Soh Boon Kiong: Colourscapes of Natural Inspirations

Soh Boon Kiong, a Kuantan-born 36-year-old abstract artist, is fondly visited by his collectors and fans whenever he is back in Kuala Lumpur for a show. This time around, Soh is back in town for his solo exhibition (May 30 to June 8) at the French Art Festival hosted by the Alliance Francaise.

Soh was an auditeur libre at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts and subsequently spent five years as a young artist in Paris. Soh returned to Malaysia in 1993 and has exhibited his works at several solos within the region. He has been painting in Japan since 1998, and lives in Amagasaki, Hyogo, with his wife and two children.

Kakiseni: Before you became an abstract artist, you were studying at the Central Art Academy. What sort of art did you do there?

Soh: Drawing and painting.

Kakiseni: At which stage did you become an abstract artist?

Soh: When I was in Paris.

Kakiseni: What influenced you, then?

Soh: The art scene in Paris. Art has a broader meaning there.

Kakiseni: How has your style evolved over the years in terms of your abstract works?

Soh: Overall, it has become brighter in a whole sense.

Kakiseni: Your application of the paint is thicker now, you have introduced some new techniques, and your pieces are also bigger. What has brought this about?

Soh: It just came naturally. It has to do with my life. Things are going smoother than before, in terms of my career. I get a lot of inspiration living in Japan. It is a foreign country, but it is also closer to my own origin, my own Chinese culture. I am also inspired by its nature and climate.

Kakiseni: In previous interviews, you have mentioned other sources of inspiration, such as philosophy and music.

S: Yes, I also get my inspiration from music, classical music. I am particularly interested in the life of composers, how they get their inspiration, and their lives as a whole. The music comes into the painting subconsciously.

Kakiseni: So, now you’re married to a Japanese, and you have two children (a three-year-old son, and a seven­month-old daughter). Is Japan your permanent home now?

Soh: Yes, I’d like to stay there. I feel that the brighter and bigger paintings are also due to a sense of confidence, maybe through the family life I have with my kids. I’m a person who loves children so much.

I also work more peacefully in Japan, as a full-time artist. There is a stronger Oriental influence (in my work) after going to Japan. It is more towards the soul-searching, meditative side.

Kakiseni: What sort of philosophy influences you?

Soh: Chinese philosophy. Philosophy on Simplicity, like Chuan Tse’s. His overall philosophy is not to go to extremes.

Kakiseni: And how is the response in Japan to your work?

Soh: People always ask: ‘What is this?’ I think they are more interested in Impressionist works. There are many people asking this in Japan and Malaysia. I always say it’s nothing in specific. It is like music. You may like it, but there’s nothing specific.

Kakiseni: What goes through your mind when you are involved in the painting?

Soh: Everything just comes naturally.

Kakiseni: Do you pre-visualise your paintings?

Soh: A little bit, but sometimes I do it without visualising it beforehand.

Kakiseni: If you haven’t visualised it, what is the force that drives you?

Soh: I think I would find something in the painting, and I would work from there. I blend with colours, layer upon layer as I go along. My paints are not pre-mixed prior to painting. Sometimes, it is the painting leading me, it is difficult to explain. I just follow the painting. I keep on changing it, making it more refined in terms of its composition. The most important point is to find the harmony, and its equilibrium.

Kakiseni: When do you know that a painting is ‘right’?

Soh: When I feel comfortable with it.

Kakiseni: Do you consult your wife?

Soh: Ah! Never, never…

Kakiseni: Why not?

Soh: Because painting is something private.

Kakiseni: She is an artist, is she not?

Soh: She studied textile design.

Kakiseni: So now she is a textile designer?

Soh: No, we have a coffee shop in Japan. My wife runs the coffee shop.

Kakiseni: … So that you are free to paint?

Soh: Yes, and sometimes I take care of the kids, especially the boy who likes to paint at the same time when he comes to the studio. (Soh shows a picture of his studio) My studio is at the rooftop, and the coffee shop is on the ground floor. The studio came about the same time as the boy. He was born a day before the studio was ready.

Kakiseni: And your son paints with acrylics, too?

Soh: No, he doesn’t. He just paints with a wet brush.

Kakiseni: Why won’t you give him paints?

Soh: Maybe I am too selfish to share my paints with him.

Kakiseni: Let’s move on to the response of your works in France.

Soh: In France, only my friends saw my works. I hardly exhibited in a gallery.

Kakiseni: There’s a Frenchman (Laurent Charpin) who has been buying a lot of your works…

Soh: I first got to know him during a show at Metropolitan (Gallery of Fine Arts). So, he kept on buying my works. He is the biggest collector so far. He left Malaysia last year and went back to Paris. I think his love for my paintings is like my love for the French culture. The intensity is the same. I like almost anything which is French, except for French food, because I only ate at the canteen in France and have not tried real French food.

Kakiseni: Now, in the past some of your critics here have said things like ‘I can do that, too’ (the now defunct Timeout pull-out, 1997). What is your response to people who say things like that?

Soh: There are people who have said: ‘Do you paint with your eyes closed?’ (during his solo at Elm Quay Fine Arts, 1998). To that, I have nothing to say. Basically, I don’t get angry. I know that you must have a certain knowledge to do this (paint). Maybe some people see this as pure accident, but it is not pure accident. What annoys me is when some people put the painting upside down, for example, in the press. I am not sure if they see it as a joke or what.

Kakiseni: I am positive that they are not deliberately trying to insult you. It is just that there are stupid people doing the layout sometimes. What other criticisms have you received?

Soh: Some people like my work, some don’t. Have you seen a write-up by… (let’s call him ‘Y’)? He came for the last show. He said many good things, but it doesn’t matter to me. Maybe because he is not a critic, he is just a writer.

Kakiseni: I think he would be most offended to hear that. He prides himself very much as an art critic.

Soh: Only another artist could give us (artists) a good opinion, to tell us how we can improve from there.

The interview with the artist ends here. Next up:

Deputy French Ambassador Gilles Huberson, who happens to be “a fan and collector of Soh’s works” with “the privilege of having five of his paintings”, has described Soh’s style as “a kind of romantic abstraction”.

Kakiseni: How was the decision made to include Soh’s paintings for the festival?

Huberson: Basically, it was a consensus. Soh Boon Kiong trained in France and he speaks perfect French. He was selected in his capacity and quality as a Malaysian artist linked very strongly to France. We wanted to stress on the links between France and Malaysia.

Kakiseni: Being a fan and collector, what are your personal impressions of Soh’s works?

Huberson: When I first saw his work, I thought: ‘This is Asian art’. The colours he used gave his work a kind of romantic abstraction. You can imagine a lot of things in his paintings. The second thing was that I was struck by the deep aspects of his work and its waterly impression. And water is present in all his works. It can be warm and soft, like a calm lake, or a force which transports you. It’s a good vehicle for dreaming… I have followed his work for three years. It has undergone a lot of evolution. The fact that he’s living in Japan has influenced him a lot.


First Published: 29.05.2002 on Kakiseni


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