if I wasn’t born in a kampung, I would not have been able to create these paintings.
“These are the childhood memories set in the country of my birth. That’s so important to me as
I’ve always wanted to do something for my own country and create a theme around it.
“This time, I got the opportunity to do so and I hope the paintings in this exhibition will inspire others in the Malaysian art world,” he said.
As a young student in Taiping, the skeletal nature of the art curriculum at school meant that Teh had to look elsewhere for a place where he could practice his skills.
He attended the Tan Guan Hin Chinese Painting School where he immersed himself in the world of traditional Chinese calligraphy, a technique that he continues to use in his work today.
In 1970, the budding artist was accepted into the Glasgow School of Art where he later returned to work as a lecturer.
However, the boundaries of a 9-to-5 job held little appeal for him and he left his alma mater in 1979 to devote his efforts to painting full-time.
Ultimately, the decision paid off when interested buyers snapped up all of Teh's paintings at a show in Chicago in 1984, marking a major turning point in his career.
Teh credits his art dealer Patrick Davies as a key player in his success and joked that their relationship initially got off to a rather complicated start.
“I’m very lucky to have met Patrick Davies. At first, he wasn’t fond of me but he was in love with my paintings.
“Now he’s been promoting my art for more than 25 years and we travel together all over the world,” he said.
The 68-year-old also helps young artists to hone their craft by hosting art camps and developing specialised art curriculums in school.
“In 2013, I directed the Hock Aun Teh Creative Camp of Modern Art in Taiping. People from all over the world submitted applications to join and I selected 12 of the top artists or art college students to come to Malaysia for two weeks and I taught them intensively.
“I also helped my former high school, SMJK Hua Lian, to organise a modern art course. I called that program ICE, where I stands for ‘imagination’, C for ‘creation’, and E for ‘expression’.
“This country doesn’t have a very precise curriculum when it comes to art, so I helped my former school to find art teachers as well. I went to China to interview all the university art graduates and I brought them back to Taiping to teach at the school,” he said.
Through these efforts, Teh hopes to sow the seeds of creativity in the youth so that they are equipped with the necessary skills and resources to develop their art.
His own experiences of starting off as an artist were not without skepticism from some parties who thought that he should abandon his dreams in favour of a more profitable career path.
“I think all artists should have a dream and a belief that they will achieve it.
“When my parents sent me to study at the Glasgow School of Art, their friends asked, ‘Why are you spending money to send your child overseas to study art? He should study engineering or medicine instead,” Teh recounted.
Luckily, his parents were supportive of his decision to become a painter and encouraged him to pursue his true passion.
“After I graduated, my father said it was important that I do what I loved instead of just trying to please him,” Teh said.
63 paintings and sculptures brought over from the United Kingdom, China, and Indonesia will be shown at the Kenangan Zaman Kanak-kanak exhibition which was curated by Zuriyadi Saripin.
The show will run from January 14 until March 15 at Gallery 2A in the National Art Gallery.