Forgotten Beauty @ Richard Koh Fine Art

“When I went to tribal villages in the interior long ago, everyone was so warm. They invited me to their homes even though they did not know me. They cooked for me. These are the old folks I want to paint. Their beauty is something I want the whole world to see. I feel sad that this beauty is slowly vanishing. Ancient practices in tribal adornment are only seen among tribal men and women whose faces are etched with time: tattoos, extended ear lobes, hair styles, accessories, head gear and elaborately decorated outfits. I hope my canvas can capture all this beauty before they fade away. The new generation has changed. City folk. No longer practicing the ways of the old. The treasure I present to you are moments when I was touched by the natural beauty of elderly folk from tribes in Sarawak.”
- Artist statement for “Forgotten Beauty”

Portrait of Iban Man (2016)

Tan Wei Kheng displays 17 painted portraits at a Bangsar house gallery, the elderly individuals depicted being from “indigenous Iban, Kenyah and Kelabit tribes, among others”. Each painting shows the chest upwards, some close-ups cropping off the top of one’s head, and a couple pictures featuring raised hands for visual impact. The artist’s signature photo-realist style is highlighted via his subject matter – physical textures like deep wrinkles, bright eyes, protruding bone structures, are further embellished by cultural markers such as elongated earlobes and shell-shaped ornaments, woven headgear, tattoos and necklaces. Mimicking a high-resolution photograph is an honorary gesture; The viewer must note the painterly subjectivities to appreciate these works beyond photo-realistic copies.

Portrait of Kelabit Lady (2016)

“Jungle Beauties” present black & white portraits of womenfolk, their clothing illustrated with broad brushstrokes and dripping paint, its stylistic difference from the realistic faces denoting a diminishing culture. Less literal and more effective are the full-coloured portraits with a plain single hue background. Static poses highlight one’s wizened countenance or intricate ornaments, while dynamic postures – a spear covering the left eye of ‘Bulo Engan’, and ‘Jawa Sega’ lighting a joint, in particular – convey an active mode that engages the viewer. These engaging compositions, however, resemble a crossover between fashion photography and National Geographic snapshots. The pictures are clearly attractive, but its visual appeal is drawn upon photographic conventions.

Portrait of Penan Man - Jawa Sega (2016)

As such, I gravitate more towards the portraits painted in profile. ‘Portrait of Iban Man’ and ‘Dotun Ngir (Penan Man)’ present prominent head features in a black setting. Most captivating is ‘Portrait of Saban Lady’, its soft brown background setting off the hardened skin and pursed lips of one relatively unassuming face. Her tight knit cap is carefully recreated, along with the shadow at the back of her head, that lends a noble air to the person illustrated, reminiscent of 16th century painted portraiture. That a realistic painting can confer significant dignity to an ordinary person, reflects upon Wei Kheng and his noble intentions to depict “their beauty”. In these quiet profiles, the beauty shines through sheer care in the act of painting, and it is truly mesmerizing to see. 

Portrait of Saban Lady (2016)