Siapa dia Tong Sam Pah? 我的名字哈苏丹。 You Look F**king Funny-lah! @ Richard Koh Fine Art

Looking at the tri-lingual exhibition title stuck on the shop window, one cannot accuse Liew Kwai Fei as a contemporary Malaysian artist who fails to engage his audience. There is something for everyone – written word for those illiterate to visual art, grotesque body parts for those susceptible to beauty, socio-political commentary for Facebook activists, odd-shaped canvases and frames for the art traditionalist, Velcro-d flaps for those with itchy fingers, wonderful colour contrasts for painters, clever use of positive/ negative space for illustrators, oedipal references for those philosophically inclined, art world jibes for the local art enthusiast, and even a bouncing artwork to distract passer-bys! On a console table, children can entertain themselves with Lego blocks. 

Installation snapshot of Jangan Ketawa (2015)

On the surface of things, the artist provides many signs aiming to subvert. Two colourful paintings hanging outside are titled ‘Shopping Class’ and ‘Working Class’. Like a genie let out from its bottle, one snake emerges from a songkok in ‘Seni X Batang’. Opposite it, ‘amen’ and a toothy grin are inscribed onto a (upside down?) body, then affixed with a dog collar. The canine is drawn across two canvases that read ‘an jing ba bi’ from right to left, the wordplay appropriating a twofold Chinese interpretation. Another topic that went viral on social media is referenced in a painting nearby, which depicts a rainbow linking street cracks patched with duct tape. Even with trees present, there is no masking the obscured facts and absent silhouettes illustrated in ‘1Malasia’, and ‘Ruang Antara Langit dan Bumi’.

Installation snapshot of -ism (2015)

“Liew Kwai Fei’s merciless aesthetico-political project is an outright middle-finger to the political correctness of neoliberal multiculturalism in Malaysia. Implicit in the multiculturalist promotion of “tolerance” is a racist discourse of suppression. Often, the state assumes a moral high ground to delicately threaten the transgressive elements via a metanarrative of de-legitimation. One’s radical statement is rendered illegitimate not by its content but by its form. Political correctness is essentially the neoliberal form of the politics of fear, a fear mongering coated with a facile sense of civic tolerance.”
- The Imagination That Never Was, Tan Zi Hao, essay in exhibition catalogue for “Siapa dia Tong Sam Pah? 我的名字哈苏丹。 You Look F**king Funny-lah!”, 2016

Installation snapshot of A for... (2014) [picture from Chai Chang Hwang's Facebook page]

When the emotional reactions to contemporary events subside, more light-hearted aspects in the exhibition emerge. In ‘A for…”, a burning cookie-cutter gingerbread man runs towards a lake, filled with floating words that have abstract meanings and start with the letter ‘A’. White paint denoting the art gallery, is painted over a dirty tiled wall with the words ‘ART’ and ‘AIR’ sprayed upon it. ‘Golah!’ displays a similar aesthetic; Wordplay is further emphasised in works like ‘Very Good!’ and ‘Takkan Seni Halus Hilang di Dunia’. The latter dwells upon a generalisation that Chinese people cannot pronounce the letter ‘R’, and the underlying yellow base, painted-over blue words, gap in frame border, and additional canvas flaps, conform to a template utilised in other exhibits.

Takkan Seni Halus Hilang di Dunia (2015)

It is convenient to describe Kwai Fei’s painting style as naiveté based on these characteristics, but the deliberate flourishes cannot conceal the artist’s astounding sensitivity to colour and form. Positive and negative spaces are equally balanced, and when required, outlines are clearly drawn to delineate. Another reality opens up within the customised picture frames. Gestural brush strokes and meaning-loaded colours reveal Kwai Fei’s true disposition that culminates in his ‘Xiao-Portrait’. With its raw exposed physiognomy forced into a Chinese ideogram (that means laughter), and the similar-sounding English word ‘SALE’ attached at the bottom, the artist surrenders his autonomy to the art-buying public. Who will have the last laugh? Not the artist, surely.

Installation snapshot of Xiao-Portrait (2015)

One surprisingly satisfying revelation comes from multiple presentations of the phallus, which signifies the overwhelmingly male perspective present in Malaysian socio-political discourse. From the pink diagonal stretching across the abstract nightscape in ‘Hamsap Odessy’, to the heavy elephant trunk in the dryly hilarious ‘Jangan Ketawa’, the phallic form dominates and obscures in an unsightly manner. Emasculation takes place in the gory picture ‘Lady’s F’, although the ironic bendi substitute reminds of the fantastical legend where the Monkey God was imprisoned within the Buddha’s palm. More unapologetic are masturbating figures (doubling as the Twin Towers) in ‘-ism’, where race rhetoric and its backing political ideology are set upon flimsy pedestals. 

Lady's F (2015)

Kwai Fei asks in his exhibition statement, “(h)ave you noticed a shadow called ideology dragging the society…(?)” These exhibits can easily be perceived as racist, but look deeper and a follow-on question arises – what is the problem for one to draw Malay words or motifs, if one is a Malaysian? Such contradictions in personal identity manifests in the words ‘PURE RACE’, hidden behind grey spectacles in ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. Its muted palette, along with the inherent dichotomy in his painting approach, reflect the artist’s tenacious pursuit to draw a non-existent balance for social equality in Malaysia. The vernacular is trivialised to the point of being farcical, yet the deliberateness on show is agonising to see. As neutral/ polarised as our Facebook news feed is.

Installation snapshots of Somewhere Over the Rainbow (2015) [picture from Yeo Kien Kiong's Facebook page]