Culture, Interview, Lifestyle

Interview: Chok Yue Zan on getting lost in memories

Interview: Chok Yue Zan on getting lost in memories

Born in Tawau, Sabah, young Kuala Lumpur based artist Chok Yue Zan who won the prestigious 2017 UOB Painting of the Year in Malaysia grew up with his grandparents in a forested environment surrounded by lush greenery and breathtaking sceneries. It was his sanctuary, a space of unbridled happiness which he considers his lost paradise. Heavily inspired by nostalgia and the singular theme of past, present, and future – Chok believes that one’s memories of the past can have a very tangible effect on one’s future.


I Thought, We Can Stay Strong Like Stones (2017) Acrylic, charcoal and oil on canvas


You were born in Sabah, East Malaysia. How influential has Sabah and its lush forests been in your art?

Sabah, Borneo is a beautiful place surrounded with lush forest and ocean. Unlike other kids, I am very lucky to grow up with my grandparents who were living in a beautiful paradise (forest). There are clean rivers where I can see all the fish dancing in the water, duck and geese singing for the fish, chicken and dogs chasing each other, cats sleeping all the time. This is all about my childhood happiness and joyful moments. I think my mum made the right decision for my childhood.


The themes you have chosen over the past years are often related to “Paradise”, or a “Lost Paradise”. Tell us more about this Paradise which is so vividly present in your art?
Forest (paradise) means a lot to me. I remember the first time I was here in Kuala Lumpur, I got lost easily, which I never do in the paradise. Trees and river always lead me to the correct direction. The paradise is a space; at the same time it is a guardian. I wish I could spend a long year in the paradise right now. Always good memories of living with my grandparents. They taught me how to collect eggs in the right way and fruit picking in the garden.

Following the passing of my grandparents in 2006, the paradise that I hold dear to my heart started to disappear. Everything turned into a sweet dream. All the life and space are gone. After a few years, my parents divorced. The relationship between me and my family is changing, and everything becomes strange. Paradise is not only a space, at the same time, it is everything for me.


De UPSITE DOWN (2019) Oil on canvas


How important has it been for you in terms of recognition of your talent since winning the UOB Painting of the Year Award (Malaysia)?

First of all, I would like to thanks UOB (United Overseas Bank) in holding this programme to support talented artists every year. This created a big change in my life. I didn’t have a high expectation while submitting the very first painting of “Tough Like Stones, I Thought” series to UOB Painting of the Year 2017. I just wanted to get more exposure for my new series. It was an opportunity for me at that time. Surprisingly, I won the Painting of the Year (Malaysia) in 2017, and also a one-month residency in Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. This award gave me a huge confidence boost. Also a big nudge for the next stage of my journey. Thankfully at the same time, I joined Art Porters Gallery as one of their artists. It was a new start, and new challenge in my art journey.


How do you think an annual art competition such as the UOB Painting of the Year Award (Malaysia) can benefit the Malaysian art scene?

By joining this competition, artists can submit something fresh and different from what they are doing in their usual art practice. And as a result, not only receiving more exposure in our region but also more opportunities to get noticed in and recognition from other countries. One top winner from each country gets the chance to win South-east Asia Painting of the Year and a one-month residency in Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan. Through this programme, we can see artists pushing themselves to create beautiful visuals together with their meaningful story.


Close-up of Chok Yue Zan at work


You have lately been using 3D techniques in your art, tell us more about that?

I am interested in making texture on canvas. Texture is defined as the tactile quality of an object’s surface. It appeals to our sense of touch, which can evoke feelings of pleasure, discomfort, or familiarity. Texture is something that I can play with through the manipulation of medium and technique to narrate my emotions.


Has your vision of the art scene become more international since you are closely working nowadays with the Art Porters gallery and team?

Yes, I have more opportunity to exhibit my works at international level. I enjoyed my first solo at Art Porters Gallery, Singapore, a few group exhibitions at the gallery’s booth in fairs in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My collectors are not only from Southeast Asia, but more international as well. Beyond exhibitions, there are opportunities to work with others art dealers through Art Porters Gallery. I am very pleased and thankful to become part of Art Porters Gallery. Always having a good experience and creating good memories working with them.


What does it mean to be truly Malaysian?

I will always feel proud to be a Malaysian. Besides the political issues, Malaysia is a wonderful place made up of multiple ethnic groups, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan, Iban and others. To be truly Malaysian is about understanding each other. Some people from Peninsula Malaysia always say Sabah and Sarawak are the same place, and some of us from Borneo can’t differentiate states like Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu. We need to spend more time understanding each other’s culture, so that we can prevent unnecessary controversy.


By Julia Roxan & John Ng. This story first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Men’s Folio Malaysia.