For artists, an art residency offers a unique opportunity to get out of their comfort zones and be transported to new environments, where they may create art without worrying about day-to-day matters such as food or lodging. Unfortunately, however, the handful of art residencies in Malaysia were recently affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was thus heartening when CULT Gallery in Kuala Lumpur (CULT) introduced its inaugural art residency programme together with Bon Ton Langkawi in February 2022, named The CULT Art Residency @ Bon Ton Langkawi. Its conception was due to a happy coincidence and convergence of three important factors, that is, venue, gallery representation and artist selection.
Suryani Senja Alias, founder and managing director of CULT said, “When I started showing the works of young artists in my gallery, I realised that many don’t have a proper space to work. Most did not even have enough money to buy materials or move out after graduation to set up their own studio. Oftentimes they set up their workspace in bedrooms in their parents’ house. This wasn’t very conducive.”
“I strongly believe that young artists should be given a specific space to create. The residency can help give them a leg up so that they are able to create without worrying about money, materials or accommodation. It is an important support system for them so that they can create freely.”
It was thus an opportune moment when Suryani visited Langkawi and met with Narelle McMurtrie, the owner of Bon Ton Langkawi.
“It was such a wonderful coincidence that Narelle and I had the same vision of a creative residency that would include artists, singers and composers, writers and musicians. I was impressed with the set-up at Bon Ton which has a lovely lake in front and lovingly restored Malay houses for artists at the back. It was the perfect place for a young artist to be inspired – not only by the stunning nature of Langkawi but also by Bon Ton itself.”
Thus, the CULT Art Residency @ Bon Ton Langkawi was born. The residency offers food and beverage, accommodation, art materials, and a stipend to the selected artist for a three-month period. The inaugural programme was planned for February to April 2022.
With the artist residency in place, Nia Khalisa became the first young artist to be selected to participate. Winner of the 2015 UOB Most Promising artist award in the emerging artist category, Nia graduated with a Diploma in Fine Arts from the Malaysian Institute of Art. She is known for her delicate artwork in various mediums such as rice paper and textiles. Her distinctive and sophisticated style showcases a delicate and muted colour palate and unique image composition.
Nia said, “I was ecstatic when offered the residency. I instantly agreed to participate! As I am very much a beach person, the arrangement was more than ideal.”
Nia had limited time to prepare for the residency. She, however, knew what mediums she wanted to work with, that is Chinese calligraphy paper, textiles and batik. Thus, she packed everything up quickly.
When she arrived in Langkawi, she planned her schedule based on the criteria of the residency, namely to deliver at least four textile pieces, six paper-based works and an onsite installation for Bon Ton Langkawi. Nia’s work was also to be showcased via a studio show and a community workshop on 15 May 2022 at Bon Ton.
Nia said, “The batik technique is quite a long process compared to paint. For painting, you just need brushes, paint and canvas. Batik takes a longer time and proper preparation. I have to prepare the material by boiling it in starch and then drying it.
“If I’m not stamping the design with a mould, I’ll draw directly on the cloth. Drawing on the textile is time-consuming too as there is planning involved in the overall composition. After drawing, I’ll wax it, then dye it. Thus, I had to plan my schedule to ensure that it allowed me to create in an organised way within the three-month residency period.”
Being in Langkawi inspired Nia in new ways and encouraged her to explore fresh ways of creation.
Nia said, “This beautiful island is very aligned to what I do and like. I deeply appreciate the experience of working so close to nature and in a conducive resort such as Bon Ton. Since my arrival here, I have explored the island and documented my finds, including mangroves near Tanjung Rhu, the amazing beaches, the fishermen and their daily haul, paddy fields, and cows! Langkawi is known for squid fishing and the green lights of boats which are squid fishing at night look like the Northern lights from afar. I’ve tried as much as possible to incorporate these wonderful sights as motifs in my work.”
Aside from motifs inspired by the island, Nia drew upon Langkawi’s natural resources to produce her artwork.
She said, “There is a Ketapang (Indian almond) tree just outside my hut, and I collected the leaves, dried, shredded, and boiled them to extract the dye. I used variations of this dye in my work. With natural dye, the creative process took four times longer. I also had to dip the fabric more than 10 times for the natural dye to stick, depending on how deep I wanted the colour to be. Though it was that much more work, it was worthwhile as it produced a more natural colour compared to synthetic dyes. It was also meaningful to me to use resources directly from the island.”
To make the most of the residency in Langkawi, Nia took time to assimilate into her surroundings.
She said, “Bon Ton’s grounds are quite large. Aside from the spacious wooden house that I lived in, there were other large houses scattered throughout the property. I ensured that I mingled with the people who lived there, including staff workers with whom I shared lunches and dinners. Bon Ton also has an animal shelter and, in the evenings, I helped to walk the dogs and tend to the cats.”
This immersive experience gave Nia a more intimate perspective of daily life on the island resort and inspired her artwork.
As a young artist still in a stage of exploration, Nia confessed that she is still growing and seeking wisdom from others.
However, she said, “Do take the time to find your flair and style and don’t feel that there is a need to conform to the usual creative standards. My time at the Malaysian Institute of Art really opened my mind to the myriad possibilities of what can be designed and considered art.
“I first began with oil painting on canvas, then gouache painting on rice paper and now I am working on batik drawings and block printing on fine textiles. Just do what comes naturally to you and never stop being curious. Also, don’t worry so much about creating ‘inconvenient works’, whether in terms of concept or execution. There are and should be different ways of interpreting art.”
Cover image supplied by CULT Gallery.