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Get to know Winnie, the artist behind Timeless Realm.

WinnieWinnie Cheng, the artist behind the minutely detailed, whimsical Timeless Realm (http://www.timelessrealm.com/) was born in Kedah and has been drawing since she was five (“Nothing much has changed since then, expect the papers have gotten larger and my art instruments have gotten more numerous!”).

A working artist in every sense, Winnie completed a BA in Fine Art at the University of Toronto, holds a Diploma of Studio Arts from the Sheridan College School of Animation, Arts and Design, Canada, and received an MA in Art from Universiti Brunei Darussalam in 2013. She has previously worked as a graphic designer at the GTE Yellow Pages, andhas taught classes at Jo’s Art Gallery in Batu Besurat.

Winnie accepts commissions for papercuttings, and sells prints of her illustrations online through Society9, Stew, and Threadless.

In this interview, I talk to Winnie about life as a working artist in Brunei, the Bruneian art scene, and a very little bit about Bruneian art history.

The work you did on your MA at UBD was, if I remember correctly, an analysis of the history and development of modern Bruneian art. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

For my MA I researched the development of the Bruneian painting style from 1970 to 2010. I chose this 40 year time period as this is when Brunei as a country was also being formed.

My research focused on the art and style development of four Bruneian artists, Pg Timbang b Pg Hj Tuah, Zakaria Omar, Hj Yussof b Hj Matzin and Pg Kamarul Zaman b Pg Hj Tajuddin. I chose to focus my research on these four artists as they were actively producing paintings in that time frame and their art has been acknowledged by the Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards.

I collated each artist’s body of artwork to gain an understanding of the development of their personal style. Through that I was able to select a painting from each of the four artists to do a comparison study by analysing each piece formally and informally. I looked at aspects of style such as use of colour, composition, subject matter.

My study found that each artist had developed a strong individual style but as a whole do not define a strong national style that depicts the character of Brunei.

Great River City

Great River City1

 Twilight Garden

Twilight-Garden-papercut

On current trends in Bruneian art.

In my opinion based on personal observation the art currently being produced in Brunei is a mix of realistic paintings and contemporary art, which includes modern paintings and art installations. Realistic paintings refers to the more traditional themes of Brunei's landscapes and landmarks, and are usually produced by artists of an earlier generation (around 50 years and above). These artists are sometimes referred to as the 'Veteran Artists', though it is unclear how the term came to be applied to them. These paintings are usually idealistic depictions of life in Brunei, for example scenes of Kampong Ayer, and should not be considered Realist, just realistic.

Younger artists such as students from sixth form centres, UBD or those who have returned from studies overseas tend to have an expanded view of art and produce contemporary art. These young artists experiment with different styles from cubism to surrealism, but predominantly contemporary art in Brunei tends to have an expressionistic character to it. For example I have encountered three artists who use techniques similar to Jackson Pollock's action painting to create abstract paintings which are totally different in character. Pg Kamarul uses splashes of paint to create a sense of movement in his paintings based on traditional Bruneian stories, while Sam Siren uses her hands and feet to create her own style of action painting that carries the energy of her emotional state.

There are also a small percentage of artists in the older generation who produce modern art. In the younger generation this ratio is reversed and more young artists create contemporary art compared to the traditional themes of Kampong Ayer.

As for common techniques there does not seem to be a particular technique which Bruneian artists favour; instead each artist experiments with multiple techniques and styles to suit their purpose.

On being a working artist in Brunei.

In Brunei whenever people hear that I am an artist or doing something art-related, the most common reaction is that the Brunei market is “too small” to make it as an artist here. There is some truth to this as the standards for art appreciation and the development of art institutions is relatively low when compared to countries such as Singapore, Malaysia or Hong Kong. There are also restrictions in Brunei in that all public exhibitions have to be cleared by a censorship board, and that can influence the kind of art being created and shown in Brunei.

In my opinion the main difference between being a working artist in Brunei and another place, for example Singapore, is the level of exposure, influence and the availability of materials and resources.  Level of exposure relates to how readily an exhibited artwork can be seen by an audience, and in Brunei the lack of public gallery space is a big issue for an artist.

Artists are inspired to experiment with new styles when we see other artists’ works. In Brunei this influence is to a lesser degree as there are not many opportunities for artists to meet up, see each others works and have a critical discussion on the piece. So the community in Brunei is still developing.

When I say resources I also refer to the availability of creative and artistic workshops – even if there are workshops they are not well-publicized.

Artists in Brunei are continually trying to get exposure for their work but the lack of public facilities such as exhibition spaces, and lack of art professionals including art curators continue to hamper the growth of art in Brunei. The Bruneian public is more enamoured of consumer and entertainment culture and art appreciation in Brunei could be improved.

However there are groups of younger artists, such as Arttralia led by Erne Zainal, and Kaleidoscope Studio by Nur Khalisah Ahmad, who are continuing to redefine the art landscape in Brunei.

The Sky Whale

The-Sky-Whale

The Spider Cafe

The-Spider-Cafe

Who are your own artistic influences?

In my childhood I was influenced by whatever illustrations and photos I saw in books and encyclopaedias. I would learn by copying whatever pictures caught my fancy. The earliest artistic influence on my style would be Hieronymus Bosch, an artist from the Netherlands in the 13th 1400s. His triptych titled “The Garden of Earthly Delights” made a big impression on me, as did his other paintings. What I enjoyed most about his work was the whimsical and completely unbelievable scenarios and also the monsters and creatures that populate his landscapes.

He also influenced how I used my art as a medium to express literary themes, as his works have a moralizing tendency. Storytelling is a major aspect of my art.

Another influence on my art would be Salvador Dali and other surrealist artists. I was intrigued by the imaginative and unbelievable compositions in his paintings and that set me on the path to create unbelievable situations that seem real.

Technically speaking, I am influenced by Japanese comic artist Tsutomu Nihei, the dark illustrations of Edward Gorey and more recently the large drawings of Laurie Lipton. I came upon Laurie’s larger than life graphite drawings while browsing Facebook one day, and was inspired to make my drawings bigger.

As for content…I like old things, things hidden and lurking just beyond our human comprehension. Which is why I really enjoy the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and craft many of the creatures in my drawings based on his description of the “Other”.

These literary and visual influences are what shaped my art from my childhood years to maybe two years ago. Now though, more and more I am able to generate my own imagery within myself.Although music (Japanese, French, German, Korean) continues to inspire I am also inspired by being immersed in nature, in experiencing life.

Since we started this interview, you’ve left Brunei for Penang! (You’ll be missed).

Regarding the move to Penang, since I am not a Bruneian citizen or a PR, the only way I could remain in Brunei was though working full time. I was doing fine at the local art gallery and was teaching art classes full time. That was about 6-7 days every week. It got to the point where I was very frustrated as I felt I didn't have time to focus on creating my own art. My ideal percentage would have been teaching 30% and art 70% of the time.

Even teaching full time I wasn't making enough to cover my basic expense of rent, and I managed to scrape by each month by doing additional commission work. So at the beginning of this year I revised my timetable so that I would teach fewer art classes. I was lucky the gallery owner was so understanding as to allow this. However this meant my basic salary had to be revised as well and in the end, it was not enough to sustain me during this period of time. So that made me bring my timeline to leave Brunei forward to March instead of December this year. I have my own place in Malaysia and I will have access to galleries where I can show the works I create, perhaps with fewer restrictions as well. That is pretty much how I wanted it!

Credit to Rano group1

On continuing to contribute to the Bruneian art scene.

I will definitely miss the fun times I had at Kaleidoscope Studio, so much so that I might be returning in May to participate in the art exhibition they are organizing! Our art styles and personalities do mesh well, and it was sad to have to leave so soon after only just getting to know them, but I hope to be able to continue to contribute to the Brunei art scene even when I am abroad!

Thank you Winnie for taking the time to answer my questions, and all the very best in Penang!


imageAbout the Contributor: Kathrina is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she spends her days thinking very hard about the place of religion in popular fiction. In her free time, she rides the ferries and experiments with cooking seafood. She welcomes advice on any or all of the above topics at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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