Spotlight on Betty Leong: Creating art for thought

Spotlight on Betty Leong: Creating art for thought

In a world where everyone just blindly follows the crowd, Spotlight 2020 winner Betty Leong wants her artwork to make audiences pause and ponder.

By Eeyan Chuah

Last year, ‘Spotlight by Penang Art District’ returned with its 2020 edition. With no specific theme set (2020 was rather a theme itself, wouldn’t you say?), applicants were encouraged to reflect on the extraordinary events of the year. From over a hundred applicants emerged a deserving winner—a certain Betty Leong.

Hailing from Penang, Betty Leong Li Wen is a 25-year-old contemporary artist currently residing in KL. Having just graduated from Dasein Art Academy majoring in Fine Art in 2019, it is hard to say what distinctive traits are portrayed in her body of work, especially when the artist herself is not yet ready nor willing to be defined by any one trait.

Born to a father who is one of Penang’s few remaining Koh-tai (traditional chinese theater) performers, Leong found her interest in art at a very tender age. Taking to the brush is a natural inclination, and after the completion of three years’ training in the academy, her techniques are unquestionably polished and skilled. And what of her content? What does her work aim to say?

Not to say, but to question. ‘My personal approach is somewhat philosophical. I value the process of thought. I want to think. I want the audience to think. I want everybody to think. To contemplate, to ponder, and to wonder. We live in a world where everything is automated. Nobody stops to think for themselves anymore, everyone is just blindly following what the crowd is doing without a fraction of thought. Let’s give a very general example, if I were to ask why homosexuality is considered to be wrong, I would accept an answer in any form as long as it is an answer born from contemplation and consideration and not because: “Oh, my parents or my religion says it’s bad and so it is”.’

Which brings us to her winning piece: Guess 猜 . That this is the first of her works to win in a competition has significant meaning to Betty as it marks a departure from her usual figurative oil paintings. The execution of this piece is straightforward enough. The fun is in the riddle itself. Made up of 5 different languages and codes based on the Latin alphabet, Guess requires a little bit of brainwork from the audience. Since it is necessary to ‘guess’, it is necessary to ‘think’, which is the whole intention of creating this piece. 

Guess 猜, 2020. 3ft x 4ft. Pyrography art and acrylic on plywood.
Winner of Spotlight by Penang Art District 2020.

Elated and greatly encouraged by the public’s recognition of her piece of puzzle, Leong is now more confident in stepping out of the academy’s training and exploring new mediums of relaying her thoughts and intentions. ‘My previous works are really straightforward, I painted exactly what I want to say and they were mostly figurative. I have been meaning to explore new ways of painting which are less direct. This way, I can engage the audience more by having them ponder on what I am actually trying to say here.’

Greedy, 2019. 2ft x 3ft.  Pyrography art and acrylic on plywood.
There is an old chinese proverb: “A man whose heart is not content is like a snake which tries to swallow an elephant”.

This win could not have come at a better time for Leong who, like many others, lost her job due to Covid-19. She was previously working as a commissioned artist for a commercial studio while practising her art. Many friends have suggested other lines of work such as being an insurance agent to help earn some money but Leong finds it impossible. She needs to be doing something she loves, something she finds meaning in. For Leong, art is an integral part of her life. It taught her contemplation. It taught her to see things from different perspectives. It helped deal with her depression. It helped her grow. 

With this win, Leong can focus on developing her new non-figurative series into her very first solo-exhibition in July/August this year. Guiding her through the process is Liew Kwai Fei, a seasoned artist known for his modular paintings and their idiosyncratic contexts. ‘He was chosen as her mentor by the panel of judges as they felt he would understand her in terms of ideation, execution and thought process,’ says Kenny Ng, project executive at Penang Art District. ‘Betty’s work was ultimately chosen as the judges felt it was unique and has multiple depths in one piece,’ he further added. 

Indeed, and we can’t wait to see what more she has to offer in her journey ahead. 

Eeyan Chuah—from Penang, lives in Penang. Writing is one of her very few skills.