I think that Kuen Stephanie symbolizes the emerging middle class in Malaysia because she reflects so much of the recent, fast moving social and economic history here. As well, her art has started to be collected by this new class of better educated, urbane Malaysians with more disposable income than any generation so far. About 5 years ago, I noticed that after she was on our May 2006 cover that the many enquiries I get about our cover artists were not only coming from expat readers but local ones as well. And that she is one of the main artists the locals want to buy not only because they like the artwork but because they want to collect Malaysian artists and they believe she is “collectable.”
Like a solid percentage of the women of her generation in the mid to late 1980’s, she knew she wanted a career in her own right. She graduated from the prestigious Malaysian Institute of Art with a Diploma in Graphic Design in 1987 and went to work in the commercial art sector. Also like many women of that day, she married and started a family. But once the children came, she wanted to stay home and nurture them herself so she continued graphic design projects at home. But she felt something was missing. She was bursting with creativity and wanted to grow artistically and use her training and talent to explore the world around her. She took the first step by experimenting with different mediums finally settling on oils and acrylics and invested in higher quality canvases and the tools of the trade. Stephanie had always been particularly fascinated by the women here in different cultures especially in the kampongs. She painted a portfolio to great acclaim and thus began her rise as a star in the Malaysian art scene.
Her paintings are incredibly distinctive and always recognizable. She paints abstract figurative art in bold, voluptuous colours and treats her canvas like a story book. Hidden nuggets abound like her inclusion of cats, finely detailed crockery and children’s toys. These help her to tell her story. And her story is the story of Malaysia with all its rich diversity interacting with an equally rich environment. Like so many artists here, she is worried about preserving the past and articulating for future generations the sense of shared purpose Malaysians had. Each culture here contributed to the modern Malaysia we know today but it is imperative, as Stephanie resolves, to understand the past and to appreciate it; that way it is much more likely that people will want it preserved.
The black and white lines you see imprinted throughout her work are the supporting framework for the unique faces she paints and figures. While in the beginning she painted eyes onto their facial features, now she leaves them blank. “It is so that the viewer can fill it in themselves with their own emotions and stories,” she tells me.
Since her 2006 cover on The Expat, she has participated in several successful exhibitions including one in Seoul. Her home has become her full time studio and her husband, Joshua, is her mentor and biggest supporter. However to me, her success was sealed a few years ago when I was in the home of a local friend, a teacher at Garden International School. Walking into her living room, I noticed the two Kuen Stephanie paintings adorning the wall in a place of honour and pride. If you would like to purchase any of the paintings on these two pages, Stephanie has agreed to the discounted prices listed. She has always been very generous in sharing publicly that it was the expat community who first bought her work and is responsible for her growing success today.
Email me at [email protected] to make further arrangements.
Source: The Expat November 2011 Issue
This article has been edited for ExpatGoMalaysia.com
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