Malaysian artist Chang Fee Ming uses watercolours to portray his interpretation of life
Photos: Christie’s Singapore
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but context really depends on the life experiences of said viewer. For every one of us boasts a wealth of experiences and memories that enable us to interpret what we see uniquely. With this theory in mind, Malaysia artist Chang Fee Ming makes use of his watercolour paintings to evoke emotions in his audiences, creating deeper meaning behind his depictions of everyday rural life.
Represented by Christie’s ‘The Art People’, Chang’s unique achievements as an artist have earned him a passionate international following. A self-taught artist, Chang didn’t have it easy at the start. With his interest in art stemming from a very young age, he spent most of his time drawing, and quipped that his playfulness saw him stealing chalk from the classroom to practice drawing on toilet walls! Dropping out of school during the late 70s at the tender age of 19, Chang had the fortune of meeting a group of Singaporean artists, which led to him to make the trip down south to Singapore to further explore their art. That interest sparked something that fuelled Chang’s ambition, leading him to become what he is today.
Initially using oils for his paintings, Chang’s frequent travels largely influenced the switch to watercolour. “I started with oils, but when I started travelling a lot to places like India and Nepal, I realised that watercolour is a better medium to carry around, and it was easier to wash up after, instead of having to lug turpentine everywhere I went,” said Chang. “Watercolours are also easier to capture the graduations of light and texture, making it easier for me to create dimension in my paintings. I also tried different methods, like crafting in copper, print etching etc. I’m quite fortunate to have been invited by Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), where I have access to master artists and experts who have helped me create new work. With this, I don’t have to know the technique, but am able to combine their inputs with my watercolours and create a unique piece of work.”
An inveterate traveller, Chang’s work revolves around a sense of place, and how this is defined by the land and the people who live on it. Having lived near a fishing village in Malaysia during the British colonisation during his childhood, Chang has had first-hand experience with living the hard life. Fishermen, their skills and the simple lifestyle fascinates him, and he uses these images to connect the people of Asia. Through shared histories of migration, trade and change, material culture, rituals, performances and daily life, Chang has made an effort (perhaps more so than any of his contemporaries), to represent Southeast Asia from an insider’s perspective. At the same time, he makes use of dramatic compositional ploys to bring across these powerful kampong narratives.
“I remember reading this story about a teacher giving an art exam, where students are supposed to choose from two titles derived from Chinese sayings; first one was ‘A temple deep in the mountain’ and second was ‘Horse’s hooves with flower fragrance’. Of course, all the other students painted a literal depiction of the titles, but there was this one particular student that did things differently. For the first title, he painted a mountain with a long staircase leading to a lake, and a monk collecting water. For the second, he painted a horse with beautiful butterflies swarming around it. As you can see, instead of showing it like it is, the student went much deeper to bring our meaning from his painting, to let people think, and make their own understanding. This is the language of paintings. And this story was what helped me change my perspective and to grow to another level as a painter.”
Chang shows this philosophy in his painting, ‘Children and Youth Together’, which depicts a traditional staircase lined with children’s shows and school bags in a wooden hut housed in a Malay village. Two pillars, one worn and one new, symbolise the two different ages. Bringing out the title of the painting, Chang manages to create a narrative without directly portraying the subject.
“I keep travelling, looking for inspirations, especially in rural places. I love fishermen, the fishing life and their skill—a small l hook, one man, the struggle of life,” comments Chang when asked about the subjects he enjoys painting.
While recent years have seen Chang travel through the Mekong region, to Tibet, Bhutan, and even the African coast, he remains deeply attached to Bali, with its singular and special preservation of traditional life and culture. His latest inspiration is to create a sort of miniature city of Indonesia on a painting, but done by a collage of sketches that he does and sends home in every province that he visits.