Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives

17 February - 23 June 2019


The exhibition Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives will focus on the last decades of artist Chia Yu Chian’s practice by showcasing his paintings from the late 1960s until his passing in 1990.

In 1963, the very year that Malaysia was formed, Chia Yu Chian handed the management of his Penang gallery and art supply store to his younger brother. He packed up his belongings and moved down to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of this new country, ready for a new adventure.

For the next two and a half decades,  Yu Chian would spend the rest of his life living together with his wife and three children in a small one-bedroom flat on the second floor of Selangor Mansion on Jalan Masjid India. The flat also doubled up as his atelier, where he taught art and painted continuously.

The city and its people were subjects that naturally dominated Yu Chian’s painterly oeuvre. Private Lives is an exhibition that explores the relationship between a modern artist and a modern city in a postmodern age. In his later works, there was a noticeable shift in Yu Chian’s understanding of the city. Unlike his earlier still lifes, streetscapes and tableaux, Yu Chian trained his observation on both the social drama and the quiet slice-of-life moments where the presence of the human figure registers most forcefully. Very little escaped his notice and as a result of Yu Chian’s careful study, the school teacher, the rich towkay, the drunkard, the beggar, the madman, the politicians, factory workers, hospital nurses, school children, and many more were captured skilfully by Yu Chian through his application of thick impastos, producing images that pulsed restlessly in a riot of colours.

Yu Chian offers an exhaustive portrait of a city populated by those that were simply getting by or who had fallen by the wayside, what sociologist Georg Simmel calls the ‘soul of the cultural body’. His paintings did not bear the likeness of the great and the good, but of the working classes, the ordinary men and women who lived and worked in the city. Yu Chian had the ability to take the most common and unremarkable of spaces — the pawnshop, the hospital, the factory, the streets — and elevate them to important landmarks in the artist’s retelling of the history of Kuala Lumpur. By painting them, he created an alternative narrative, a reimagining of Kuala Lumpur and city life, and to a certain extent, the country itself.

The exhibition reunites ILHAM Gallery director Rahel Joseph and University of Malaya art historian Simon Soon, in their third curatorial collaboration, after Love Me in My Batik: Modern Batik Art from Malaysia and Beyond and Gerak, Rupa, Ubur dan Penyataan.

The exhibition features over 160 artworks and archival materials, drawn principally from the Chia Yu Chian family collection as well as other private and national collections.

BFM: The Private Lives Of KL City

21 FEBRUARY 2019: The Business Radio Station (BFM) speak with the exhibition’s curators, Rahel Joseph and Simon Soon, about the significance of the works of late Malaysian artist Chia Yu Chian and how they fit within his larger art legacy.