SARAWAK is awash with talent in creative arts – from painting, handicrafts, poetry, writing, photography, architecture, sculpture, and structure, to the many forms of performing arts.
While this reflects the uniqueness of our artistically and culturally diverse society, the majority of locals, however, have yet to warm to art appreciation.
This reality is not lost on local artist Gerald Goh. He has stressed the need to foster greater appreciation of art in Kuching and will continue to contribute towards the development of art in Sarawak.
A third-generation potter, his life has revolved around art since childhood, starting with making pottery at his family’s factory and workshop before moving into painting on ceramics – and now on canvas.
Today, he is sole proprietor and chief curator of an event company, as well as Sarawak Handicraft, Arts, and Souvenir Association president and Sarawak Artists Society vice-president.
Having spent many decades working in the arts, event, and tourism industry, Goh finally put on his very first solo exhibition, themed ‘The Voyage’, at the Saradise Gallery in Brighton Square, Kuching, recently to share the twists and turns of his life’s journey – but, nonetheless still an incredible journey, as he put it.
The collection of acrylic and oil paintings as well as sculptures and photography at the exhibition communicated and expressed his discovery, confusion, pain, sadness, hope, coping, acceptance, and healing.
“At first, I never thought about doing this and becoming a serious artist. But my wife passed away about a year ago due to cancer and I found solace in painting,” he told thesundaypost.
Art has grounded and helped him navigate through the confusion and harsh world, and every stroke gave him the peace and strength to come to terms with the finality of loss as well as to persevere and move forward.
“I even took a trip to France and Paris. It enabled to look back and recall how I started as an artist. Artists normally start by copying the works of others to brush up their skills. And where becoming an artist is concerned, the trip was an eye-opener for me,” he said.
Oscar-Claude Monet (France), Leonardo da Vinci (Italy), and Vincent van Gogh (Holland) are among the immortals of the art world whose works Goh studied and copied.
These all-time greats have influenced and inspired the development of his own artistic style and prowess.
“I never thought one day I would have the chance to go to the pond and paint like Monet … in front of the green lovers’ bridge. It was a really a dream come true,” he recalled fondly.
“I think every artist deserves a chance to really go out there and see how artists are regarded with respect, appreciated and treasured in other countries. Perhaps, it will give them the inspiration and drive to go to the next level.”
After a life-changing episode of transformation and growth, Goh feels it is time to promote art and the appreciation of art in Sarawak.
“One of the things I want to do through this exhibition is to use the proceeds to help charitable bodies, and more importantly, to preserve the techniques and skills of various arts, including through documentation, so the knowledge can be passed down,” he said.
“Artists now have a big role to play in both developing and developed societies, particularly in preserving diminishing arts. We need to start somewhere and look into how to further this endeavour.”
Role of art in society
According to Goh, art plays a pertinent role in the development of an economy or a society and the discourse of social, cultural, and global concerns.
“It influences society by changing opinions, instilling values and translating experiences across space and time, which is important to a developing economy.
“Research has shown art affects the fundamental sense of self and propels change in the thinking of a person – like how a song, film or novel can arouse emotions in those who encounter it, inspiring them to rally for change which they now see through the encounter with art,” he explained.
Painting, sculpture, music, literature and the other arts, he pointed out, were often considered as the archive of a society’s collective memory.
“Personally, art is important because it’s a form of communication that will structure the mentality of society at large. It allows people from different cultures and times to communicate via images, sounds and stories, instil values in ethnicity and uplift patriotism.”
He said to express inner feelings through subject matters, colours and textures, artists have the unique ability to engage individuals in a very deep and personal way.
“Art can help us understand our humanity and the historical conditions we live in, but more importantly, it can draw us into thinking whether our realities need to be changed.
“Art is contagious – an art piece can inspire other forms of art and serve to remind us of our beauty, strength, dreams and fragility.”
For instance, one of his paintings titled ‘The Prayer’, which he dedicates to his late wife, portrays the thoughts of a cancer patient with a short poem to go with it as follows:
“When my world turns down and weary,
A pair of wings is what I ask from thee,
Fly me to your wholesome sanctuary,
Where peace at heart is all I plead.”
This piece has been sold and part of the proceeds will be donated the National Cancer Society Sarawak.
Goh noted that works of art may also have a much-intended purpose to communicate ideas politically, spiritually or philosophically, creating a sense of beauty and pleasure, exploring the nature of perception or generating strong emotions.
In recent years, he said, art has become a vehicle to drive tourism where people are lured to travel to explore and engage in activities related to art, adding, “This includes travelling to art festivals, concerts, gastronomic and traditional cuisine related events, and to explore famous museums, art galleries, and many more.”
Among his collection is a hand-woven piece of collage art or tikar bergerang created through a traditional method of tapestry weaving unique to Sarawak.
It was woven for Saradise Gallery by Ngot Bi or Nek Ngot, 86, who was awarded the Seal of Excellence for Products of Southeast Asia from Unesco in 2005.
Traditionally these woven bergerang mats were made for a variety of uses such as prayer mats, to welcome the birth of the first born, for the groom to sit on during a marriage ceremony, or as floor coverings during special occasions.
The mat incorporates a surrounding open weave, which creates a lace-like impression pattern around the tapestry.
This particular unique hand-made piece entitled ‘Solidarity’ reflects the unity and solidarity of the diverse cultural identities through an ethnic tapestry.
Lack of art appreciation
Goh said art appreciation in Sarawak is still in its infancy and called for greater efforts from all sectors to take it to the next level.
“In a developing society, art is often pushed to the secluded corner on the list of priorities. In an economy where basic necessities are dominating the bulk of the household earnings, art appreciation seems a far cry which may even be unheard of.”
He said Sarawak is blessed with rich cultures, which are perfect for developing the art scene, adding that these, in turn, could serve as a resource-rich reservoir for the development of other industries.
“In a developing society and economy, the authorities would have to base their planning on a genuinely holistic understanding of development. This may involve giving as much attention to the development of its arts and cultures as to that of its economy, politics and technology,” he suggested.
With his involvement in arts-related organisations, Goh proposed that the idea of setting up of the Sarawak Art Gallery be holistically explored to generate greater interest in art.
“If we look at Malaysia as a whole, Sarawak is the most creative – hence the need for a platform for our artists to showcase works and be in the public eye.
“We need to seriously look into how to lift this sector up because if artists come up with something but the society do not appreciate it, then it’s kind of a rejection and putdown.”
Goh emphasised that the art ecosystem in Sarawak needs to be elevated to a level where art will be seen as an investment, not just an object of decoration.
“To achieve this, we, as a fraternity of artistically inclined enthusiasts, will be proud to contribute in whatever way we can to the development of art in the state,” he said.