Fadilah Karim’s endless decade
Review by Ellen Lee

Rarely do female artists in Malaysia get survey shows such as Fadilah Karim’s A Decade (2010–2020), which is what made it a momentous occasion. With her pastel and earthy tones, the 33-year-old’s exhibition of paintings – organised by Segaris Art Centre at White Box MAPKL, Kuala Lumpur – looked like a millennial’s dream on Instagram, but unfortunately turned out to be underwhelming in person, as most millennial dreams are. It was also characteristic of a certain trend in women’s art of abusing the medium of self-portraiture.

The exhibition text described Fadilah’s style as a kind of “muted realism” and “contemporised 19th-century Europeanness”. A common feature of all her paintings is their sense of spatial emptiness tinted in a soft, nostalgic shade of grey-green-brown, with a figure (or two, but never more; usually the artist herself) in the foreground, face hidden behind hair, or with a blank expression.

Each individual work was nice on its own and made for a pretty display, but it was a bad idea to show them one after another after another – endless canvasses of Fadilah in her home. It’s the sort of show that hijacked itself by being a show, because having the works all together in one venue only emphasised the sheer monotony of Fadilah’s practice.

On their own, though, the paintings can be charming and moving, offering tender little glimpses into a woman’s life. In some, she looks aesthetically chic and petite, in a white shirt tucked Japanese schoolgirl-style into dark trousers or a skirt, with that empty look on her face, or with her arms splayed out over her head in some gesture of giving up.


The universally-recognised supine-on-floor position after one has chosen to give up

The paintings looped around the gallery just the way, one imagines, Fadilah’s life may be on a domestic loop of loneliness, painting and child-raising. The show covered a decade of her practice, but without the accompanying timeline or wall captions, it might have been thought that all the paintings were part of one massive series from around the same time.

What is the attraction of self-portraiture for so many female artists?

From Frida Kahlo, Hannah Wilke, Jenny Saville, Sylvia Plath, Fiona Apple, to fellow Malaysian women painters such as Chong Ai Lei and Caryn Koh, and so on, there is a long-running trend in women’s art of relentless reflection upon the self, which can sometimes become suffocating. Can’t women ever escape themselves?


Fadilah Karim’s adventures in motherhood

Historically, self-portraiture has been used as a sort of weapon or strategy for women to reclaim their own subjectivity from the male gaze, which, up until only very recently, had defined Western portraiture. When women started portraying themselves and speaking for their own experiences, it offered fresh perspectives on the world and humanity, and also countered the narratives of men, who could hardly imagine the full depths of sexist oppression, and tended to simplify women into neat compartments on the “Madonna-whore” spectrum.

But we forget that every artwork is a self-portrait. Unintentionally or not, every artwork reflects something of its artist, such as their neuroses, their political leanings, their unconscious inner life, or even their financial state at the time. However, once the reclamation of female subjectivity became normalised – the pinnacle of this might be the widespread acceptance and encouragement of posting selfies – then, that’s exactly when self-portraiture started to seem more like an empty gesture. When contemporary women artists execute self-portraiture, they may be executing the first non-revealing self-portraits in the history of art. A lot of contemporary self-portraits, like selfies, reveal nothing about the artist. Fadilah Karim’s self-portraits, especially when laid out in one long unbroken line all around White Box, reflected no joy nor melancholy, or any of the emotional weight you’d expect from 10 years of a life.

However, this might have something to do with the aforementioned monotony of the paintings being shown all together. Isn’t it usually the case that you can feel blown away by a person’s selfie, but when you look at their Instagram profile grid full of selfies, the repetition just wears down the beauty and individuality of their face.


Fadilah Karim’s cute rabbits

Some women give off a naturally maternal air because of how well they take care of others and how capable they are at performing domestic work, and Fadilah is the same as an artist – evidently taking relish in going through the same motions for years and years on end. This is not a judgement of her as a person or mother, but this artistic temperament feels dissonant with the promise of art, which, at its most exciting and dynamic, is experimental, boundary-pushing and keeps up with the times. In Fadilah’s hazy paintings, the world seems caught in some beige mucous membrane, a space where time has stopped still, and you can only notice its passing with the appearance of children.

Fadilah Karim is eternally devoted. This is a trait that is admirable in people, especially mothers – someone reliable, someone who always feels like home, someone who is unconditionally loving and nurturing – but it is a trait that can be crippling in art.


A Decade (2010–2020), a solo exhibition by Fadilah Karim organised by Segaris Art Centre, ran from Dec 14, 2020 to Jan 3, 2021, at White Box MAPKL, Publika Mall, Kuala Lumpur.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Ellen Lee is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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