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Bygone days: Pilgrimage to Sakenan, a work painted in 1993, immortalizes the colorful scene of Hindu devotees wading through shallow waters south of Denpasar to attend a religious festival on Serangan Island.
“From the South China Sea … to Mt. Agung”, is the title of an ongoing exhibition of Malaysian painter Chang Fee Ming, and clearly suggests that the brilliant retrospective is about a journey. To a large extent it is indeed about a journey, one that is personal, communal, as well as visual.
On the personal level, the exhibition, which is being held in two separate places — Kuala Lumpur’s Pipal Fine Art and Ubud’s Komaneka Gallery — reflects the physical, emotional and, most importantly, aesthetic journey of the painter himself.
Born in a small town in Malaysia’s coastal area of Trengganu, Fee Ming was accustomed to the bright colors of the ocean and the unhindered view offered by the shoreline into the vast sea. The liberating beauty
of the sea and the mysterious voyage it contains once made Fee Ming nurture a dream of becoming a sea
adventurer. Instead, he grew into one of the most recognized Malaysian painters.
His aquarelle works portraying the daily life of the country’s Kampong people, with a captivating focus on the colors and motifs of the batik sarongs they wore, catapulted him into fame. An image of a beautiful batik sarong dancing in the breeze of the ocean has become Fee Ming’s iconic signature.
In his works, the subject seems far less important than the sarong he wears. Yet, one has only to look at Initiation, a 1997 work depicting a boy’s hands clutching the front part of a red sarong with intricate motifs to prevent it from brushing his recently circumcised genitalia, to understand that the sarong in Fee Ming’s paintings have always acted as the hook — drawing people closer and luring them to inspect further, to look deeper.
The paintings also brought him great success, enabling him to travel and to satisfy that sea adventurer inside him.
He crossed many oceans, set foot in foreign lands, cataloguing the new landscape, the strange shades of colors, the alien cultures in photographs and sketches. His existence quivered as the new experiences triggered a new aesthetic impulse, giving birth to a desire to do a lot more in new and different ways.
Then he arrived in Bali, the island with tall majestic mountains, including Mt. Agung, lush vegetation, flat paddy fields and colorful offerings and vibrant rituals taking place nearly everywhere almost every day.
The island became his second home, his peaceful sanctuary throughout his journey and his ultimate “studio”, where he perfects his skills and puts the finishing touches to his work.
“I want to celebrate my journey, the important things that have taken place in my life, my encounters with places and people who have enriched me,” Fee Ming said of the objective of the exhibition.
Dedication: Steps to Galungan, a triptych that captures Balinese women’s devotion and commitment to the intricate rituals that form the core of their belief system.Naturally, the exhibition also reflects Fee Ming’s inner journey, his struggle with finding a new visual language, a fresh way of manipulating the brushes, a different angle of composition, and, naturally, in recreating a whole new world of reality.
His initial works on Bali were characterized by fleeting images, as if the brush touched the paper only briefly and very lightly, coupled with subtle, thin and nearly transparent colors. Shapes and forms were not clearly and poignantly defined — more of an impression than a reproduction of the subject-matter.
His current works are a testament to how far Fee Ming has journeyed, aesthetically speaking.
The lines, shapes and forms have become bolder and stronger. The brush stroke is firmer and much narrower in order to accommodate Fee Ming’s increasingly brilliant grasp on details and textures. The colors have also grown more mature and darker.
On the way to Besakih, one of the displayed works in Komaneka, is the best example of Fee Ming’s mastery of details. It portrays a woman carrying an offering box, wrapped in a transparent cloth. The details of the bamboo woven box are finely painted so as to emerge convincingly below the transparent cloth with intricate motifs.
Furthermore, the exhibition has not only revealed Fee Ming’s personal and aesthetic journey, but also the journey of the Balinese.
Fee Ming is not the kind of painter who allows himself to be trapped in one period of time. He does not dwell on Bali in a specific time period. Instead, he follows Bali and its people throughout the days, weeks and months he spends in the island. Since first arriving on the island in 1985, he has made annual visits to the island.
Naturally, his works capture various shifts and changes that took place on the island. From the mundane and seemingly insignificant changes, such as the rise and fall of different Kebaya and sarong styles of Balinese women, to the major changes that went beyond fashion. His 1993 work, Pilgrimage to Serangan II, is a fine example of the latter.
Serangan used to be a tiny island in the waters off south Denpasar. A narrow channel separated the mainland from the island, which hosts historic temples built by two major sages in ancient Bali, Nirartha and Astapaka.
During the major festival in the temple built by Nirartha, thousands of Hindu devotees from across the island made a pilgrimage to Serangan, wading across the shallow strait, or boarding a traditional outrigger called jukung, creating a massive, breathtaking scene of colorful moving waves of people and offerings.
This scene has ceased to exist. A large-scale tourism project involved sea reclamation, dumping land and limestone on the sea floor around the island. When the project went bankrupt, the island had tripled in size, and a huge concrete bridge had connected Serangan to the mainland.
There was no need for the Hindus to wet their feet just to reach the island. Now, the majestic scene has been replaced by a chaotic scene of thousands of motorbikes and cars swarming to transport devotees across the bridge during the temple festival.
The original scene still exists, though, in the paintings of Fee Ming.
In this context, Fee Ming’s works must be seen not only as works of art, but also as a visual chronicle of Bali and its people.
In the end, “From South Cina Sea ... to Mt. Agung” is a visual narrative of a journey. Not a journey of a single adventurer, but a collective one — of Fee Ming and the Balinese people.
“From South Cina Sea ... to Mt. Agung”
Painting exhibition by Chang Fee Ming July 15-Aug. 16 Komaneka Art Gallery
Jl. Monkey Forest, Ubud. (0361)976090
— Photos by I Wayan Juniartha