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Datuk Chuah Thean Teng Life-Long Devotion To Batik

LONDON.- Visual art’s long-standing association with batik came to the fore at the National Art Gallery exhibition Revival: Evoking the Batik Tradition. Veronica Shunmugam speaks to the man behind it all – Datuk Chuah Thean Teng. Old man, says Datuk Chuah Thean Teng with a gentle smile, gesturing apologetically towards his ears in response to my first enquiry. His son,  Chuah Seow Keng, who is sitting in at the interview, explains that Teng - as the elder Chuah prefers to be known – is hard of hearing. “Do you know how old I am? Ninety-two,’’ Teng adds with a chuckle.
It is a humbling experience indeed to be accorded this private interview with “The Father of Batik Art,’’ especially for one whose first memory of Malaysian art were sublime kampung scenes curiously painted in batik style.  Whether these paintings were printed on the back of an old Reader’s Digest or in an in-flight magazine, they were so appealing that I recognized them years later while studying for the pioneer year SPM Art theory examination, which was when I discovered who had created these beautiful images. . Revival: Evoking the Batik Tradition is currently on view at Gallery 3A of the National Art Gallery.

The name Chuah Thean Teng is inextricably woven into the fabric of our nation’s art history. His works were among those exhibited at the opening of the National Art Gallery’s (NAG) first premises – graced by the country’s first Prime Minister YTM Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj – at 109, Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur on Aug 27, 1958. He was also the first Malaysian artist to exhibit overseas; at an exhibition by the Majlis Kesenian Persekutuan (Federal Arts Council) held in London in 1959. Art chronicler Dr Tan Chee Kuan credits Teng as the person who drew the art world’s attention to other batik artists such as Khalil Jibrahim, Tay Mo Leong and Toya. Seow Keng, Teng and Khalil Ibrahim admiring Teng’s Joy of Living at the launch of Revival: Evoking the Batik Tradition. Teng comes from an artistic family (his mother designed shoes) and had studied art in the Amoy Art Institute, China before immigrating with his tradesman father at the age of 18 to Malaya. 

Thus, he arrived on Malayan shores with an artist’s sensitivity and was fascinated by the sight of people wearing the sarong – something not seen in his homeland. He was also inspired to try painting in the style that would eventually be his lifelong passion.
Teng was the second artist to have been accorded a retrospective show (1965) at the NAG. His paintings, Two of a kind and Tell you a secret, were chosen by UNICEF to adorn their greeting cards in 1968 and 1988 – an honor for artists worldwide. In 1977, Teng was the only Malaysian invited to take part in the Commonwealth Artists of Fame Exhibition held in England. He has also exhibited in Vietnam, United States, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Taiwan and other countries.

“My father traveled to his home village in scenic Fukien province, China, in 1990 but there were only two relatives left who could remember him,’’ says Seow Keng.

After journeying far and wide, Teng holds none of the places he has visited as favorite, believing instead that “each country has her own beauty.’’

The respected artist doesn’t travel as widely these days – it apparently took a lot of persuasion from the NAG before Teng made the trip down to Kuala Lumpur from his home in Penang. Yet, Teng, who walks one slow step at a time with the aid of a cane, still paints. Proof of this is his recent work, Cows, painted last year, which is among 14 of his works on show in Revival. “He still has a steady hand as he has painted almost every day of his life. His favorite subjects these days are mother-and-child figures,” says Seow Keng. Revival’s opening was Teng’s first visit to the NAG’s newest premises, which opened in 2000. 

The high regard artists, art collectors and students have for the grand old master is clearly evident from the large number of admirers eagerly trying to be photographed with him. Teng is, after all, the oldest living artist in Malaysia. “I think it (the focus on batik) is very good. It encourages us. The NAG approached us three months ago. The director Puan Wairah (Marzuki) and curator Shireen Naziree came to our gallery, Yahong Gallery, and chose some of the paintings on display for the exhibition,” recalls Seow Keng. Yahong Gallery was set up by Teng in 1955 in response to the needs of Penang’s visual arts scene. Today, it is run by Seow Keng, 59, and his brothers, Siew Teng, 60, and Siew Kek, 57. All three of the second-generation Tengs are respected batik painters in their own right and exhibit their works at Yahong Gallery, which attracts a small but regular stream of clients comprising art fanciers from Penang and beyond. Several Masters candidates have carried out research at the gallery.

“I must say that I was influenced by my father as I learnt a lot from him. Yet, he always pushed us to paint in our own style so that we would be unique. All three of us have our individual style. In fact, my father always encouraged us to experiment. He used to tell us not to stick to one style,” says Seow Keng, who likes many of his father’s works – each of which show constant experimentation. So, what was it like growing up surrounded by Teng’ peers – most of whom are respected senior artists – and their children? 

“The National Art Gallery’s first director, Frank Sullivan, used to come round quite a bit when I was a child. I also knew Yong Cheng Wah, the son of Yong Mun Sen. We grew up in the same environment. My father was close to Kuo Ju Ping (1908-1966, Fukien-born painter in oil and watercolor), Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-1983, School of Paris and traditional Chinese painter), Chen Wen Hsi (1906-1991, Chinese brush painter) and Liu Kang (born 1911, Fukien-born painter). 

“These artists used to sketch at the beach together. In the evening, they would come to our house and sit by the five-foot way to have a cup of coffee and talk. The three of us would follow them, carrying charcoal and paper. We used to meet up with other second-generation artists but now that we’ve moved away from Georgetown, we don’t see them often,’’ reminisces Seow Keng. 

Listening to us, Teng flipped through Dr Tan Chee Kuan’s book Perintis-Perintis Seni Lukis Malaysia – a staple of my art school days that I had brought to the interview – smiling at the memory evoked by the featured works and self-portrait. The book features Teng’s artist statement, part of which reads: “Art is the vision of a painter, his creativity, imaginative powers, and expression that reflect his feelings. He creates impressions from a combination of emotional and visual expression.’’ What, then, goes through his mind when he spots his works in public spaces or posh homes?

“I don’t go to these places. After people buy my paintings, I have never gone to their offices or home to see my works,” replies Teng with a shrug and yet another chuckle.

His son, on the other hand, is understandably proud that institutions like the Singapore Art Museum stores several of his father’s works, mostly donations from the private collection of Cathay Organization. An average painting takes about four or five days to complete and Seow Keng, like other senior painters, is aware that younger artists are too impatient to delve into time-consuming brush-art. “But, if you really love art, you don’t care about the time you spend on it. You just do it.’’ Still, both men feel the visual art scene today is vigorous, with more young people taking an interest in art, thanks to more widespread art education. “We second-generation artists are luckier because there are people who show us the way and people are more supportive of arts. 

“There was a time when my father couldn’t afford canvases and would paint on small pieces of plywood. These works, of course, deteriorate. One group exhibition that my father took part in during his younger days attracted only seven visitors. Nowadays, so many people come,’’ says Seow Keng, recalling that most of the exhibitions were then held in Chinese society halls and art galleries for free or, at most, a nominal rate. Teng survived the tough early years with a determination founded on discipline and principles. Even today, he rises and sleeps early. In between painting, he practices tai chi (as he has done for more than 30 years), eats healthy meals that are not too oily and drinks lots of quality Chinese tea.

“If you don’t really like art, better don’t do it. If you really like art but are instead working at the computer for the entire day, you will also feel unhappy. You must do something that makes you happy,’’ is the parting advice from this pioneer artist whose happiest memories are of batik painting. Revival: Evoking the Batik Tradition, is held at Gallery 3A of the National Art Gallery, 2, Jalan Temerloh off Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur, which is also exhibiting the works of Khalil Ibrahim, Tay Mo Leong until April 9.

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