Born in Tawau, Sabah, young Kuala Lumpur based artist Chok Yue Zan — the winner of the prestigious 2017 UOB Painting of the Year in Malaysia — grew up with his grandparents in a forested environment surrounded by lush greenery and breathtaking sceneries.
It was his sanctuary, a space of unbridled happiness which he considers his lost paradise. Heavily inspired by nostalgia and the singular theme of past, present, and future – Chok believes that one’s memories of the past can have a very tangible effect on one’s future.
Here, we speak to him on his influences, inspiration and ideals.
I Thought, We Can Stay Strong Like Stones (2017) Acrylic, charcoal and oil on canvas
You were born in Sabah, East Malaysia, how influential has Sabah and its lush forests been in your art?
Sabah, Borneo is a beautiful place surrounded with lush forest and ocean. Unlike other kids, I was very lucky to have grown up with my grandparents who were living in a beautiful paradise.
There were clean rivers where I could see all the fish dancing in the water, duck and geese singing for the fish, chicken and dogs chasing each other, or cats sleeping all the time.
My work is all about my childhood happiness and joyful moments. I think my mum made the right decision for my childhood.
The themes you have chosen over the past years are often related to “Paradise”, or a “Lost Paradise”. Tell us more about this Paradise which is so vividly present in your art?
The forest (paradise) means a lot to me. I remember the first time I was here in Kuala Lumpur — I got lost easily, which I never do in paradise because the trees and river always lead me to the correct direction.
The paradise is a space; and at the same time it is a guardian. I wish I could spend a long year in paradise right now.
I also have good memories of living with my grandparents who taught me how to collect eggs the right way and how to properly pick fruit in the garden.
Following the passing of my grandparents in 2006, the paradise that I held dear to my heart started to disappear and everything turned into a sweet dream.
After a few years, my parents divorced and the relationship between me and my family changed into something strange.
Paradise is not only a space; at the same time, it is everything for me.
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Throwback one of my favourite artwork from my last solo exhibition ”Retrospect of Paradiso” at @artporters Ocean represents life and disappearance in my past memories. Memory Of The Ocean III 2018 #art #artwork #painting #oilpainting #acrylic #mixmedia #mixmediaart #contemporary #contemporarypainting #contemporaryart #southeastasia #southeastasiaart #malaysia #fineart #exhibition #ocean #sea #throwback #artgallery #chokyuezan
How important has it been for you in terms of recognition of your talent since winning the UOB Painting of the Year Award (Malaysia)?
First of all, I would like to thank UOB (United Overseas Bank) for holding this programme to support talented artists every year and it has created a big change in my life.
I didn’t have any high expectations when submitting my very first painting of “Tough Like Stones, I Thought” series to the UOB Painting of the Year 2017 competition as I just wanted to get more exposure for my new series.
Surprisingly, I won the Painting of the Year (Malaysia) in 2017 and also a one-month residency with the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.
The award gave me a huge confidence boost and was a big nudge for the next stage of my journey. Thankfully at the same time, I joined Art Porters Gallery as one of their artists.
It was a new start to my art journey.
A close-up of a work in progress by Chok Yue Zan.
Lately, you have been using 3D techniques in your art. Tell us more about that?
I am interested in making texture on canvas which texture being defined as the tactile quality of an object’s surface.
It appeals to our sense of touch which can evoke feelings of pleasure, discomfort or familiarity.
Texture is something that I can play with through the manipulation of medium and technique to narrate my emotions.
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Has your vision of the art scene become more international since you became a member of the Art Porters Gallery?
Yes! I now have more opportunities to exhibit my works at an international level.
I’ve exhibited at Art Porters Gallery, Singapore and also, showcased my works at a few group exhibitions at the gallery’s booth in fairs in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Not only are my collectors from Southeast Asia, the audience is becoming more international as well.
Beyond exhibitions, there are opportunities to work with other art dealers through Art Porters Gallery and I am very pleased and thankful to become part of the collective.
I’ve always had a good experience creating fond memories with them.
De UPSITE DOWN (2019) Oil on canvas.
What does it mean to be truly Malaysian?
I will always feel proud to be a Malaysian. Besides the political issues, Malaysia is a wonderful place made up of multiple ethnic groups — Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan, Iban and others.
To be truly Malaysian is about understanding each other.
Some people from the Peninsula Malaysia always say that Sabah and Sarawak are the same place while some of us from Borneo can’t differentiate states like Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu.
We need to spend more time understanding each other’s culture so that we can prevent unnecessary controversy.
This story first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Men’s Folio Malaysia.