A Triumphant Come Back: Cheah Yew Saik

loading Cheah Yew Saik giving a speech.

THINGS happen for a reason – a popular adage which has been variously attributed to luminaries from Albert Schweitzer to Marilyn Monroe.

For art-educationist-artist-activist Cheah Yew Saik @ Chia Ah Yoke, the period around June 2002 was his darkest hour and a life-changing turning point. He reclaimed himself as an Artist with a capital “A” and the array of large works in his Retrospective at the Penang State Art Gallery reflect his accomplishments in skills, input and manifestations.

Still, having to resign in 2002 as director and principal of the Kuala Lumpur College of Art (KLCA) he founded and painstakingly built up over 38 years, took a toll on Cheah. He did nearly two years of therapeutic gardening before he painted, aided by his wife of 47 years, Wong Choon Chew, a nurse who had gained her Bachelor of Psychology degree in 2015, and who had helped out as student coordinator at KLCA in happier times.

Quitting, without even the remuneration promised, proved fortuitous, however, and saved him from being saddled with the mounting debts of T.H. Koid. Koid, who took over KLCA as a majority “shareholder” in 2001, spectacularly caused its demise in 2004.

KLCA’s demise saw Cheah’s “rebirth” as an artist. In 2004 he held his A Touch of Nature solo, at the NN Gallery Kuala Lumpur. This was only his second solo after his first in 1982, on ceramic works, at the Le Beaux Art Gallery, KL! At KLCA, Cheah and his wife started work early in the morning and ended late at night, leaving precious little time to paint. Such was his selfless devotion to KLCA, which consequently boasted some of the finest artists among its alumni. Take the 1998 Philip Morris Asean Art Award: four out of five winners at the national level were from the KLCA, and Kow Leong Kiang became the first Malaysian winner of the hugely coveted Asean Award in the finals in Hanoi!

Post-KLCA, Cheah got footloose to broaden his worldview and sharpen his sensitivities. During his 2014 European tour, he revisited London – 49 years after graduating in a record time of two years with a National Diploma in Art and Design (1965) at Stoke-On-Trent, England (he had a three-month stint at Hornsey). He also studied at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA) in Singapore, graduating in 1961.

Joy of Living 1, 1965, woodcut.

His painting itinerary read: Jordan, China (Yunnan, Longji, Yangshuo, Suzhou, Guilin, Hangzhou, Zhangjiajie, Guizhou, Shandong and Tibet), the Balkans (Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia), Iceland, Norway and with a Mediterranean cruise for good measure.

When at KLCA, he had only time to squeeze in the 1999 painting expedition of India from New Delhi to Nainital-Joelikot, organised by the Malaysian Watercolour Organisation (MWO) [the former Malaysian Watercolour Society (MWS) now reverted to MWS]. Cheah was president of the MWS (1983-1987, officially registered in 1984) and the Malaysian Alumni Association of NAFA (1984-85).

A shower of accolades followed to match his two MWS 1986 Award and 2004 MWO Award: among them, the Art Expo Malaysia Special Tribute Pavilion (2009); the Malaysian Chinese Cultural Association Cultural Award (2012); the Malaysian Modern and Contemporary Art Academy Art Education Award (2018) and the 1st Watercolour Biennale Lifetime Achievement Award (2018). Cheah also edited and organised a six-volume art textbook for Chinese independent schools, which took him 10 years.

Post-KLCA, Cheah has had 15 solos, including two major Retrospective given in his honour – the first by Soka-Gakkai Malaysia in KL in 2015, and now, the PSAG Retrospective, from November 2019-January 31, 2020, of which the opening was the best attended in 13 years with two busloads of KLCA alumni attending. At KLCA, Cheah had magnanimously waived the fees of poor students but they returned to repay every sen, and indeed the pioneer lecturers had worked pro bono for some time, and he himself only started drawing a salary in 1995!

After 2004 Cheah was painting with a vengeance, and he is able to fill up the ground floor and top floor of the PSAG with some 150 selected works from 1959-2019 featuring oil on canvas, watercolours, woodcuts (which he learnt from Chuah Thean Teng, later a Datuk, at his Yahong Gallery, after school) and ceramics (he refreshed on glazes and chemical composition and set up a wood-fire kiln for KLCA in Subang in 1976).

Prime-pumping his visual bank through travels across contrasting climes, Cheah re-looks landscapes, figures and architecture through life-leavening filters, inventive compositions with large formats stretching to 99cm x 127cm. As one born in rustic Sungai Petani (1939) with the panorama of padi fields and month-long excursions to coastal areas like in Kelantan (1959 NAFA semester break), Cheah uses scenes of Nature for homilies of poetic empathy and to affirm the affinity to a greater subliminal presence.

His early watercolours of mountains with its thin spatulascraped straited veneer of dusty beauty has morphed into lofty majestic Shangri-Las and in his Tibetan tableaux, skeins of snow cap interspersed with craggy hemp cuts and crinkled-free luminescence, under different light conditions, while the waterfalls are imbued with the spirit of purity and the velocity and melody of the precipitous drop against textured promontory, and his waterfall watercolours were painted using palette knife, after Cheong Soo-pieng (He didn’t study under Soo-pieng at NAFA, but under Georgette Chen, Lai Foong Moi, Tan Tie Chie, and Chinese art under Chen Wen-hsi, Chen Chung Swee and Chen Chong Looibb. His batchmates included Siew Hock Meng, Seah Kim Joo, Khoo Sui-hoe, Wan Soon Kam and Lee Ben Thong).

Padi fields are symbols of the fecund fledgling independent nation in Yeoh Jin Leng’s canvas and rendered in more colourful hues by Chew Teng Beng, while Cheah’s padi fields are a chessboard of geometric and organic play (After Rain, 2007).

Home From The Sea IV, 2008.

“I paint what I think and feel, not what I see, and colours are just a language. I use colours not to show colours, but as the expressions and feelings,” he has intoned.

Cheah kept to the Nanyang ideal of sparse earth-brown milieu and dark-toned figures with even abstract attempts (like Jetty and House of Stilts) during his NAFA days, but the New Millennium has seen transformations of his figure types, mostly women and in much greater numbers involved in gotong-royong (communal work) or bonding on the fishing littoral fringes with healthier features and more striking clothes, albeit in still shadowy silhouettes. The on-shore denouement after the fishermen’s day is done also signifies an accomplishment.

Another diversion is of swaying dancing damsels with exciting rhythms, signifying freedom and joy. An extant 1962 Self-Portrait shows a singlet-clad 23-year-old lad with slightly drooping shoulders but a steely determination in his eyes on the cusp of realizing his destiny.

Cheah’s travels reveal a smorgasbord of architectural paeans of Man, from ancient monuments to quaint facades sometimes redolent of street life like busker musicians.

There are also still life and life drawings in ink and pencil from his student days, early woodcuts and a gorgeous sampling of ceramic receptacles and objects, using fired raw ground clay to create shapes and styles.

Cheah first signed his works simply with “Saik”, and after 1968 with “Yew Saik”.

“Art education is not just about teaching. It includes an understanding of the spirit of aesthetics and the harmony in life. KLCA is no more, but it represents a heartfelt lifetime experience.” Simple, dedicated and meticulous, Cheah has shown himself to be the consummate educationist and an artist par excellence. Born in the Chinese Lunar Year of the Rabbit, a zodiac animal noted for modesty, the Retrospective of 60 years of his art career is a fitting tribute in his 80th year.

Cheah’s Retrospective is guest-curated by Becky Choong, a PSAG board member who also wrote the monograph.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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