Penang Women Artists - 1950 - 2005
by Yuen Chee Ling


           Women artists exist as early as the beginning of the development of visual art in Malaysia. In Penang, the emergence of women artists can be traced back to as early as 1950 when Georgette Chen was a teacher at the Hang Chiang High School for several years before she moved to settle down in Singapore in 1954.[1]
          A group of female art teachers who participated in the annual art and craft exhibitions of the Teacher’s Art Circle justified the acceptance of women in the art community. In Pioneering Spirit, amongst the lists of members of the Teacher’s Art Circle which registered in 1966, the female members were Lim Phaik See, Marie Lim, Wong Siew Inn, Quay Kee Goon, Oon Suan See and Mrs. Lee Saik Choo, Pearl wu, and Mrs Khoo Ewe Hock (Oon Suan See). They participated in the annual group shows held at British Council and the Penang State Art Gallery. Wives of famous artists like May Fong Xian (Mrs. Koh Ju Ping) & Mrs Tay Hooi Keat were regular participants of the Teacher’s Art & Craft Exhibition.[2]
          In 1969, May Liang, the owner of Galeri de Mai dealing with art and craft in Penang, had a three women show with Lim Phaik See and Wong Siew Inn at the Penang State Art Gallery.
          In 1971-1972, Yuen Chee Ling participated in the Teacher Art Exhibition held at the Penang State Art Gallery when she was still a teacher’s trainee at the Day Teacher’s Training College under the mentorship of Mr. Tan Ting Kok.
          Air Itam Art Center was established by Yuen Chee Ling in 1975. She organized the May Art Show together with Ong Wah Peng who started an art gallery at Chulia street.
          In 1978, Penang Art Society under the leadership of the late Dato Koh Peng Ting presented the first solo exhibition of Yuen Chee Ling, a local Penang born female artist at the Dewan Sri Pinang.  Dato Tay Hooi Keat, the Chairman of the Penang State Art Gallery delivered the opening address. Cecil Rajendra wrote the introduction for the catalogue. One of Yuen Chee Ling’s oil painting entitled ‘Foothill at Dawn” was collected by USM Museum. 
          The lack of serious artists in the early period was partly due to the cultural-social conditions, that discourage women from taking up art seriously. Only a few women artists were mentioned in the early publications of Malaysian art history. For instance in Penang Artists 1920-1990,[3] out of the 65 artists mentioned, only 5 are women.  As there has never been great discussion and debate about gender issues, gender discrimination has been neglected.
          The term women artists only emerged recently after1980s. This period witnessed the change in the social and political conditions that encourages freedom of expressions and individualistic expression in art. ‘Women artists’ and ‘women art’ are new terminologies that reflect the awareness of gender. Women art that focuses on female sensitivities is a form of aesthetic and therefore is different from feminist art which emphasizes on gender issues or sexual politics.
          The establishment of local art institutions like Malaysian Insitute of Art (MIA), Mara Institute of Technology and Pusat Seni USM contributed to the increase in the numbers of women artists after 1980s.
          In 1981, Cheah Ewe Hoon was the recipient of the “Promising Young artist Award” at the Penang Art Gallery 17th Annual Exhibition.
          In 1984, Teoh Phaik Eng, who taught Chinese brush painting in Penang, held her solo exhibition at the Dewan Sri Pinang.
          In 1987, The Penang State Art Gallery presented “Yuen Chee Ling 5th Solo Exhibition - Image to Image- Relief paintings”. A recipient of BFA and MFA degrees form the University of the Philippines, this Yuen Chee Ling co-founded Conservatory of Fine Arts in 1987. As it is one of the earliest art school cum art center in Penang, most of the younger generations artists had received their art training there. Female artists like Chiou Ling Chyi, Loke Hung Thor, Fong Lee Li, Grace Choong Ai Mei , Woo Peng Yi, Woo Peng Jye, Lim Lay Sim , Ong Ah Koy, Yoon Sook Fong, Wong Mooi Kuan  & Tulsi Nayar had received formal art training at Conservatory of Fine Arts.

          In 1990, Khoo Su Nin, a researcher of Penang heritage culture organized the ‘Penang Women Artists Show at the USM Off–Center Gallery at the Penang Plaza. The participant includes Wong Siew Inn, Yuen Chee Ling, Cheah Ewe Hoon, Teoh Phaik Eng and Linda Chen.
          In 1990, Grace Chong Ai Mei, a former student of Conservatory of Arts held her first solo exhibition at Galleria Art Gallery.
          In 1992, Tan Ngee Kong, who had completed a fine art degree course at the Taiwan Normal University, had a two artist’s art exhibition at the Penang State Art Gallery.
          Wong Siew Inn who had completed a non-graduated course at USM held her first solo exhibition -“Flower Power I” at CFA (Conservatory of Fine Art) Art Center in 1993.
         1993, Yuen Chee Ling, as the Director cum Principal of Conservatory of Fine Arts and the chairperson of Women Arts Associates initiated the first Asian women artists exhibition entitled “Her Presence in Colours- 7 Asian Women Artists Exhibition” held at the Central Academy of Fine Arts Beijing, China in July 1993. The exhibition was supported by the Penang State government, Ministry of Culture Youth & Sport. Dato Noor Adlan bin Yahayauddin, the Ambassador of Malaysia to the People’s Republic of China officiated the opening.  Nancy Koh Lee (the daughter of Dato Koh Pen Ting) , sponsored the exhibition catalogue.  Yuen Chee Ling , Sylvia Lee Goh, Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir together with Nancy Koh Lee (Hongkong),  Lin Ling Lan and Chen Chiu Jin (Taiwan).
          The theme of the exhibition reflects the awareness of gender and the urge to seek for self identity and individualistic expression in art.

          Her Presence in Colours II – Aisan Women Artists Exhibition II held at the Penang State Art Gallery in 1995 was officially opened by TYT Tun Dato Sri (Dr.) Haji Hamdan bin Shiekh Tahir, the governor of Penang.  Y. B. Dato Kee Phaik Cheen, The Penang State executive Councillor for Tourism, Culture and Women Development Board supported the event by sponsoring a welcome dinner for the women artists at the Sharaton Hotel. An art conference:  “The role of women in the Asia Art context” was held at the conference room of City Bayview Hotel. The invited speakers were Dr. Masnah Mohamad , Dr. Wajir Jahan Karim and Dr. Zakari Ali.
          In 1998, the Penang State Art Gallery cooganzied the
Her Presence in Colours series III- International Women artists Exhibition with Conservatory of Fine Arts. 43 women artists from various countries including, China, Holland, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Germany exhibited their works under one-roof. Amongst the lsit of participants the women artists from Penang were:  Moey Sue Jean, Sylvia Lee Goh, Linda chen, Chiou Ling Chyi,  Loke Hung Thor, Fong Lee Li, Grace Choong Ai Mei , Woo Peng Yi and Tulsi Nayar. 
          In 1998, Sylvia Lee Goh had her first solo exhibition – Two decade of Art at The Penang State Art Gallery. Ang Ting Kean, daughter of Ang Swee Hin, a master in Chinese brush painting, also had her first solo exhibition in Penang.
         In 1999, the same badge of women artists participated in  the
Her Presence in Colours series IV-International Women artists Exhibition  held at Suan Prakad Palace Museum, Bangkok together with Her Royal Highness, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhon of Thialand, HSH Princess Marsi Paribatra and H.R.H Princess Siribhachudahom. The first inaugural meeting of International Women Artists Council (INWAC) initiated by Yuen Chee Ling was held at the same venue. Today, it has become an international network with its headquater in Penang and sub centers at China, United Kingdom, Thailand, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam.
          “Facets of Womanhood- Tulsi Nayar Solo Exhibition” held at  CFA Gallery In 2000  presented the paintings of Tulsi Nayar that focus on a theme related to feminism. Two of her paintings entitled “Motherhood” and “Mother” collected by World Alliance for Breast feeding Action (WABA).
         In 2002, HAWA–Jawatan Kuasa Pembangunan Wanita P. Pinang & Conservatory of Fine Arts jointly presented the
Her Presence in Colours V- Penang Chapter- International Women artists Exhibition at the Penang State Art Galelry. A number of 30 women artists were involved. Most of them were not new to the Her Presence In Colours series except Ang Tin Kean, Goh Mai Loon, Koay Lan Hiang and Tan Ngee Kong , Ng Kim Heoh, Siti Zamila Samirin and Zuzila Zain.
          In May 2003, Conservatory of Fine Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Jawatan Kuasa Pembangunan Wanita Pulau Pinang jointly presented the
Her Presence in Colours V- Asian Women Artists Exhibition -“Sense & Serenity” at Galeri  Adirwarna , Universiti Sains Malaysia.. Art Talk: Women Art in Asia was held at Equatorial Hotel on the same opening day. Invtied speakers were: Dr. Prapapan Nagavachara (Thailand), Nur Hanim bin Mohamed Khairuddin and Yuen Chee Ling. Y. B. Dato Kee Phaik Cheen, The Penang State Executive Councillor for Tourism, Culture and Women Development Board hosted a welcome dinner at the Equatorial Hotel.
         36 local women artists participated in Her Presence In Colours VII- Life of Colours- Penang Chapter 2005 held at Galeri Art Point. The new comers from Penang were: Dr. Khoo Seok Wah, Cheah Choy Teng, Chin Soo Fong,
Loo Min Wei, Wong Lei Poh, Oung Sao Peng,  Ong Chik Peng, Lee Hui Lan, Lee Bee Kin,  Lim Lee Kin, Chuah Wan Lay and Foo Yean Lee . The increased in the number of women artists involved justified the consciousness of gender and the urge for the freedom for self expression in art.
          The related activities include an art talk – “Feminism in Asian Women Art” by Dr. Flaudette May V, Datuin, and a researcher in women’s art in Asia cum recipient of Nippon Foundation Fellowship for Asian Public Intellectuals (API Fellowship)
         The increasing consciousness of women art and issues related to gender could become political.  It is time for us to reexamine the intention of the women artists and to look into the sincerity of the artists. As women art should not be degraded as ‘inferior art’. Penang women artists should have a sense of purpose in order to face the challenge of the world art trend that encourages individualistic expression.


[1] Marco Hsu, ABrief History of Malayan Art.  

[2] Times of Malaysa,  Teacher’s Art & crafts, 24-8-55

[3] Dr. Tan Chee Khuan ( 1990) Penang Artists 1920-1990, Penang:  The Art gallery



Georgette Chen Li Ying
Rambutan & Mangosteen,



May Liang
Still Life,
oil on canvas



Yuen Chee Ling
Ah Heng,
Oil on board,



Cheah Ewe Hoon
Cameron Highlands
Acrylic on canvas



 Teoh Phaik Eng
How Much Love ,
how much sweetness
Chinese ink on paper



Yuen Chee Ling,
Image to Image series
variation no 29,

Mixed media with
paper cutting
& colour ink



Tulsi Nayar
Oil on canvas


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