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Rebecca Duckett: Advocating for Malaysian Heritage Through Art

Picture of Stephanie Chang
Stephanie Chang
Updated: 6 January 2017
In our interview with Malaysian artist Rebecca Duckett, we talk about her mixed media works, her inspirations from handmade crafts and local foods, as well as the state of the contemporary art world in Asia.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you’ve gotten to where you are now.

 

kim chee breath
© Rebecca Duckett

I am a Malaysian of mixed parentage: my mother is Malaysian Chinese and my father British. I grew up on estates and plantations right on the edge of jungles, and have been highly influenced by this childhood and the fact that my parents encouraged a love for art, natural history and heritage. My father was always getting my brothers and I to draw and paint what we saw and made sure I knew about the plants and creatures around me.

After studying weaving and textile design for many years both in the UK and in New York, where I attended the Parsons School of Art and Design, in 1986 I returned to Malaysia. Here, I met and set up a design company with Owen David Wilkinson, my future husband. Owen Rebecca Designs promoted Malaysia’s flora, fauna and heritage through design and retail.

It was after the economic crash in 1997 that we made a decision to begin closing our retail outlets and change tact. I concentrated more on paintings and artwork as I’d had enough of just making print designs to go on clothing. Since then, I have been involved in a number of projects, including designing and managing ‘Tiger Rock’, a private retreat in Pangkor Island, setting up the ‘Tropical Spice Garden, which was designed to make locals and tourists more aware of Penang’s connection to the trade routes, spice trade and nutmeg (Penang was known at one point as the Nutmeg Isle), and building from scratch ‘Tiger Blue’, a live-aboard phinisi, a traditional Indonesian sailing ship.

Since returning to Penang in 2008 I have become heavily involved in the heritage of Penang through the NGO, Penang Heritage Trust. Living in George Town, Penang, the protection of this UNESCO heritage site in the UNESCO is obviously important to me as I live right in the centre of it. Having restored an old Chinese Merchant’s house, China Tiger, to become our family home, the house next door, No. 29, became my gallery and studio in 2009.

 

Who are the artists and/or art movements that have particularly inspired you or informed your work? Have there been major shifts in your work?

I really love the work of so many artists but I love the works of the Bloomsbury artists such as the works of the Omega Workshops, as well as a diverse group including Hieronymus Bosch, Frida Kahlo, as well as traditional oriental paintings. One of my great pleasures is trawling around the V&A print & textile collections.

However, I think I’m more inspired by my surroundings rather than by specific artists. I love colour and work mainly with mixed media on paper and canvas. In the last two years in particular I have rediscovered the pleasure of collage as a way to add texture and depth to images. As of late, my work has taken on new meaning for me as I use it to comment on the daily issues of living in a UNESCO heritage city.

Can you give us an idea of what goes through your mind as you approach the start of a new work? What are some ideas or themes that you seek to represent through your work?

In terms of how I work, I don’t labour over a piece. Instead, I work spontaneously without knowing how each piece will turn out. Like my thoughts, I quickly move on to a new project if I’m distracted. This has resulted in being able to produce quite a lot of paintings within a short period of time if I get into a certain ‘thought’ mode. I am compelled to either finish a piece, or find that it gets abandoned! Of late, my works are deliberately being made with a specific personal thought although this may not be obvious from a first viewing. First and foremost I paint for myself and there has been a shift certainly in the meaning behind and motivation for my ‘inoffensive’ images.

As my NGO work in preserving the cultural heritage of George Town frustrates me at times, I try to voice these frustrations subtly through my colourfully ‘attractive’ work. Moreover, the idea that we are destroying so much of our environment for short term gain, the world’s food production, energy sources, our careless attitude to water and in particular to our seas, are all things that concern me.

Recently, my solo installation piece ‘Wayang‘- the Malay word for ‘Show’ at Gallery 29 showed this shift in my work. Whilst the piece looked really colourful and attractive, each piece also had a much more personal meaning for me.

You’ve used a wide range of media in your work, including collage, painting, ceramics, interior design, as well as clothing design. Where does this interdisciplinary approach stem from?

I find inspiration in everyday things like food, local shops, sacks of spices, sundry shop displays etc. I like things that have had some thought or care put into them – I think that’s why I like old things that have been used, or are well-crafted, like old tools and beautiful containers. I also like the fact that other people made them and then used them. All of this combined has become an important part of my whole ‘art’ thought process. I treat my home like a still life – I love setting up little ‘installations’ of objects. I find it inspiring to look at things that someone has taken the care to make by hand. You could say that my philosophy to art is as a lifestyle rather than a job, and this encompasses all parts of my life.

Since we seek to highlight the best of art and culture from around the world, could you tell us what book you are currently reading? Do you have a favourite novel or novelist?

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor should be read by everyone. What a great book! If only they taught history like this in school, the whole world would get on a bit better! Reading it on the way to South Korea has really helped me to fit together so much of my immediate reactions to the environment, history and culture here in Korea. One of my favourite books is The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. Some other favourites include Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by GIles Milton, The Kite Runner by Kahlid Hosseini, Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

 

You’re currently participating in a Residency Programme in Gwangju, Korea, what has that experience been like?

The Korean Government is investing heavily in making Gwangju the art centre of Asia, and I have been doing an artist residency programme here. I have been partnered up with one other Penang artist – Chan Kok Hooi – and we are working with four other Korean artists at the Asia Art Studios in the Gwangju countryside.

This experience has helped me to ‘see with fresh eyes’. The range of wild plants, grasses, weeds is phenomenal, and the amount of insects is outrageous! Korea is also one of the most homogeneous societies in the world, so culturally this has an impact on their food, behaviour, social structure, etc. I also love the way they present their food! It is always beautifully presented with a mosaic of dishes, flavours, and colours.

I arrived with no expectations or much knowledge of the Republic of Korea and have been able to soak up all the information I’m learning each day. The Korean countryside, which remains very rural and agricultural, is stunningly beautiful with its mountains, pine forests and autumnal colours. Coming to learn about Korea’s ancient history has helped me to piece together why the culture is as it is today. Since being here, I have been able to work with new materials like wonderful handmade Korean papers and traditional ink pigments that I mix with white gouache. I have completed 12 paintings in just 40 days and our work will be exhibited at the Metro Gallery in Gwangju.

 

Contemporary art and artists from East Asia – particularly from China – are gaining international attention. What are your thoughts on the contemporary art scene in East Asia?

In short, it is a hard, exciting and highly competitive environment for artists!

There is great exploration of materials and subject matter as artists seek to create an impact, whether good or bad. Politically focused art is more interested in creating an immediate statement, rather than a lasting piece of artwork. This is not to say that it’s not valid or important because art can help political statements be more widely accepted, but I’m interested to see how some of the contemporary work will age. Is it sustainable? Will it remain valid and relevant?

There is also the question of making ends meet. In many of the Asia countries the occupation ‘artist’ is still considered ‘lowly’. Many artists must produce billboards, murals, or copies of other works. In places like China, Thailand and Burma, talented artists with great technical skill are spending their time in the ‘factory process’ of creating reproductions. But, throughout history, this has always been the case.

Moreover, there is huge competition to find galleries that will promote your work and this has often side-lined very talented artists who don’t fit the commercial mould of the contemporary art market. For me, there is always the question of who do you paint for? Yourself or the buyers, or more specifically, the corporations who can afford to pay for the contemporary art promoted by galleries. As a result, I’ve tended to always veer away from galleries.

Tell us a little about your latest projects.

I have two ongoing research and advocacy projects that are very important to me and stem from my belief that remembering our history, whether it is good, bad, or indifferent, is crucial as it is this history and heritage that binds everyone together.

No. 25 China Street is an ongoing project in which I’m currently compiling the history of our now restored house. Having been owned by many prominent figures in Penang’s history, I am documenting this mixed history of ownership, which will then be exhibited in the house.

My other project is my work with The Penang Heritage Trust. This NGO is very heavily involved in the protection of our rich Penang heritage.

Before I left for Korea I had made a decision to start putting together a body of work that revolved around George Town as a record of my experiences. The paintings I have done here in Korea have definitely set the way for me to move forward with this idea.