From Engineering to Art, From Sarawak to Scotland

Iona explains "A Cross to Bear”, an artwork based on paternal influence. Photo: Esther Ping Dominic

AS A CHILD, Iona Danald would watch her maternal grandmother work with different fabrics and coloured threads. She was a seamstress, and it was from her that Iona nurtured her fascination for textile art. At the same time though, she remained very much attached to coloured pencils.

Despite her evident love for art, Iona chose a STEM career path early in life; she pursued a diploma course in medical electronic engineering and later, obtained a degree in electrical and electronic engineering from Scotland’s University of Aberdeen. Following graduation, she joined Intel Programmable Solutions Group in Penang as a research and development engineer for a year and a half only to realise that it all was not right for her.

To stay sane, Iona resigned and rediscovered through counselling and therapy her affinity for art, and she learned to transfer her troubles onto paint canvases. “I’m still grateful,” she says, “my past experiences laid the foundation for where I am in life right now.” While volunteering at the non-profit Asia Community Service (ACS) Malaysia’s Stepping Stone Work Centre in Balik Pulau, Iona explored various art mediums. Around this time, she was shortlisted as a candidate by Our Arts Project for their portfolio review programme. This was in November 2018. “It was actually the first time I got feedback from open calls,” Iona says, fondly recalling the moment. On the day of the review, Iona presented her textile artwork “Seaside” to visibly impressed judges.

The “Mother Hen Series” is the materialisation of Iona's maternal genealogies and the female role models in her life. Photo: Esther Ping Dominic

Buoyed by their response, her interest in textile art grew keener. Iona decided to explore the breadth of the medium and she became an artistin- residence at ACS, learning Saori weaving with specific looms, in addition to experimenting with hand-dyed yarns.

2019 was an especially exciting year for her. In January Iona participated in her first group exhibition via the Young & New VII open call by HOM Art Trans; and was a finalist for the Malaysia Emerging Artist Awards 2019, where three of her textile works were featured. Other notable textile artworks “Compartmentalising Kindness” and “Mother and Child” which were submitted for the B&W 2019 Open Call led to yet another group exhibition.

Iona closed the year with a bang. She was the grand prize winner for Penang Art District’s Spotlight 2019. This offered the opportunity to showcase her artworks, participate in a portfolio review and undergo an intensive mentorship programme.

“This solo exhibition is my way of introducing myself through the means of textile."

“It was an absolute blessing working with Sharmin Parameswaran and Bibi Chew, having them as my mentors. I am a self-taught artist; I have no idea about academic constructs or guidelines, but Sharmin and Bibi really helped me find my artistic voice. “It was difficult at first to nail down the exhibition’s overall concept; everything felt so incredibly exciting and I had so many things to say. But somehow we managed to narrow it down to one recurrent theme, which is of my upbringing and uprooting from Sarawak to Scotland, and to feature traditional textiles from both these places.”

“Seaside”. Photo: Iona Danald

AYE: Across Sarawak and Scotland was exhibited last August at Ming Fine Art Gallery at St. Jo’s, Gurney Paragon. Being a word commonly spoken in the Bidayuh language, and characteristic in the Scottish dialect, Aye was recruited here to express affirmation and agreement. “This solo exhibition is my way of introducing myself through the means of textile. I believe that every single person has their own unique connection to textile and the medium is a comfortable one in which I can explain myself.”

Sustainable vs. Wasteful

In the months leading up to her solo exhibition, Iona dived deep into preparation work. She created a checklist of artworks she wanted to feature, including the materials she would be using and the different styles of weaving to incorporate. Above all, she was adamant against wasting materials.

“I’m a hoarder,” Iona admits with a laugh. “I collect materials that have been given to me because I know I’m bound to use them somewhere down the line; I don’t like being wasteful. So a lot of times – even prior to this exhibition – I would think about sustainability in art and ask myself how I can make artworks without being wasteful?

“I have a sketchbook that I refer to. If I don’t follow the initial ideas and calculated measurements, I run the risk of wasting thread and time, which I’d rather avoid.” In some of her textile works on Scotland, Iona uses vintage wool purchased from charity shops; while her artworks on Sarawak include remnant fabrics from her late grandmother’s seamstress and handbag-making business. “I’m repurposing items that used to mean a great deal to someone and knowing how profound this is, it has also come to mean a lot to me.”

When asked what she appreciates most about textile art, Iona appears overwhelmed by how much she wants to say, but ventures this response: “On a surface level, I’m attracted to the aesthetics and sensory element of textiles; but personally, I like how it is a means for storytelling. I often wonder if the stories I weave (Iona is known for her exploration of femininity and mental health and recovery) resonate and move viewers as well. Beyond these, I admire how potent textile has come to be seen as a tool of empowerment in spotlighting social issues that have flown under the radar.”

Iona with Stepping Stone members. Photo: ACS

Iona (extreme left) explains the weaving process to visiting guests at the Stepping Stone Work Centre.

The Measure of an Artist’s Success

As with creativity, “success” is very subjective; and in Iona’s case, “Success means liking my own work. I used to be afraid of putting myself out there and I still struggle with self-confidence. So that’s why I think that if you love the work you’re producing, that in itself is already a success.”

Where does she go from here? “I think my goal as an artist is to continue making art. It is a balancing act at the moment, to prepare for exhibitions while holding down a full-time job as an art teacher at Mont Kiara.” Further down the line though, Iona hopes to pursue a Post Graduate Certificate in Education to become an art educator.

Esther Ping Dominic is a writer who is surprisingly still alive despite the saying “curiosity kills the cat”. Having been on the receiving end of undeserved kindness, she aims to live her life reflecting that.

Related Articles