Art and a sense of equality
JULY 8 — Muar town in Johor and Malacca town in Malacca share a very similar geography and historical background. These two towns are an hour’s drive from each other. Both towns started as early seafarers’ settlements at the mouth of the river. However the Muar River is by far the more prominent in both size and length compared to the Malacca River even though both rivers flow into the Straits of Malacca.
But Malacca’s history outshone that of Muar’s even though both places had been, in the past, at various times, invaded and conquered by Indians, Javanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese. Even though Muar had a better natural geography than Malacca as a port, why and how did Malacca became the preferred port of call in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries? That is a historical question for historians.
In Muar, there is a local artist, Lau Moa Seng, 68, who can tell you the story of Muar, his hometown, through his oil paintings. His forefathers were from China who came in the 19th century as migrant workers to work in the pepper and gambier plantations. Others became fishermen and later some worked in the rubber and oil palm estates. More recently the furniture industries play a major role in employment and economy of this area.
In the 50s and 60s if you were from a Chinese family they usually demand their children become a doctor, lawyer, accountant or get into family business. To want to study art and become an artist was a loser’s choice; “You’ll die a poor artist!” comes the rebuttal from most rich or poor parents. Why did Lau not become one of the usual professionals?
“Even at a young age I found when I was doing some simple drawing of subjects around me, the act of working on an artwork gave me peace and joy. I was not happy doing other things. After much hard financial discussions with my parents I persuaded them to send me to Singapore to learn to be an artist,” he explained.
It was a difficult time for any local person aspiring to be an artist in the 60s as there were no proper art schools Malaysia let alone in Muar. The nearest one was the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore. Others, mostly Chinese educated ones went to Taiwan. A few English educated ones would go to art schools in the United Kingdom or Australia. The only art college that started in the late 60s was in the Institute Technology MARA (ITM) in Petaling Jaya but it was sadly only for the Malays.
This unjust educational policy of ITM’s disadvantaged many thousands of would-be artists from the Chinese, Indians and other communities from getting a rightful art education in their own country.
Through all the financial and social problems, Lau graduated in painting from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore in 1967. After his artistic training in Singapore he returned to work in Muar. He joined the Muar Arts Society in 1968 and is still is an active member today. This art club was the heart of the artistic life of his community all these years. This club holds group exhibitions occasionally and also joins up with other art societies in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
In 1999, Lau and his family moved across the road to a bigger premise. This is the Eng Bee Book Co. along Jalan Arab. Lau said, “There are not many art collectors here and it’s difficult to make ends meet just by selling my paintings and those Chinese paintings and art objects from China. So we have to also market books, art material, and stationery and paper etc. In this manner, as a business, I was able to bring up my family. Then on Sundays, when I feel like painting, I just pick up my painting things and go out to paint anywhere I like.”
Lau went on to talk about his art, “Take this painting, The Taxi Stand, the broken lines are of course from cubism. At Nanyang those days we had to learn to draw and after that start to invent our own lines and shapes to replace what we had seen and drawn from nature. So this taxi stand has all the essential parts, the taxis, the building, the surrounding landscape and the people but is my invention with lines, shapes and colours. It’s modern art with an autobiographical undertone. All my artworks portray who I am, where I am from and what is it like living in Muar.
“This taxi stand has been there for as long as I can remember. I took my first taxi ride to Singapore to study art from here and it was the first time I had to leave my family. This is the place Muarians come together to meet and to say goodbyes. It’s got a dark melancholy air hanging over this transient spot in town. That may explain my preference for darker atmosphere and the black lines.
“Life is transient. So, how sad it is, that after more than 50 years of progress and development our country is still divided racially – it would take great courage for artists of every ethnic background to insist that art and art education cannot progress in term of race alone. I hope art can perhaps lead to beauty and beauty can in turn lead us to a sense of equality.”
If all Malaysian artists were playing on an even field, someone like Lau would have been given at the very least, a major solo art exhibition in his home state and also at the National Art Gallery.
Contact: Eng Bee Book Co., 25 Jalan Arab, Muar, tel:06 952 1179. Ashely Lau. http://laumoaseng.blogspot.com/