Arty metaphor

• Forever Enthralled by Desmond Mah

A CUNNING military strategy used in China around 200AD was the inspiration for the exhibition (Re)Borrowing Arrows with Thatched Boats in Fremantle.

During the Three Kingdoms Period, Chinese military engineer Zhuge Liang used decoy boats filled with straw to trick the enemy into wasting their arrows. The arrows were then collected and used against them in a cheeky counterattack.

The strategy was so clever and memorable it became a chengyu – a Chinese idiom passed down the generations and still used today to describe making the most out of a bad situation.

“While that chengyu originated from a military strategy involving deception, in contemporary usage, it has evolved beyond its literal meaning,” says exhibition curator and artist Desmond Mah. 

“It has become a metaphorical expression that signifies resilience, cleverness, and the ability to transform obstacles into opportunities.

“Chengyu serves as a repository of cultural, historical and philosophical wisdom, allowing for the expression of complex ideas in a concise manner.”

Deeper understanding

Mah says there are about 500 chengyu deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, but despite the Chinese diaspora in Western Australia, it’s a little-known aspect of his heritage.

For (Re)Borrowing Arrows with Thatched Boats he invited artists from different cultural backgrounds to choose and interpret a chengyu through a variety of mediums including installations, sculpture, photography, prints and performance art.

He hopes it will foster a deeper understanding of Chinese culture in WA.

“Patricia Amorim, Shanti Gelmi, Deborah Worthy-Collins and Tami Xiang apply the principles of a chengyu to navigate their worlds, process personal histories, experiences and memories,” Mah says.

“My artwork Forever Enthralled utilises a unique art technique that combines painting and sculpture methodologies.

“The hybrid art form is created using modified acrylic paint as a sculptural material, placing emphasis on form by eliminating unnecessary backgrounds and the conventional use of canvas.

“The artwork embodies my experiences as a migrant of colour and reflects the anxieties I faced due to marginalisation.”

A Singapore-born Chinese-Australian artist, Mah holds a BA (Hons) in painting from Loughborough University in the UK and worked in art education before pursuing a career as an artist.

The darker elements in his art can be traced back to his childhood in Singapore, when he was exposed to the “monstrous, macabre and grotesque” art in a Taoist temple frequented by his grandmother. This and his experiences as a migrant have heavily shaped his work.

“As a second-generation Australian migrant and an Asian minority in a culturally different environment, I have faced challenges in finding a sense of belonging,” Mah says.

“These experiences have influenced my perspective and creative vision, and I continue to explore themes of identity, culture and belonging in my art.”

(Re)Borrowing Arrows with Thatched Boats is at Moores Gallery on Pakenham Street from June 10 – June 24 with a special opening on June 9 with south metro MLC Stephen Pratt.


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