If you never thought that “towel art” — the cutesy animal shapes that one most often finds folded and curled on hotel beds upon check-in — could really be art, rather than a gimmick to welcome tourists, well, then you don’t know Mandy Maung yet.
Also known as Mama, Maung is a multimedia artist of mixed Sino-Burmese heritage, born and bred on Penang island. She has worked on a variety of projects, from canvas to mural art — the Malay woman she pitted on the wall of Malay Haute restaurant Irama is one of her most popular pieces.
Her latest collection, Orikata Tales — a mash-up of ori and kata, which means “word” in Bahasa Malaysia, and was curated by Ivan Gabriel — was exhibited at Project 26 in Georgetown from 11 March to 3 April 2022.
The 12 pieces are a visual tale of Maung’s Penang heritage and ancestry delivered in a most original mix of batik, the quintessential Malaysian fabric, and towel art. Something that no other Southeast Asian artist has thought of intermarrying before Maung.
“It all started with experimenting,” Maung told Eksentrika when we met her at Project 26, a Sino-Portuguese shophouse turned artists’ studio tucked in the thick of Georgetown’s Lorong Carnarvon.
“I had bought some batik and I didn’t know what to do with it, for it’s already so beautiful. People already turned it into souvenirs, but I didn’t want to take that direction, nor risking of ruining a nice piece of batik,” said the artist.
To Maung, batik represents a connection with her past and the island he calls home — although love took her away to Europe, in Croatia, where her husband lives, and where Maung is moving to live in June 2022.
“Batik holds a special memory for me because my grandmother, a Nyonya woman, would always wear a beautiful batik sarong,” explained Maung. “A lot of her colourful sarongs were given away when she passed, and I couldn’t get a hold of any. So I decided to use this style to keep her memory alive for myself, and share with the public what using batik can be.”
In Orikata Tales’ case, the batik that Maung used took up the form of nine beautiful animal sculptures that the artist imagined and curled taking her inspiration from towel art.
“I took the idea of towel art without thinking of how it’s used in hotels and it has nothing to relate to COVID-19’s effects on the industry, it’s just my own concept,” said Maung when we asked her if the idea had anything to do with lockdowns and the temporary closure of the tourism upon which Penang depends so much.
Maung’s first batik animal creation was a simple bunny made out of a red and black floral batik.
“I then explored what other animals I could do,” she said. Next are a couple of birds in a nest, an elephant, a giraffe, and other figures, like a horse, cow, and unicorn, whose folding work progressively becomes more complicated.
“The unicorn piece represents Penang,” said Maung. “The design of that fabric is very Nyonya as Penang’s back history is, and the unicorn is a unique animal on its own, just like Penang island — there’s no other Penang in the whole world, and I wanted to show that in that painting.”
Painting, yes, because Orikata Tales is much more than simple folded towel and iron rod sculptures: the animals are three-dimensional, for they exist as batik sculptures, but are also painstakingly reproduced as oil on canvases, and smaller pencil and white ink illustrations on onion paper.
Maung in fact spent a lot of time working on this collection since 2020, locked down at home during Malaysia’s COVID-19 Movement Control Order, conceptualizing the animal figures for Orikata Tales first in her mind, and then studying them with the help of the Photoshop software.
“Things can be very different from the idea I have in my mind to what I see by projecting it in the software,” she told Eksentrika. “I need it to help me visualize each artwork”.
As part of the process, Maung takes a picture of the batik animal and then manipulates it by doing sketches in Photoshop. She chose to use a neutral background for the paintings because she wanted the beautiful colours of the batik to pop, otherwise, they’d get lost. When drawn on onion paper, the animals come alive in a different series of black and white shadows and contrasts.
Orikata Tales, which opened in Penang, may soon take to other Malaysian cities as Maung is resolute to maintain her foot firmly planted in the region even if she’s moving abroad. The artist will be one of seven participating in the Tujuh collective exhibition that is coming in July 2022 — a completely different piece of work that touches on Malaysia’s infamous former prime minister Najib Razak.
“I don’t want to be silenced and they have no right to silence me or other artists with very strong opinions,” said Maung. “I am willing to take the risk.”
Her determination and creativity are certainly going to turn heads both locally and in her new adopted home of Croatia, where Maung believes art is not as well-regarded as in Southeast Asia, and where women artists still face stereotypes and stigmas.
“I don’t think that’s just in Southeast Asia but worldwide. If we have a family, we female artists are always put in that box that it should be our responsibility to take care of the children, and if you want to do art, then people think it’s just a hobby. They won’t take you as seriously as if you were a man. We have to learn to believe we are doing real work, we are sacrificing. Female artists have to be taken more seriously.”
Cover image by Kit Yeng Chan.