IF one sense is lost, the others will be heightened. According to scientificamerican.com, the areas of the brain normally devoted to handling that sensory information do not go unused — they get rewired and put to work processing other senses.
A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that people who are born deaf use areas of the brain typically devoted to processing sound to instead process touch and vision.
For three deaf artists under RC Deaf Missions Malaysia, Zulaiha Zulkapli, Lau Yok Ung and Chong Kai Zhen, that’s definitely the case. Today, they’re sharing their vision and expressing their artistic talents through an exhibition at the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur themed Deaf Expressions — Liberation through Art.
The initial idea for this charity exhibition, which ends on June 18, was born during another RC Deaf Missions Malaysia’s event, Deaf Art Expose at Wangsa Walk Mall in KL, officiated by the director-general of the National Visual Arts Board Prof Datuk Dr Mohamed Najib Ahmad Dawa who was representing the Tourism and Culture Minister.
Impressed with the event and the talent displayed, Najib offered to host an exhibition for talented artists at the National Visual Arts Gallery.
So here we are at the well-lit Creative Space @Lobby on a balmy Friday morning. Soft, traditional music is playing in the background as visitors manoeuvre the hall to take a closer look at the over 40 artworks gracing the walls in every corner of the lobby.
It’s hard to miss Zulaiha’s works. Her oil on canvas offering titled Nun Di Sana, with the scene of lush green paddy fields and coconut trees, is enchanting and inviting. A cockerel stands majestically on a piece of wood and in the horizon, a beautiful mosque with its minaret looming to the sky. The intricate details on this painting make it appear like a photograph.
Those seeking a dash of nostalgia will gravitate towards a painting titled Roda Kehidupan, a picture of an old bicycle and slippers on a wooden bridge by the paddy field.
Through RC Deaf Missions Malaysia’s interpreter Grace Lee, Zulaiha signs expressively: “Painting is my friend. Growing up, I didn’t have many. I feel a special connection with painting. I can express my yearnings truthfully through my artworks.”
This 38-year-old was born normal. But when Zulaiha was 5, she was hospitalised for three months due to high fever and a viral infection in her brain, which caused the hearing loss. The sound of the wind, the flow of water and birds chirping disappeared altogether and she was left only with silence in the end.
This self-taught artist began drawing when she was in school but that was just for fun. She became serious about it again when she was 25.
The works of this Perak-born artist are mostly concentrated on nostalgic kampung scenes, something she doesn’t ever want to forget. She confides that she likes to take photos of landscapes that she falls in love with and keep them as inspiration for her future paintings.
She vows to keep learning new things, improving herself and hopefully, sell more of her paintings as income. So far, she has sold more than 200 paintings. Her clients include Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan, Tuanku Muhriz Ibni Almarhum Tuanku Munawir and Datin Seri Paduka Marina Mahathir.
Zulaiha, who has been with RC Deaf Missions Malaysia for seven years, is now the chief deaf artist and her role is to evaluate artworks and mentor other deaf artists.
EYE OF AN EAGLE
After saying “thank you” in sign language to Zulaiha, I move on to another part of the hall and stop at a close-up painting of an eagle. Titled Dignity, it’s acrylic on canvas and the handiwork of Lau whose focus is on the bird of prey’s eye.
The eagle’s eyes are among the sharpest in the animal kingdom, estimated to be four to eight times stronger than that of the average human. It’s for this reason that the 38-year-old graphic designer from Sarawak has chosen the bird as his subject.
“They’re not just images. They’re linked to my life experiences,” he signs, interpreted by Grace’s father Lee Lim Tat who’s also an interpreter with the RC Deaf Missions Malaysia.
Lau has been passionate about art since he was 11-years-old. He was only a year old when he lost his hearing due to high fever. When he was about 7, he finally understood that his life was never going to be the same again. But he didn’t feel sad at all and accepted his fate with an open heart. The encouragements he receives from friends are what make him stronger. And the person who has become his mentor and source of inspiration? None other than Zulaiha.
“Her positivity in life gives me the confidence I need in becoming an artist,” he signs, smiling. Drawing, he adds, makes him happy.
While Zulaiha’s and Lau’s artistic talent are showcased on canvas, 26-year-old Chong meanwhile, has ventured into a different kind of art — paper-cutting.
“It’s because painting is so normal,” Lee interprets as Chong signs with a silent giggle. The art of paper-cutting requires so much passion and patience, both of which are qualities which Chong possesses.
Born deaf, Chong used to read people’s lips in order to communicate prior to using a hearing aid. But it wasn’t easy. He decided to take up sign language and with the support of his family, he’s now able to lead his life as normal as possible.
He was 7 when he first studied art, working mostly with pencil, watercolour, crayon and acrylic. His interest grew since then. At age 13, he created his signature artwork making crafts for Chinese New Year, focusing on the Chinese Zodiac. After a while, he expanded his repertoire by coming up with fresh new ideas to make his own style of paper-cut craft. His new line of artworks, which are on display today comprises landmarks, buildings, architecture, nature, culture and history.
But this Kajang lad’s skill doesn’t stop at paper-cutting. With a degree in Interior Design in the bag, Chong is currently doing his Masters (by Research) in Interior Design at Universiti Sains Malaysia and will be graduating this year. He confides that he’ll continue his Interior Design career and work on his art from time to time.
HELPING THE DEAF
The person who has made all this possible for the trio is none other than the co-founder of RC Deaf Missions Malaysia, Agnes Peter.
“I’ve been working with the deaf community for more than 18 years. There were struggles, especially when deaf persons are trying to find a job. I kept asking ‘why is this happening to them?’ So RC Deaf Missions was born, which is mainly to enhance the livelihood of the deaf community,” shares the kebaya-clad Agnes.
She and her brother Mario (both of them are not hearing impaired) share a passion for deaf community work. Since the inception of RC Deaf Missions Malaysia in 2006, they’ve been providing career opportunities to many deaf persons. Art being one of the areas.
The artworks offer us a glimpse into the deaf artists’ view on life, their emotions, aspirations, challenges, experiences and also in a way, their will to live and not just exist.
Deaf Art Expressions — Liberation Through Art
Where: Creative Space @Lobi, National Visual Arts Gallery, No 2 Jalan Temerloh, Off Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur
When: Until June 18