The Searcher of Beauty
The appreciation of beauty has always been a large part of Sylvia's life. A Nyonya brought up in Penang, she recalls her ancestral mansion, surrounded by an orchard of durian, rambutan, ciku, papaya, pomelo, mongosteen and avocado trees. The shapes and smells of these fruits have always fascinated her, informed her visual consciousness. In the garden, her great grandfather grafted many coloured plants that have left everlasting impressions on her. Even in the coconut grove, hedychium coranarium grew whose white flower's beautiful perfume linger in her memory. She would sit with her parents to listen to the gramophone records of classical and operatic music. Something of this sumptuous living is reflected in such works as "Nyonya Maternal".
The one colour that combines the vibrancy of life and art, to her, is red. And in many of her works, red predominates. She associates red with things which are invigorating, revitalizing, enchanting, arresting, questioning, provoking. Life is blood and blood is red. Study, for instance. "After a Thousand Tears", in which she sits on a throne-like sofa wearing a red jacket, a red drapery on her left falls upon the red carpet. Forming a canopy is the Heliconea Rostrata. Above, to her right, is a spread-out red umbrella. Then there is the red hibiscus at her right foot. As red is life-affirming, Sylvia has personalised the colour to mean the saving of the Baba tradition which she feels, called upon to do.
In many ways, these works acknowledge that the baba culture has reached a stage that many of its supporters believe to be stagnant, or dying and dying fast. The reasons are complex and hard to pin down. Those who want to preserve it are less than those who couldn't care less. As the years go by, the fewer gets fewer. As though setting the stage for its ultimate demise, the Penang Museum has opened many of its halls to exhibiting baba objects, categorized as artifacts, which in art history is another name for things left by people who no longer exists, or on the edge of extinction.
Centred in Penang and Malacca, Baba culture's growth has always been stunted by suspicion and mistrust because of its flagrant hybridism. Every culture has its own notion of purity, and guard it against pollution in overt and subtle ways. Mainstream Chinese culture has tolerated the Babas long enough that the process of sidelining them is blamed less on one person or institution than by trends in chauvinism, intolerance and economics, all of which are set by which way the political winds happen to blow. The massive transformations that have wrought Malay culture are less conducive to the Nyonya born to adopt Malay ways. Ever since the 1970's we have participated in a planned national integration in which education and language policies have hammered a brand of sameness we call identity. In the 1990's computers, flats, shopping centres, video games have fashioned a mind-set that is highly uniformed. For a small group of Chinese to wear kebaya, sing the dondang sayang, and recite the pantun, to be readily acceed, without adopting Islam as well, is pretty unlikely. The dilemma Sylvia faces, therefore, is daunting, alone she can't reverse the tide of change, even if she tries. She then retreats into the labyrinth of her mind, searching for memories which she highlights, picture after picture, vignette after vignette.
He pictures tend to be quiet, cloistered, as though embalming a dead finger of a dying body. She does it with the veneer of the here and now, resulting in works that may or may not be like the images she has carried with here all these years. Memories are notoriously vague, no matter how finely tuned. But she relies on here palate as well, choosing the Baba Nyonya cakes, as tasteful then as now: Kuih lapis, kuih talam, kuih paw, kuih apam, kuih pulut, apam coklat, kuih seri muka, pulut bungkus, apam inti, with these are shia' basket, soup bowls, plates, vase wrapped in rattan. Also included are limau nipis red chilli, pineapple, kantan flower, tongsan fish, cabbage, Penang laksa, belacan, lesung batu, bean sprouts, cucumber, as in "Nyonya's Secret Recipe".
Aligned to these obsessions in the fear that soon the Babas and the Nyonyas would forget who they are, and the things their ancestors had cherished. She records the minutes details because in them are embedded the intricacies of a unique life style. Perhaps somethings of the intertwining of a pattern on a laksa bowl would move a sympathetic viewer. Who knows that would spur him into helping the Baba Nyonya community to regain its self-regard by investing money to pay for publications, for conducting seminars, even to institute a research center. To survive, culture must remember not to forget. Every work of art intends to win at least one convert willing to remember.
She knows that ideas alone without the mastery of technique would get her nowhere. With much persistence, she has gradually acquired the skills to paint. She reads books, attends exhibitions. The National Art Gallery is her regular haunt; so too, the private galleries. She often wonders if she would have the same intensity in her current commitment had she been to a professional art school.
She see that her works differ from other Penang artists. So what if there is an obvious sense of nostalgia, of seeing the world from the rear view mirror, a sight lost with each new turn. She has invested much emotional energy into these works. Still, there is more than just rearranging a set of cups and plates, as in "Woman Oh! Woman", "Kuih Muih (Nyonya Koay)', "Orchid, Teh and Koay",
"Teh, Chye Koay and Ang Koo", Blue Bowl and Koay". The mystique is in restating the commonplace, cast under different light, seen from varying perspective. In each new painting, these objects have something new to teach, she something startling to learn. Such is the dialectics of art, an endless give and take. Understanding one's limitations is the best knowledge there is, because it allows one to be oneself. Time and again Sylvia asserts herself in many of a self-portrait displaying a variety of moods, stating her presence as an ordinary mortal.
Often she feels time is running out. Each new day is precious, an opportunity to retrace lost links. In her quiet moments, she envisions herself dead as in "The Light at the End". A bed of flowers and a garlanded archway frames her reclining body. Ghostly figures of those who have departed retreat into the dim hallway, which is brightened at the end. She is a believer, in art, in life and in the hereafter a statement of credo that has made her art possible.