Southeast Asia Watercolour Exhibition is a riot of colours and a riveting experience
By Adriana Nordin Manan

Image credit: National Art Gallery Langkawi

Finally, someone cracked the code. After almost a year of exhibition visitors experiencing virtual platforms to different levels of satisfaction, a gallery has presented one that is seamless to manoeuvre and feels true to the spatial experience at its brick-and-mortar brethren. With Southeast Asia Watercolour Exhibition (PACA), The National Art Gallery Langkawi brings a recently concluded exhibition to the virtual world and does a commendable job at presenting the artworks and documenting the arts education activities organised in conjunction with the exhibition. An exhibition featuring 226 works by 118 artists from nine South-East Asian countries, PACA’s theme is “Homeland.” The vivid, vibrant depictions of life in the region caught in watercolour are supplemented by workshops, talks and tours to become a valuable resource for casual art enthusiasts, art educators, and members of the public interested in better understanding the history of watercolour painting in Malaysia.

Visitors land at the entrance by ‘gliding’ down a short vortex which mimics the sensation of dropping down from the trees outside the gallery building, located in Kuah town. After this decidedly fancy entry, one hopes that the rest of the experience is just as effortless. Thankfully, there are no draggy click and glide functions, and navigation points in each section are clearly marked by circles on the floor which can be approached with just one click.


“Three Sisters” by I Nyoman Wijaya (2019)
Image credit: National Art Gallery Langkawi

PACA offers ripe material to anyone keen to explore their personal visual vocabulary and tease out similarities in the region’s depicted scapes. For example, in the first section there are works that captivate with their presentation of traditional and ceremonial fabric. Be it the red robes worn by the monks in Khin Maung Zaw’s “Ancient Beauty,” the purple, maroon and gold ceremonial wear worn by Balinese women in I Nyoman Wijaya’s “Three Sisters” or the batik cloth worn, kemban style, by a lone woman looking into the distance in Calvin Chua Keng Choon’s “Here I Stand,” we see that fabric is a potent form of visual imagination deployed by artists from the region.

Known for demanding steady control and the ability to rein in its fluidity, watercolour’s meshing of colour, strokes and layers is captivating to behold. Aided by the platform’s image-maximising function that allows for up close viewing, visitors can pore over every purposeful dab that goes into painting the sky or the outlines of a building, to name a few. Accompanied by an optional tune that can be described as a wistful piano tune of lounge music extraction, after a while viewing the works can feel like being lulled, to the point of becoming melancholic and broody. This is likely the effect of visiting an exhibition showing postcard pretty scenes from many countries during a time when one feels cooped up. The works remind one of the real thing that is off-limits and has been for a while. But the artworks, they’re stunning.


“The Pale Blue Shophouse” by Thongsook Sawatnatee (2019)
Image credit: National Art Gallery Langkawi

PACA offers ripe material to anyone keen to explore their personal visual vocabulary and tease out similarities in the region’s depicted scapes. For example, in the first section there are works that captivate with their presentation of traditional and ceremonial fabric. Be it the red robes worn by the monks in Khin Maung Zaw’s “Ancient Beauty,” the purple, maroon and gold ceremonial wear worn by Balinese women in I Nyoman Wijaya’s “Three Sisters” or the batik cloth worn, kemban style, by a lone woman looking into the distance in Calvin Chua Keng Choon’s “Here I Stand,” we see that fabric is a potent form of visual imagination deployed by artists from the region.

Known for demanding steady control and the ability to rein in its fluidity, watercolour’s meshing of colour, strokes and layers is captivating to behold. Aided by the platform’s image-maximising function that allows for up close viewing, visitors can pore over every purposeful dab that goes into painting the sky or the outlines of a building, to name a few. Accompanied by an optional tune that can be described as a wistful piano tune of lounge music extraction, after a while viewing the works can feel like being lulled, to the point of becoming melancholic and broody. This is likely the effect of visiting an exhibition showing postcard pretty scenes from many countries during a time when one feels cooped up. The works remind one of the real thing that is off-limits and has been for a while. But the artworks, they’re stunning.


“Love” by Hia Chin Ngan (2019)
Image credit: National Art Gallery Langkawi

Another educational resource is the PACA Floortalk, a video of four gallery curators on a walkabout sharing their perspectives on a few artworks. The perspectives shared help build basic art appreciation among the public. For example, one curator talks about looking at the colour of the sky to guess the time of day a painting of Jalan Tun Perak in Kuala Lumpur was made. When talking about hydrangeas in Hia Chin Ngan’s “Love,” another curator mentions the Malay language names of the flower, namely Bunga Siti Zubaidah and Bunga Tiga Bulan. This supplementing of art with local knowledge and cultural insight is precisely what one expects from a public arts institution, which should have education as a prong of its initiatives.

Another discovery when moseying about PACA is its catalogue, with content that interrogates further the roots of watercolour painting in the region, and Malaysia in particular. In his curator’s notes, Syahrul Niza Ahmad Zaini mentions the topic of colonialism, and its role in the genesis of watercolour painting in the region. Essays by arts journalist Ooi Kok Chuen and watercolour artists Calvin Chua (Keng Choon) and Abey Zoul provide meatier elaboration on watercolour painting in Malaysia, its forerunners and shifts through generations, complementing the artworks well.

The only lament about PACA is its lack of information on the exhibiting artists. Small flags of each artist’s country of origin tell us where they are from, but knowing a bit about their background would make for a much richer understanding and knowledge of the names that dot South-East Asia’s watercolour landscape. It’s not often that a local institution hosts such an expansive exhibition, so the more we learn while it’s around, the better.


PACA was held at National Art Gallery Langkawi from Sept 16 to Nov 30, 2020. The virtual exhibition is ongoing.

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.

Adriana Nordin Manan is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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