Telling Tales

solo exhibition by Shia Yih Yiing
curated by Shireen Naziree

10 October - 2 November 2014

Born in 1966, Shia Yih Yiing is a Malaysian fine artist from Kuching, the state capital of Sarawak. Her early education in art was from the Malaysian Institute of Art where she obtained her Diploma in Fine Art. Since then, she has been actively involved with the Malaysian art scene where her work has traveled across the region. Her body of work encircles around culture and heritage where elements of traditional clothing and such can be clearly seen.

Shia has been involved with many exhibitions where she was involved in the ‘ASEAN Visual Art Education Symposium & Workshop’ in 1994 which was held at the Philippines while in 1999, she was involved in the ‘Commonwealth Fellowship in Arts and Crafts’ held at New South Wales in Australia. Her show at Galeri Petronas in 2004 entitled ‘wOm(b)’ was one of the highlights of her career. Awards and recognitions include the Alternate Artist by the VSC Freeman Fellowship in the United States in 2007 while in 1997 and 1996 her works received Honourable Mention at the Philip Morris ASEAN Art award. Her works are included in the collections of the National Art Gallery and HSBC (Malaysia).

Telling Tales

by Shireen Naziree

Shia Yih Yiing has long recognized the changing nature of art and the part it can play in raising awareness of social consciences. Since her early works in the 1990s where she largely drew on her Sarawakian personal history, she focused largely on questions of social responsibility around the environment. Though she continues her relationship with her roots in Sarawak, she now addresses her concerns of her family’s social environment more intimately as a mother and an urban dweller. 

The aesthetic neutrality and self-referential qualities of her content along with a strong spatial awareness signaled a departure from her earlier works. However the point in common between then and now is a site that speaks of the changing shapes of the nature of reality as she expands her art practice by means of exploring the interaction between herself and her daughters. As such her oeuvre is as much about reality as the consequences of living within the comfort of a material world.

Shia Yih Yiing has always been a storyteller and in Telling Tales, she interestingly moves through art history and the self-aware salvaging of a recent past that has become a subject of nostalgia, while many of its qualities and questions remain current.  Here she images known and imagined social topographies, which bear the footprints of her journey over the past few years to unravel the imperatives of her creative being and to evolve a landscape of gesture that reflects her inner meditative equilibrium. 

She achieves this dynamic through a disciplined mode of mind and handwork; through her paintings we experience echoes of the fairy tales that once held unrivalled positions before they were challenged as myths and illusions. On the contrary her aim has been to inhabit and share with the viewer a very personal pictorial space that hopefully touches their own-embodied senses.

As a mother, her primary concerns have been to instill traditional values and imbue upon her two daughters perfectly placed protective inner experiences. Sleep! Beauties! Sleep!, Shh! Mermaids Shh! and Smile! Princesses! Smile! reflect the changing paradigms on what constitutes ‘formality’ or the discipline that she instilled and that now leaves her daughters voiceless in the current state of human reality. And as the pace of change speeds up - a modernist state of reality manifests itself through a different set of values, relationships and ideas where myths of innocence are no longer relevant.

At an obvious level, Yih Yiing has selected her pictorial references omnivorously, resorting to an eclectic bank of sources including references to European and Southeast Asian masters together with characters from popular fairy tales. The melodrama of their situations are provided, in the main, by the gestures and props that form the mise’-en-scene into which they are inserted. 

While she does not share the excesses in Botticelli’s Primavera, the composition and gesturing of the five fairy princesses in The More We Get Together I take on a similar fluidness. However in spite of the dreaminess of the picture, the subjects do not lose their authenticity and in a paradoxical way, they take on a well-pegged earthiness that represents the five ethnic communities that are the matrix of multi cultural Malaysia.

Like in Velasquez’ Las Meninas, Yih Yiing captures her maidens in a similar exacting moment. Central to this picture and the others in this series, is her youngest daughter, Zuxin whom she regards as an independent spirit. The notable absence of any masculine representation possibly implies that she is providing a vision of women as independent beings, not because they are doing extraordinary things but rather through their own everyday realities. Yet there is more than what meets the eye. Behind each of these seemingly happy and positive exteriors lie uncertainties of a positive future.

For Shia Yih Yiing the personal has always been political as she has given a voice to women through excavating her own experiences as a working mother and her position as the matriarch of a family. While her works are particular to her own situation, she also explores more formal concerns as to where the nation is heading politically as she questions numerous aspects of a society that is being plagued by excessiveness as in The More We Get Together III whereby she parodies George de La Tour’s The Cheat

While the five princesses are suspended in a moment of indulging the luscious and rich birthday cake on the table, it is significant to note the level of engagement of this particular work with Happy Birthday NEP! The synergy between these two works subtly navigate the viewer’s emphasis to move beyond the superficial arrangement of the visual, in order to draw on the essence of that which permeates from the material as a collective. Within these frameworks the strong link between power politics and the future of her family remain an important part of her vocabulary.

As Shia Yih Yiing confronts issues that plaque Malaysia’s contemporary society, she does so in an unexpected fashion. She adopts a color palette that is decidedly feminine as the scenarios which she depicts could be just that which could fascinate a girl.

However, The More We Get Together IV is a pointed work of art that comments on current events, ways of thinking, as well as concerns related to formal art practice. Even if the iconographic frame declares a tribute to Gauguin’s seductive painting The Market the artist breaks the academic mold by portraying her subjects in more precarious poses strongly contrasts with icons of places of worship on the low and distant horizon.

The princesses perched on a swing address the dualities of harmony and discord. It is also a narrative of the assertion and the exploitation of identity in which social and cultural politics have become critical. As such, her quiet forms transcend the physical space of the work into a meditative engagement with the beauty of two-dimensional forms.

The More We Get Together is a dynamic body of art because of its playfulness. It succeeds through its delectable images that simultaneously talk about serious issues that have become personal statements of the politics that surround her and have impacted her life; both in the public and private sphere. By weaving her stories together, she affirms the fundamental bond she has with both her art and her personal history as she contends that preserving the continuity of the diverse cultures of Malaysia has been distorted and occluded by the current political and economic forces. 

Rendering her work mostly in oils, Shia Yih Yiing’s body of work is unified by the artist’s devotion to the classical principles of order, stability, harmony and grace. A master of pictorial organisation, she has been a devote’ of art history, often incorporating symbolisms of noted artists and peers whose works she has drawn inspiration within her own. Hybridisation with borrowings from works by some of Southeast Asia’s most important contemporary artists is masterfully realized in the painting Homage To Culture

“My ongoing concept of motherhood and later of motherland/nationhood have portrayed allowed me to portray myself in varying representations – from symbolism to nostalgia whether personal or universal - inspired by western as well as local art history and of course, fairy tales. I love fashion and the fashionable Fairly Good Mother is my alter ego, which is representative in Homage Couture VI She wears Natee Utarit’s last description of the old romantic billowing skirts over a translucent Mr. Universe bodysuit by I Nyoman Masraidi. The choker is by Cheo Chai Hiang, hair by Simrynn Gill, make up by Shia Yih Yiing and nails by Jose Legaspi.”
Culture, society and history are the main themes of Shia Yih Yiing’s pictorial horizon and reveal the artist’s aptitude for working on the nature of her images in relation to the present and to the decline of human values. Telling Tales is part of Shia Yih Yiing’s ongoing commitment to the fundamental assumption that every artwork represents a view of her world and has a story to tell. And when asked, “Why don’t you feature any obvious male subjects?” Shia Yih Yiing responded, “Prince Charming has been reserved for the future!”


  • Shia Yih Yiing