BY TERENCE TOH
Turning 70 is a huge occasion. Most people celebrate by having a grand dinner, or by throwing a lavish party. Veteran artist Eric Quah, however, is marking the occasion in a very appropriate way … by having a solo art exhibition.
“I feel like I’m only 40!” jokes the Penang-based Quah in an interview during one of his recent trips to Kuala Lumpur. “But (you) cannot bluff wan. Yesterday, I went walking, and felt so tired after that. Old age, like the Malays say, tak boleh main-main lah!”
Not only does Quah have youthful zest, he certainly looks young as well. In person, the artist comes across as a decade younger than he actually is.
Quah, who turned 70 earlier this month, is in jovial spirits as he speaks casually about his show Window. Moments, which is on at The Gallery@Starhill in Kuala Lumpur till Nov 27.
The exhibition features more than 40 works, which were made in his Penang studio between 2012 and 2016.
“In my life, windows have always been important to me. I’m not talking about physical windows, I’m talking about mental or philosophical ones,” he explains.
“I grew up in a very Chinese traditional family. We spoke Mandarin, I wrote Chinese characters. And then, I went to Australia, and New York later. I was between the East and West, two different cultures. My life is a window, a crossing between my Eastern roots and my Western training.”
Born in Taiping, Perak, Quah is known as one of the best Malaysian artists working in collage today. He has won numerous international art awards, and his works are in private collections from the United States to Japan.
In 2011, he was honoured with his own Retrospective show at the Penang State Art Gallery.
“I planned my new show immediately after my retrospective. It was such an honour to be given one by the Penang government. A retrospective is all about my previous works, and I thought it was time for a new show!” says Quah with a smile.
Window. Moments is Quah’s 50th solo exhibition, and it is a celebration of memorable moments in his colourful life. The artist grew up in Penang, worked as a teacher in Sandakan, Sabah, and then studied art in Melbourne, Australia, and then New York.
He then lived in Melbourne, before moving back to Penang permanently in 2003.
“People said, are you crazy? Australia is so nice, why not stay there? But my mother was very sick, and I would come back to Penang at least three times a year to see her. So I said to myself, why not just stay here?” says Quah.
Many of the collages in Quah’s exhibition reflect the different times in his life.
Journey Starts, fittingly, commemorates the artist’s birth, depicting a boat with the artist’s initial and year of birth (E 1946). Incorporated into the art are scraps of a copy of his birth certificate.
Padi. Symphony is a panorama of a padi field, which played a major part in the artist’s young life.
“Of course, when I was a little kid, we would go to the padi field and play. Interestingly, from 2006 to 2009, I lived in a small town called Teroi (in Kedah), which was surrounded by padi fields,” says Quah.
Another painting, Roses, is a tribute to the late (gallery director) Carlotta Bush, who was Quah’s mentor. She passed away in 1994. Bush, who often showed Quah’s works in her Young Originals Gallery in Melbourne, had a great love of roses, which she often planted in her home and Quah’s garden.
“Without Carlotta, I don’t think I would have been successful. When she died, I could not do anything for a while. Every time I came back to Australia, she would be the one waiting for me at the airport,” reminisces Quah.
Elsewhere, works like Optimism. Freedom and Life feature butterflies and sunflowers, two symbols that are very important to the artist.
“I put sunflowers because I’ve always loved Van Gogh, ever since my student days. To me, they are very positive, always facing the sun, getting positive energy,” says Quah, adding that butterflies are symbols of freedom, and also a reference to the Chinese philosophy of Zhuangzi, about a man dreaming he was a butterfly.
What’s next for Quah? For certain, no retirement plans. Well, he hopes a 75th birthday celebration is on the cards. “I had a man buy my paintings. One day, when he was sick, his wife wrote to me. She said, everytime he was sick, he felt much better by looking at my collage. Those people were able to communicate with my feelings, and that to me is very important,” says Quah.
“That’s why I don’t paint realistic paintings. I want my paintings to have life. With realistic paintings, what you have is there. With mine, different people may think different things when they look at it, and that’s good!”