Women’s Work — Exhibition at Rimbun Dahan

‘Cluttered’ by Yau Bee Ling, yearlong resident artist in 2005.


Angela Hijjas looks back on 26 years of hosting women artists in residencies at Rimbun Dahan. The exhibition Women’s Work will be on display in the Underground Gallery at Rimbun Dahan from 13 September 2020 onwards.

A woman’s work is never done, and it’s a good thing too, as they bring dedication and total commitment to whatever they do, whether raising a family or embarking on a more individual path. Over 26 years, Rimbun Dahan has hosted many women artists, but there have been significantly more men, so we made a commitment to rectify that by being more aware that women generally don’t push themselves out into the public eye so much, despite being just as powerful as artists.

Our first Malaysian woman, in 1996, was the late Renee Kraal, extremely self effacing, quiet and thoughtful, and she invited her former teacher, Enid Ratnam-Keese from Australia to be her partner in our paired Malaysian/Australian residency for the year. Unfortunately, Enid’s expectations of sustaining the roles of student/teacher were unrealistic, and the two women went separate ways, as one would expect, each producing a body of work that reflected their vastly different views of the world: Enid angry at almost everything, while Renee sought peace and quiet to draw and paint. Unsurprisingly, there were spectacular fireworks at the end!

This was not a good beginning, but I learned a lot about how one should and shouldn’t “manage” resident guests. We continued on with Helen Crawford and Chong Siew Ying in 1999. Helen had trained as a sculptor, Siew Ying was a French-educated painter newly returned to Malaysia who wondered if she could develop a career for herself back in her home country. By the year’s end, Siew Ying had relaxed into a new approach to painting, borne by the liberation of enjoying her practice and being back in Malaysia, despite missing Paris. Her joyous laughing portraits struck a huge response from art lovers, and her show sold out, launching a successful career that allows her to support herself from her professional practice, the dream of every artist. Helen too was delighted to be in Malaysia: liberated from the necessary part-time work she had done in Adelaide, here she could concentrate on her practice. She built an installation of Malaysia’s ubiquitous pink plastic take-away bags at a local playground adjacent to the pasar malam, starting a connection with the kampong around us, as our neighbours watched and wondered why artists do such strange things. The piece of hers in this exhibition causes some anxiety for our many student visitors: an obviously dead body, life sized, hanging as if on a butcher’s hook, and suspended over a mirror. As the students crowd around and look down into the mirror, they realize that their friends are now upside down… momento mori.

Noor Mahnun Mohammed, Anum as she is known everywhere, was in residence for the following year, 2000, with Australian Gary Proctor, and they both pursued their own objectives with no expectation of doing anything together. Anum, like Siew Ying, was a returnee from Europe, having lived many years in Germany. Her return was precipitated by her father’s death, and she too wondered if she could settle back in Malaysia and develop her own practice. She has since been embraced by Malaysia, as an artist, a teacher and an engaged mentor of students and younger professional artists. She managed the residency for us at Rimbun Dahan for many years, nurturing a special generation of young talent.

Margot Wiburd, from Australia in 2001, had worked with filmmakers but was looking for time for her own practice. Her search for quiet is reflected in her pastel pieces that grew in size and confidence during her year with us.

Also in 2001, I was approached by Nadiah Bamadhaj who needed studio space to prepare for an exhibition that Galeri Petronas had agreed to host. “1965 – Rebuilding its Monuments” was a multi-faceted mourning of the events of that year in Indonesia, when hundreds of thousands were killed by the military, supposedly rooting out communism, but really settling old scores and intimidating the population through terror, with the knowledge and support of Western powers. Her charcoal works on paper were the beginning of a commitment to this medium that she has made her own over the years.

In 2003, we had local sculptor Jasmine Kok Lee Fong, who hailed from nearby Kundang but had studied in London, and Scottish/Australian painter Anne Morrison and her husband Troy Ruffels from Tasmania. Jasmine wrestled with huge marbles that Hijjas acquired from local suppliers, with the help of her contractor father who shifted them around for her. Her work has been in the herb garden ever since, reinforcing the sense of peace she was seeking to portray. Over that year, we had great industry in the studios, and we realized the benefits of having more people rather than less.

In 2005 we again had three year-long artists plus one: recently married Choy Chun Wei and Yau Bee Ling, and Tony Twigg from Australia with his wife Gina Fairley, a gallery professional who self started a new career as an arts writer while at RD, going to every gallery and exhibition in KL and Manila, meeting artists and visiting their studios, developing a particular expertise in Southeast Asian visual arts. We recruited her to write part of the monograph we prepared for Hijjas’ practice, and she went on to a career as an arts writer back in Sydney, while maintaining her links with Asia. Bee Ling, with a studio of her own, stretched big canvases that she never had space for before, and went on to fill them with the crowded details of a woman’s life, using her time to produce wonderful works that expressed her world at that point.

In 2007, we had Gabrielle Bates from Sydney, paired with Ahmad Fuad Osman, who spent his year commemorating the 50th anniversary of Merdeka. Gabrielle worked on her painting practice choosing as her subjects female goddesses and the women in our compound, like Bilqis, Anum and Donna Miranda, a noted contemporary performance artist from the Philippines, marking her subjects with symbols of their identity; in Donna’s case she is clothed in a web of tiny tropical flowers.

Two Tasmanian women in 2008, Megan Keating and Lauren Black, shared the residency with Justin Lim. Megan’s fine and subtle aesthetic coalesced around the landscapes she found in Malaysia, more oil palm and less forest than she had anticipated, and she nailed our consumer culture and lack of concern about forest loss in beautiful lush paintings. Lauren by contrast, as a botanical artist, met many botanists here and finally was able to follow some into the forest to secure subjects for study. But she was also looking to expand her career into a more contemporary expression, in which she took plants to stand for specific aspects of Malaysia’s history.

In 2009 we hosted Samsuddin Wahab, and a couple from Sydney, Monica Behrens and Rochelle Haley. Monica had been selected for the residency, but over their year I came to appreciate Rochelle’s work more. Rochelle looked at detail and dynamics, making some beautiful works of tiny subjects and working with dancers to map their movements on paper. During that year, we rebuilt the Penang house on site, and they used it for an intriguing installation within it. Paris-based Malaysian photographer Diana Lui was also at RD for a short residency the same year and left for us the photograph of our stately, lightning-shattered durian tree, our oldest tree, and an important garden landmark.

Jessica Watson and her family came to RD from Sydney via Sweden in 2010, and lived and worked for the year in our kampong house, Rumah Uda Manap, while Kojak was in his studio. Jessica’s embroideries are stunning transformations of craft into art. As with many of the Australian artists, she developed relationships with other artists and galleries in Malaysia, and the three small pieces in the show are from an exhibition in Penang the following year. Her dragon flying over Georgetown is one of my favourite works, reminding me of the Penang years when Hijjas and I built the Penaga Hotel while Jessica was in residence.

Claire Healy, with her partner Sean Cordiero, came to Rimbun Dahan with their two small children in 2013, when Sabri Idrus was the Malaysian resident artist. I had seen Claire’s and Sean’s exquisite minute cross-stitched tapestries of explosions of fossil fuels, and marveled at the transposition of such an undervalued craft into a vehicle for art and political comment; that is their hallmark. During their residency they made life-sized Lego figures of animals ‘skewered’ by IKEA furniture: wildlife reduced to mindless decoration for mass consumption. The couple appeared to work seamlessly, with their kids recruited to sort the mixed boxes of Lego that arrived regularly in exchange for Lego of their own, so it was a genuine family enterprise that made the juggle of family life and art practice look so easy.

In 2010, we initiated a residency in Penang at Hotel Penaga, and hosted about 30 artists there until we sold up in 2017. Represented in this show of those Penang artists is Sangeeta Sandrasegar, an Australian whose family is of Malaysian origin, whose paper cuts explore her own identity against those Malaysians she met in Penang.

Australian mosaic artist Helen Bodycomb, who had been with us in the Open Residency programme in 2006, in which international artists financed themselves to join our community, returned in 2009 with friends, to make a mosaic wall for the Penaga, in recognition of Penang having supported and commissioned artists and artisans over the last century to embellish its buildings. Helen’s piece in this show was made for our annual fundraising show for WWF, Art for Nature, in 2006. Cathy Brooks, too, was self funded, and came from Adelaide with her poet husband Mike Ladd in 2009; she layered silk screen prints with silhouettes of bits of rubbish collected by the roadside, rhythmically repeated to transcend their origins and become beautiful cultural and architectural representations of Kuala Lumpur. Louise Saxton, was with us in 2006 (our vintage year, as Anum pointed out) and her installation of recovered embroideries pinned to tulle looks quintessentially feminine, but the actual subject of the piece is the empty centre of all that hand stitching where the Rafflesia is outlined but vacant, just as the largest flower in the world is missing from our national iconography. Lindy Lee, 2006, now a sought-after sculptor and installation artist from Sydney, wanted to stay in Southeast Asia for three months to experience living in Asia. She is renowned as an influential art teacher, but now also has architectural-scale installations in many Australian cities. Her work at RD compares the rigidity of accurate, formal representation against the random forces of nature that shape us.

Asialink, based at the University of Melbourne, was a valued partner from the nineties, and sent hundreds of artists all over Asia for three-month periods. Asialink artists in this show include Sally Heinrich of Adelaide, a creator of beautiful children’s books who painted the superb “Princess Wonky in the Painted Palace” and lived in our kampong house with her two children. Julie Ryder explored and tested some of our plants for textile dyes and Anne Neil used discarded construction formwork as the base for assemblages of found objects.

2013 was the last of the year-long residencies sponsored by Hijjas’ architectural practice, but we still offer shorter residencies to Malaysian and Southeast Asian artists, to bring our focus on neighbours a bit closer to home. In 2015 we invited Malaysian Azliza Ayub to stay for a year-long period with a solo exhibition at the end. Her work used found discarded objects, like plastic water bottles that were everywhere in our kampong, transforming them into beautiful assemblages that transformed our gallery. However, preparing for the show while simultaneously caring for her family of four young children took its toll, a telling example of the stresses of juggling home and practice that are particular to women. After the show she disappeared and sadly we don’t have any of her work to show. Nor do I have work from Indonesia’s foremost performance artist, Arahmaiani, who stayed for 6 months in 2005, preparing for a solo exhibition at Valentine Willie’s gallery. I do have a small piece from Mella Jaarsma who also prepared at Rimbun Dahan for a show at Valentine Willie’s in 2004. Mella founded the first artists’ residency programme in Southeast Asia, Cemeti, with her husband Nindityo Adipurnomo, in 1988, in Jogjakarta. I was glad to reciprocate for her inspiration.

The shorter residencies for up to 3 months attracted applicants from Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam; we also had residencies for choreographers and writers. Zun Ei Phyu of Myanmar is a particular favourite, a qualified doctor turned painter, she was also an accomplished paper cutter; she came to RD in 2014 with her friend Sandar Khaing whose large bold nudes couldn’t be exhibited in Myanmar. Both were stretching boundaries: Zun Ei by embracing her future as artist rather than doctor, and Sandar challenging the restrictions of a traditional society. In 2015 we had a young Australian artist, Jen Tyers, who painted exquisite watercolours of landscapes in the RD gardens, and studies of Dipterocarp seeds; many of these are on display in the Kasturi Resort, our new hotel at Pantai Cendor on the East Coast. Indonesian Ruth Marbun’s watercolours from 2019 also marked a significant residency. Ida Lawrence, another Australian but with Indonesian parentage, had spent time in Bali with her father’s family, absorbing artistic and cultural influences.

Malaysians Wong Xiang Yee and Chuah Shu Ruei shared an exhibition in 2018. Again, as in many previously paired exhibitions, each came with very different approaches to their practice, but by having time and space to work independently they both developed in their time at Rimbun Dahan, as did Anniketyni Madian of Sarawak, who spent 6 months with us in 2014; a major work of hers is not in this show as it too is hanging at the Kasturi Resort.

Melissa Lin was with us in 2014, and her quest was more spiritual; to quote from her statement: “Art for her is a process of becoming and of encouraging the intrepid traveler on the way to wholeness and experience, not only for the individual self, but also for the health of the community and collective.” I would not describe art in that manner, but I respect her point of view; I think for women who have a desperate urge to create work that reflects and engages the world around them, they have a strong instinct to grasp every opportunity they have to realise the work they think about as they do their everyday endless tasks for family and community: a residency is time for yourself, to develop your ideas and skills, to meet people with similar concerns, and maybe learn from each other or work together.

There have been many more women at Rimbun Dahan whose work I couldn’t show, particularly that of dancers and choreographers; sadly we can’t stage a retrospective of all the dance events Bilqis organized here, but there was often a rich crossing of boundaries between dance and art, most memorable in the work of Zun Ei and Rochelle Hayley. The range of form and expression of all the women is remarkable, and personally they resonate with me far more than the rest of the Rimbun Dahan collection. I have long wanted to hang this show and I feel it is a triumph of diversity, of how selflessly women artists share their worlds, whether it’s the exposed vulnerability of Megan Keating’s ‘Song Cycles’, or exploring the meanings of practicality and spirituality; but overwhelmingly, it is sheer beauty that allows the works to transcend to a higher level.

2020 has been a strange year for everyone, but at Rimbun Dahan we have had a chance to evaluate what we have been doing for the last 26 years and plan for the future. The lockdown enabled me to replan the garden, to renovate the kampong house and refurbish the hard landscaping, so that we can ensure that Rimbun Dahan continues to be a resource of creativity, dance, art, botany and architecture for Malaysia into the future.