Art exhibitions, ‘bad omen’ jinx

Diana used to tell me she had a travel jinx, something I only really started to believe when the plane door fell off.
Neil Gaiman, English author of short fiction, novels, comic books nonfiction, and films

Three times in the past my canvases were among scores of others given prominence in the National Art Gallery (NAG) in Kuala Lumpur.

Most of the paintings were by established artists who were among the ‘Who is Who’ in the Malaysian art scene. Only mine and a few others fell into the novice category.

These were the NAG exhibitions of 1976, 1977 and 1978. But it was the 20th anniversary of Malaysian Independence Exhibition in 1977 that remains intact in my heart. After all it was the only time that I went to KL with the intention to attend the exhibition.

Early in the morning of the exhibition in 1977, four of us started our journey by car, a very beautiful and sporty Colt Gallant belonging to Unversiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Fine Arts’ Painting and Drawing lecturer Dr Lim Eng Hooi, then aged 30.

Lim was our driver whereas our Design lecturer Dr (later Professor) Chew Teng Beng, then 39, took to the spare driver’s seat while Mulok Saban (then Fine Arts second year student) and I (then Fine Arts third year student) were in the back seat.

All of us were eager to see our paintings being given the honour to be exhibited in the country’s most prominent art gallery, our own equivalent of the New York Art Museum and the London Art Museum. Mulok and I had one painting each entered for the exhibition whereas Lim had two and Chew, three.

By the time we were done with the ferry trip to Butterworth, across the Penang Island, it was around 8am. Penang Bridge was to come almost another decade later.

Our 1977 trip went well until a stretch of road after Taiping junction where Lim’s Colt Gallant emitted smoke from the bonnet necessitating us to stop on the left side. Mulok and I had to go to a nearby empty hut on the right side and look for water and container.

Lim let the engine cool down a bit before opening the radiator cap. The problem was ascertained to be a leaking hose and after few more stops, we managed to reach Ipoh before lunchtime.

It took no less than an hour or so for the mechanic to fix the car. From Ipoh to KL it would normally take just a few hours only but because of the car problem, by the time we reached the city it was around nine in the evening and as such we were not able to go to NAG to view our exhibited paintings as the place closed at six.

Tired and disoriented we checked in a hotel called Sentosa Hotel at Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman. Lim and Chew shared a room while Mulok and I shared a room too as well as the RM16.80 charge for a night stay – years later I found out the hotel was a popular accommodation choice for the likes of Tun Jugah, Joseph Unting (the first independent candidate to win in Sarawak in a seven-cornered fight in Kanowit in the state’s first parliamentary elections in 1969) and other Iban MPs and aristocrats.

Our plan was to reach NAG early the next day.

“Today is a ‘jai burung’ (bad omen) day,” I told Mulok.

Before NAG we stopped to see Chew’s friend at Samad Gallery who showed the day’s copy of The Strait Echo – now defunct – carrying an article that his (Chew’s) father had died in a car crash late in the previous and offering no further detail. So, we abandoned our plan to go to NAG and decided to go back to Penang immediately.

Had it not happened more than 40 years ago; Chew would have known some details of his father’s demise just by the technological advancement of the present era. The three of us offered our sympathy and agreed to help.

By the time we reached Chew’s residence in Penang, it was around 8pm. Mulok and I paid our respects for the first time using the joss sticks. When Chew’s wife served us simple dinner, she told the husband that Chew Senior drove his (Dr Chew’s) sports car, a Triumph convertible, that went out of control and hit a tree. So in actual fact, Dr Chew lost both his father and the sports car.

Due to the ‘jai burung’ all of us were not able to view the exhibition, especially to see the price tags for our paintings allocated by NAG. We only found out very much later that the price range was between RM3,000 and RM10,000. Since Mulok and I received no notification of any sale, our paintings might as well be forgotten.

As such I missed all three exhibitions in NAG where my paintings were on show as aforesaid.

Doing abstracts isn’t as easy as people think. There are no rules, no guidelines. You aren’t striving to make the picture look like something. It’s all down to personal taste.

Upon Chew’s recommendation, I was offered a RLKA (Rancangan Latihan Kakitangan Akademik) to be a tutor in the Fine Arts Department of USM in 1985 (six years after graduation) en route to a PhD in Fine Arts from University of Hawaii. I rejected the offer for various reasons.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.