Koay Soo Kau reflects on his style evolution

Koay Soo Kau reflects on his style evolution

Visual artist Koay Soo Kau has gone through quite the artistic style evolution since his first solo exhibition in 1969. Here’s a look at how it has changed over the years.

By Emilia Ismail

Veteran artist Koay Soo Kau casts a long shadow. In a career spanning almost six decades, his style has gone through three distinct eras: batik in the 60s, ‘Realistic Surrealism’ in the 90s and at the turn of the century, Impressionism. But as new styles emerge, it becomes quite apparent that Koay does not stray away from one common theme — love for the nation.


Wake Up My Dear, 1968

Since 1969, Koay exhibited his batik paintings in over 20 solo exhibitions around the world. In his early pieces such as Wake Up My Dear and Pounding Padi, Koay limited himself to the colours of the national flag which are blue, yellow and red and employed traditional batik sarong patterns and motifs. Because agriculture formed the basis of the Malaysian economy at that time, these pieces feature kampung folks in rural settings.

Three Folds, 1996

After decades of mastering his craft, Koay created some of his best batik pieces in the 90s. His ability to unite imagery and motifs from Malaya to the Nusantara and from Indochina to as far as Europe in pieces like Three Folds, Panorama II and Panorama III has made him a significant batik artist of our nation.

‘Realistic Surrealism’

Wealth, 2003

Refusing to rest on his laurels, he began working primarily with oil on canvas in a style he describes as ‘Realistic Surrealism’.  This is where Koay re-imagined still-life paintings, featuring local fruits and cultural elements in suspended motion such as Wealth. Later, he began hemming his pieces with subtle social commentary. Koay’s Brain Drain featured suspended kaffir limes, which resemble the brain in shape, to highlight the brain drain crisis in Malaysia.

Koay calls this phase ‘Realistic Surrealism’, an oxymoron that perhaps over-explains Surrealism.

He clarifies that, “When I was painting these pieces, I pictured the movement of the fruits and fabric in my mind. There are no real fruits rolling around, no real ties swirling in the background. It was all purely from my imagination, drawn in a dream-like state but stayed true to reality as close as possible. To me, that’s ‘Realistic Surrealism’. 


Memory of Kampung Buah Pala, 2009

Koay steps into a new century with a new style, sending art enthusiasts on a wild goose chase with clues hidden within his Impressionistic pieces.

Koay’s Memory of Kampung Buah Pala features a pen representing administrative power that pierces the seed of a nutmeg, a powerful visual play of the idiom ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. The painting also features a pair of glasses. One of the lenses reflects a kampung house while a gavel representing the court’s ruling smashes the other lens, breaking the vision of what could have been the survival of Penang’s traditional settlement. 

As an artist in his 70s, he is sad to see the destruction of heritage and livelihood of the villagers, but he understands the importance of development for the country’s progress.  

“I felt that the best way to articulate the agony of losing one’s home and the disruption of livelihood is to capture it through Impressionistic style.”

Up until 2009, the ethnic Indian enclave was the home of the descendants of Indian plantation workers and cattlemen. Today, two high-rise condominiums sit on the site of the former Kampung Buah Pala.

What stayed the same

His styles and subject matter may have changed, but at its core, Koay’s artworks not only mirror the cultural and social changes of its time; they are also visual stories of his love for his country. Koay is a product of the post-independence National Educational System, a system designed to produce a united country and to integrate all races. Growing up, the 73-year-old Bukit Mertajam High School alumni stayed in the hostel, has friends from all races and speaks Bahasa Malaysia fluently.

And as a Christian, he believes in spreading inspiring and thought-provoking messages to lead viewers to some intense introspection. Koay’s optimistic paintings are reminiscent of Sudirman’s strong spirit of patriotism. But while Sudirman showcased his spirit through his costumes and songs, Koay expresses his passion through his visual art.

Today, with many young artist-activists such as Banksy and Ernest Zacharevic fueling headlines with their controversial art pieces, Koay’s pieces may not get the attention they rightly deserve from the younger generation. But for those who choose to take a closer look, they might learn to see the world differently through an older generation’s eyes and appreciate Koay’s enduring message of love for one’s nation.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Emilia Ismail is a writer and publisher. Her articles can be found in The Star and Penang Monthly. Her publishing company, Flatplan Publisher, recently published artist Thomas Powell’s debut book Chinese Zodiac and More.