'Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives' at ILHAM Gallery

The underbelly of Kuala Lumpur through a painter's eyes
By Ian Tee

Chia Yu Chian, 'Playing the Slot Machine', 1981, oil on canvas, 65 x 91cm. Image courtesy of ILHAM Gallery.

Chia Yu Chian, 'Playing the Slot Machine', 1981, oil on canvas, 65 x 91cm. Image courtesy of ILHAM Gallery.

ILHAM Gallery's latest exhibition 'Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives' revisits the last two decades of the artist's practice from 1969 to 1990. Born in 1936 in Johor, Malaysia, Chia studied at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts under Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi, and later was the first Malayan artist awarded the French Government Scholarship to study art at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts de Paris. The prolific artist produced more than 2000 artworks in his lifetime, the majority of which are oil paintings.

Featuring over 160 works and archival materials drawn from the Chia Yu Chian family collection as well as other private and national collections, 'Private Lives' focuses on the artist's time in Kuala Lumpur. It is the third curatorial collaboration between ILHAM Gallery director Rahel Joseph and University of Malaya art historian Simon Soon, after 'Love Me in My Batik: Modern Batik Art from Malaysia and Beyond' (2016) and 'Gerak Rupa Ubur Penyataan 1957-1973' (2017-2018).

'Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives', 2019, exhibition installation view. Image courtesy of ILHAM Gallery.

'Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives', 2019, exhibition installation view. Image courtesy of ILHAM Gallery.

While Chia is recognised for pictures depicting the Parisian cityscape and romantic Malaysian landscapes, the exhibition presents his lesser known, grittier portrayals of Kuala Lumpur amidst rapid change. It is framed around Selangor Mansion, one of the earliest high-rise apartments in the city, where the artist lived and painted from. Many of the subjects in these paintings were his neighbours and people he encountered on his daily walks who were simply getting by or struggling to make ends meet. "Chia shows that in this period of great development in the 1980s, there was also a growing gap between the haves and have-nots," says Joseph.

The curator cites Chia's ability to elevate common and unremarkable spaces such as pawnshops, factories and hospitals into important landmarks. The ordinary, working-class people who populate his paintings are rendered with saturated colours and emotional complexity. A highlight of the exhibition is the salon wall of portraits which resemble the stacked windows of a high-rise building with its subjects going about their everyday activities. The way Chia framed these scenes invites audiences to speculate about these subjects' psychology and personal lives, a proposition which inspired the exhibition title.

Archival photograph from Chia Yu Chian's family collection showing the artist with his self portrait. Image courtesy of ILHAM Gallery.

Archival photograph from Chia Yu Chian's family collection showing the artist with his self portrait. Image courtesy of ILHAM Gallery.

The accompanying archival materials also provide a snapshot of the art ecology of the time, through writings and documentation of exhibitions Chia organised for his contemporaries. At a time when conceptual and performative modes were gaining traction in Malaysia, Chia's devotion to figuration and portraiture might have appeared out of step. Revisited today, these works bear witness to the many micro-narratives within nation-building, perhaps even the artist's humanist perspective on urban growth. Joseph remarked, "By painting them, he created an alternative narrative, a reimagining of Kuala Lumpur and city life, and to a certain extent the country itself."

'Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives' runs at ILHAM Gallery from 17 February - 23 June 2019.