Of Painting People and Memories

Of Painting People and Memories

A decade of painting is a momentous occasion to celebrate for 33-year-old Fadilah Karim. It marks her emotional and cerebral voyage that has culminated in pictorial wisdom, eternalising her realities and fictions.

Defying gender stereotypes, Fadilah has made a name for herself in the male-dominated arena of figurative painting with her exceptional technical ability and perseverance, not to mention the relentless support of family, friends, art dealers, galleries as well as the loyal patronage of influential collectors.

Fadilah is shy by nature but her introversion manifests itself through the equivocal meanings of her tenebrous compositions that are portraitures of the people she knows – as representations of significant chapters in her life.

The depiction of self becomes pronounced as Fadilah enters womanhood – a defining moment in her life – and at the arrival of her daughter Aira, who has become a lifelong muse in her large-scale paintings.

Now is an opportune time to unravel the narrative behind Fadilah’s artistic oeuvre. It tells an intimate story of her private life, the people around her, the dynamics of space and emotionally charged environments that draws us into her world.


Born in Batu Pahat, Johor, in 1987 to Abdul Karim Abdullah and Hamnah Othman, Fadilah Karim is the second of four daughters. “Growing up, I was encouraged to explore every form of creativity. Drawing, colouring and painting were all-natural to me as my parents nurtured my interest early on,” recalls Fadilah.

In 1998, she won her first main prize in an art competition organised by Didik – an educational pullout by national daily Berita Harian – sponsored by Faber Castell.

Held in the Kuala Lumpur Tower, the contest required its young participants to produce drawings in situ within a certain period of time. Fadilah, then 11, was able to conceptualise and render an aerial view of the newly inaugurated building – the pride of the nation – by fulfilling the competition’s theme, a Malaysian Ideal: “Imagine Vision 2020”.

The young artist’s participation in the event was greatly influenced by her parents. In fact, driving more than 400km with her family from their hometown in southern Peninsular Malaysia to the capital city and back remains one of Fadilah’s fondest childhood memories.

“I was so elated to win the contest and to be awarded a range of Faber Castell products. But the true champions will always be my parents for encouraging my sisters and me to enter art competitions at such a young age. It became a family activity,” she remarks.

Fadilah expresses a daughter’s first love in an age progression diptych portraying her father at ages 33 and 53 in oil pastel on boxboard. Dated 2011, the artwork that measures 104cm by 74cm has been in the private collection of prominent art patron, Pakhruddin Sulaiman, since it was exhibited in a group show called “Kami” in 2011.

Pakhruddin regularly updates his social media with photos of artworks from his vast collection and his daily activities. On June 23 this year, he published a photo of Fadilah’s artwork in conjunction with Father’s Day on his post.

His caption reads: “Happy Belated Father’s Day! In Malaysia this year it was celebrated on Sunday, 21 June 2020 … N/B: Ayah 33 & Ayah 53 by Fadilah Karim (both dated 2011) were the very first 2 works by the artist which I had acquired & quite possibly her first two works sold through a commercial gallery! They were bought in 2011 at a group show at the now-defunct Arti Gallery in Desa Melawati. At the time, Fadilah had just graduated from UiTM & was apprenticing with the well-known figurative artist, Amron Omar, whose studio was located one floor above Arti…”

“I first met Amron Omar – an established figurative artist – during practical class for my degree course in 2019. Mr. Farid Raihan Ahmad, a lecturer at UiTM has suggested that I ask Amron if he would be my mentor because at the time, Amron has not taught for a while, let alone mentoring practical students.

I asked Amron and unexpectedly, he agrees without much question. For a month, I commuted from Shah Alam to Amron’s home and living room studio in Taman Melawati.

I was taught basic drawing using charcoal and oil pastel. Getting to know Amron is one of the stepping stones in the art world for me even though I was taught a small fraction of his vast knowledge.

‘Know yourself first’ is among the words of advice from Amron when I was still finding ways and ideas to produce an artwork. The method practiced by Amron is rather complicated as he has a deeper understanding of the figurative elements, so our directions differ. My desire to learn oil painting with Amron was not achieved as I chose to continue with my own understanding and self-direction,” explains Fadilah.


Fadilah’s father, a crane operator in the oil and gas industry, and her mother, a devoted homemaker, raised their daughters with education as their highest priority.

Realising Fadilah’s innate artistic nature and her ability to excel in the arts, her parents enrolled her in Michael Academy of Art in Batu Pahat as an extracurricular activity.

In 2001, she completed her courses in pencil sketching, watercolour, poster colour, designs and oil painting at the academy and was awarded a certificate of achievement.

“I was just 8 at the time. My sisters and I went to art classes after school hours and during weekends together. That opportunity gave me a head start in charting my career path,” says Fadilah.

She stayed the course while two of her sisters found different careers – in oil and gas, and shipping respectively. Her youngest sister is currently pursuing tertiary education in information technology.

Upon obtaining her fine art degree from Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) in Shah Alam, Selangor – one of Malaysia’s finest universities, Fadilah began accepting commissions from private collectors to paint portraits.

Like for most artists fresh out of university, self-sustenance in the gig economy proved daunting for Fadilah. She attempted to seek permanent employment in art galleries but to no avail.

In 2010, there were only a handful of commercial galleries apart from the few established art institutions in the city. With little or no vacancies in arts management, her focus on securing work in Kuala Lumpur had to be realigned.

“My mother gave me an ultimatum – she said that if I was not able to find a job within six months, I should either return home to Johor or enrol myself in a postgraduate course so that I could become a lecturer,” recalls Fadilah.

Following her mother’s advice, Fadilah pursued her Master’s degree in fine art at UiTM from 2011 to 2013. Her tutor, Prof. Jalaini Abu Hassan, who is an accomplished artist himself, had this to say about the young painter: “Fadilah was quite timid and reserved in class. However, she was already equipped with technical skills as a student. But due to her timidity, she rarely conversed her ideas and opinions during studio session discussions. As a student, her work was largely traditional realistic figurative.”

Using her strengths to overcome her shortcomings, Fadilah produced several self-portraits over the years. In her perceptive way of expressing confidence, Fadilah illustrates herself in a large painting wearing a dark long-sleeved cardigan over a striped maxi dress, sitting at a desk with her laptop open while sipping a cup of coffee – painted in her discernible style of depicting movement.

This particular work personifies Fadilah as an independent young woman embracing “me time”. Though entitled “Timidity”, the oil on canvas dated 2014 says otherwise – the almost life-size dimension of 122cm by 122cm, in fact, indicates her self-confidence.

Fadilah’s self-portraits also show her utilitarian sense of style – a relaxed aesthetic that represents her easy-going nature. She has been depicted wearing classic Breton stripes, cotton T-shirts, short sleeve blouses paired with A-line skirts, slim fit denim, high-rise trousers and “mom” jeans.

Charting her path

While still doing her postgraduate studies, Fadilah prepared herself for her first solo exhibition entitled Vague that was held at Pace Gallery in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, in 2012. This series features one of her closest friends, Alicecia Tan, whom she had met during postgraduate studies, portrayed in a fleeting moment, capturing time in slow motion.

Works such as “In Vague”, “Lonely Hands”, “Have You Seen My Scars?”, “Strangers, Again” from this inaugural show introduced Fadilah as a bright figurative painter whose raw yet distinctive style emanates the influences of mavericks such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

Yet, her gentle approach to her subject matter generates a unique translucent quality that is distant from Bacon’s use of corduroy1 fabric to modulate paint in his double-representation self-portrait2 and/or the soft colour palette with thick paint layers of Freud’s inimitable self-portraits.

Fadilah’s solitary and warped figures executed in neutral and warm palette evoke a sense of self-consciousness. The intersecting effects in her compositions symbolise the feeling of confusion often experienced by youths like herself at the time.

“At 25, I was experiencing all sorts of emotions. I was feeling homesick, excited, confused, happy and sad. My vision of life looked clear as crystal yet blurry at the same time. I was also going through a break-up then,” she explains.

In 2013, Fadilah painted Mei Cher – a high-school friend who attended Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Convent Batu Pahat with her – in a series of paintings rendered in “bullet time” – a type of visual effect that freezes the subject’s motions.

These works – “Beyond Reasonable Doubt”, “Restless Heart”, “What Lies Within” and “Mysterious Faces” – encapsulate the passing and stopping of time while paying homage to a dear old friend.

Reading between the lines

In these works, composed of several quintessential elements, Fadilah choreographs her subject matter in a casual setting: the sitter is either alone or seen with emblematic objects and/or animals to set the ambience. She then captures several photographs using a digital single-lens reflex camera, commonly known as DSLR, before illustrating the best composition on canvas either by portraying each subject at close-range or in its entirety.

Adapting to the digital age, Fadilah’s method of portrait-painting is somewhat similar to past techniques such as the employment of optics used by Renaissance old masters like Rembrandt3. The evolution of optics to DSLR has allowed Fadilah’s photographs to be viewed on laptop as a reference point – an instrumental device that aids her painting process.

In 2014, Fadilah produced a series of paintings that featured Liyana Fizi – who was at the height of her singing career as an independent singer-songwriter and the former lead vocalist of Malaysian jazz and bossa nova indie band, Estrella.

“I met Liyana Fizi through a friend (Nawwar) and I just asked her if she wanted to become a model for my work,” says Fadilah, recalling the beginning of their friendship.

The “Liyana Fizi” portraits embody another heartbreak in her life. Fresh out of a year-long relationship with a fellow contemporary artist, Fadilah confronts her sorrow by illustrating massive portraits of Liyana Fizi that measure over 6ft by 6ft.

“Dear John”, dated 2014, depicts her subject sitting on a chair in darkness, smoking a cigarette while holding an ashtray in the other hand. The pictorial moroseness that epitomises a sense of closure was indeed Fadilah’s version of writing a Dear John letter – closing an old chapter and opening a new one.

“I would describe 2014 and 2015 as the awful years yet I am thankful at the same time. I was going through a period of depression after a break-up and it took me two months to recover emotionally.

“I realised that I needed to move on and felt a sense of relief that the relationship has ended. That episode taught me independence and allowed me to believe that I can stand on my own two feet as a woman artist. And it gave me something to paint about,” Fadilah elucidates.


A working studio is an essential space for an artist. It is where imagination morphs into productive energy: a place for contemplation and self-affirmation. Thus, knowing where and in what circumstances Fadilah’s paintings were conceived is crucial to understanding her thought-process and gaining a deeper appreciation of her work.

While still a student in 2011, Fadilah rented a small room at Pusat Komersial Seksyen 7, Shah Alam, Selangor. It was no larger than 100 sq ft but she was able to create substantial paintings that measured between 5ft and 6ft in it.

“That was a tough time for me. I’m grateful to have had good friends who helped me move the canvases up and down the stairs,” she says.

Soon after, Fadilah began working from Studio Batu Belah in Klang, a space shared with artists Anisa Abdullah, Mohd Khairul Izham, Najib Bamadhaj, Arikwibowo Amril, Khairul Arshad and Azizi Latif, until 2012.

Then, she worked from a space owned by Azrin Mohd, an artist and gallery manager at Segaris Art Center. Fadilah spent two years there, producing several iconic artworks that were shown at various group exhibitions including a specially commissioned artwork titled “Beautiful Tangle” dated 2013 for the inaugural edition of Young Guns Award 2013 themed “Nyala” (“Flames”) – a by-invitation-only award for upcoming artists organised by HOM Art Trans.

Fadilah was one of the selected thirteen artists to be conferred this triennial award for “consistency, perseverance and high quality in her creations”. As “a form of recognition and an accolade to salute the selected young artists for persevering; for being committed to their practice and for toughing it out so far”4 – according to HOM Art Trans’ director, cultural strategist and an accomplished artist, Bayu Utomo Radjikin – the Young Guns Award 2013 enabled its recipients to partake in a multi-city exhibition: Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore under this initiative.

“Beautiful Tangle” was displayed at WhiteBox, Publika, Kuala Lumpur from November 20 until December 1, 2013 and then travelled to Whiteaways Arcade Gallery, George Town, Penang from December 7, 2013 until January 5, 2014.

The artwork is currently in the permanent collection of the National Art Gallery of Malaysia (NAG). It has also been exhibited in “Di Mana (Where Are) Young” that featured 101 works by Malaysian contemporary women artists at NAG in 2017.

“Beautiful Tangle is a meaningful work to me. It is about my grief, hardship, the ups-and-downs in life and journey as a young woman artist at the time. Just like the act of rope skipping, once you’re in rhythm, the jumps can be smooth and at times you get tangled up and stumble. It depicts my life in a playful and innocent way,” explains Fadilah.

For the Singapore edition, Chan Hampe Galleries (rebranded as Chan + Hori Contemporary since 2017) hosted the Young Guns awardees from February 20 until March 9, 2014. Fadilah created a new work titled “Sleepless Night #2” to be displayed here.

Between 2014 and 2018, she set up her workspace at the Ara Damansara studio enclave with a group of contemporary artists, including Saiful Razman, Najib Bamadhaj, Fazrin Abdul Rahman, Shafiq Nordin, Hisyamuddin Abdullah, Syed Fakaruddin and Sabihis Md Pandi.

Some of her most significant works were produced here, such as a series of paintings that featured Saiful Razman as a sitter. Eight of these paintings were displayed in a duo exhibition called “Myst{eo}ry” at HOM Art Trans alongside those of Filipino artist Guinevere Decena.

Works entitled “Man and His Guilt”, “Man and His Alter Ego”, “Man and His Dilemma”, among others, explore the mysterious nature of masculinity and male social dominance based on Fadilah’s encounters.

“It has been six years since I produced that series. I still and always will have unanswered questions about manhood and manliness,” she says.

Saiful Razman recounts how he became Fadilah’s sitter: “Studio kami bersebelahan di tahun itu. Dia bertemu saya dan bertanya jika saya berminat untuk menjadi subjek untuk siri karya di HOM 2014. Dan saya setuju tanpa ragu.” (“Our studios were next to each other that year. She met me and asked if I was interested to become her subject for a series of work for HOM Art Trans in 2014. I agreed without hesitation.”)

The dynamism of a group of artists working on the same premises creates a drive to subconsciously produce a chain of artworks that connects them. Such organic initiatives to work independently as a collective do culminate in group exhibitions, in this case the aptly entitled Ara Damansara Artists Show (ADA Show) at Segaris Art Center, Publika, Kuala Lumpur, in 2015.

Exhibited in this show was Azrin Mohd’s mixed-media artwork measuring 93.5cm by 124cm by 12cm, featuring a miniature sculpture of the interior of Fadilah’s studio – replicating her workspace at the time in precise and minute detail on canvas.

The work depicts a minuscule illustration of “Beautiful Tangle” dated 2013 resting on an easel and Liyana Fizi’s portrait “Behind Fringe and Grin” hanging on the whitewashed brick wall alongside Fadilah’s painting apparatus: oil paint tubes and brushes scattered on three-tiered trolleys and the floor.

Rolls of unprimed canvas lean against the wall in a corner; “Sleepless Night #2” tucked in between stretcher bars and a paint cart; an analogue wall clock with its hands at 10 minutes to two and Fadilah’s four cats are bric-a-brac and personal possessions that tell us about Fadilah’s life as meticulously as a Neapolitan Crèche.

Azrin’s work, entitled “The Lonesome Painter’s Studio”, is an eloquent visual testament to Fadilah’s then working environment. In a preview of the exhibition, a media article quotes Azrin as saying: “I think she’s an amazing painter, a really gifted artist. Her figurative works convey such strong emotions, you can feel what she feels when you look at them.”

Fadilah explains, “Azrin’s work (‘The Lonesome Painter’s Studio’) is about me as a painter and a close friend of his. The text to his work indicates the tittles of the paintings I produced at the time. On the left is a miniature rendition of my messy studio.”

Fadilah herself has depicted her studio in various paintings like “The Lonesome Painter” (2015), “Apparition” (2016) and “Routine #1 and #2” (2020).

Executed on an epic scale of 221cm by 290cm, “The Lonesome Painter” shows the artist slumped on a bergère armchair with her body positioned sideways and her legs hanging over one of the armrests, her face hidden from view.

In the background are a couple of easels with paintings in progress and tubes of oil paint strewn on the floor. A cat is seen resting underneath her chair.

Dr Steve Wong, one of Malaysia’s seasoned and esteemed art collectors, owns this gargantuan work, having followed Fadilah’s journey since her graduation. He says, “When she first graduated from UiTM, her figures were more abstract in the sense that she would paint multiple blurred images of the same person in a painting, perhaps to invoke movement.

“This is also apparent in her first 2012 solo. As she progressed, the figures became more defined and singular. Some works were made surreal, mysterious. I am quite impressed that she could handle larger canvases, with many 5ft or 6ft in size. I happen to own probably her largest work, ‘The Lonesome Painter’, which measures 8ft by 10ft.

“Recently, her figures have become sharper and well defined, almost approaching hyper-realism. However, the background maintains the rather hazy, relaxed appearance, which is her distinctive, easily recognisable style.”

Marriage and motherhood

In 2014, Fadilah met Ahmad Syafiq, a sound engineer and her husband-to-be. He was featured in her painting “The Golden Bow And Arrow – After Marina Abramović The Other: Rest Energy (1980)”, which was exhibited in her second solo exhibition, “Secret Lies”, which was held at Taksu Kuala Lumpur in 2016.

Visually, “The Golden Bow And Arrow” does not reveal much but contextually, it paints a symbolic picture of Fadilah falling head over heels in love with Syafiq and their blossoming relationship. In May 2017, the couple tied the knot and were blessed with a daughter, Aira, a year later.

A profound appropriation, “Rest Energy” is a performance art piece by performance artist duo Marina Abramović and Ulay (1943 – 2020) that explores Abramović’s state of vulnerability.

In a statement, Abramović explained the work in detail: “In ‘Rest Energy’, we actually hold one arrow on the weight of our bodies and the arrow is pointing at my heart. We have two small, little microphones on our hearts where we can hear the sounds of the heart beating. As our performance is progressing, the heartbeats become more and more intense and it’s just four minutes and 10 seconds. For me it was, I tell you, it was forever. So, it was really a performance about complete and total trust.”5

“Secret Lies is about the private feelings that I felt towards my lover, who is now my husband. I felt that he was my lifesaver – a secret feeling – that I felt at the time”, explains Fadilah.

From 2016 onwards, Fadilah begins to depict her subjects in pairs – either with a pet rabbit as seen in “At the End of the Perfect Day” or with another individual like in “Reality Bites” and “The Beat Goes On”, featuring fashion model Evon T and fashion stylist Alan (Yii Ooi) – to symbolise her partnership with Syafiq.

“Metaphorically, the representation of a white rabbit is an invitation to step out of an ordinary time. In Western culture, it is said that by uttering the words ‘white rabbits’ would protect oneself from harm and danger,” says Fadilah.

In an artwork titled “Fragile Spine” dated 2015, which depicts a female character lying on the ground with a rabbit resting on her chest expresses the artist’s hope for an eternal partner as the rabbit has served as her guardian angel before the beginning of another new chapter of her life.

“The Beat Goes On” was exhibited in a group show organised by Singapore-based Yavuz Gallery at the region’s premium international art fair, Art Basel Hong Kong in 2017, which is also the year that Fadilah and Syafiq tied the knot.

“I met Evon T and Alan through a fashion photographer friend, Jane (Zhong Lin), who used my studio for a photoshoot. I took the opportunity to ask them to become my subjects and they agreed,” she explains.

By this time, Fadilah had illustrated various personalities from the arts, music and fashion industries. Other sitters include writer and stylist Liz Bautista; performance artist-curator Intan Rafiza and her daughter Sarah Cinta; Jasara Awang and her daughter Lora; and artist friends such as Arikwibowo Amril, Najib Bamadhaj, Azizi Latif, Din Dirann and Azrin Mohd, whom she illustrated in her “smoking series” for her inaugural solo show in 2012.

In 2018, she painted “Womb #1 and #2” with Alan and Evon T as the subjects to suggest the early stages of her pregnancy. As her pregnancy progressed, Fadilah embraced the changes to her body as an expectant mother and produced several paintings of herself during this time, namely “Self-Portrait – Flower in A Womb” and “Bubble Gum #1 and #2”.

“The biggest transformation in my life is my body during pregnancy. I am not used to drastic changes and during pregnancy, I had to adjust my work routine due to physical limitations.

“My husband has been very supportive in encouraging me to take regular breaks from painting and not to exhaust myself. Towards the end of my pregnancy, I made a sad decision to move out of the Ara Damansara studio as I was not physically capable of producing artworks in preparation of labour. It was a sad time but I believe that sometimes you need to let go to grow,” she says.

After Aira’s birth, Fadilah returned to her home-studio in Shah Alam to produce a painting that featured her child for the first time. Entitled “Teduh Rasa”, the oil on linen work depicts new parent Fadilah stretched out on a sofa with baby Aira resting on her stomach. This work was exhibited in a group show entitled “XIX-Nineteen” at Segaris Art Center in 2019.

She produced three still-life paintings illustrating Aira’s “Jellycat” bunny soft toy in various configurations with other belongings such as her pacifier, stroller fan, storybooks, bath toy and milk bottle. Entitled “Cure”, “Breeze” and “Bliss”, these works were exhibited in a group show at Art Busan 2019 in South Korea, represented by G13 Gallery. “Cure” graced the cover of the gallery’s exhibition catalogue for the international art fair.

G13 Gallery director Kenny Teng says, “I have been following Fadilah Karim’s career since she graduated from art school. Supporting her career by collecting as well as promoting her works locally and internationally, I realised that she has a charm that is reflected in her works.

“Her works have always received great reviews locally or abroad. She is mainly known for her figurative oeuvre and  I remember that in Art Busan 2019, despite the theme being still life, a figurative essence was still evident in her works, as if her subjects had souls or were somewhat ‘alive’. This is why I thought Fadilah is unique in her way of making art and is still well defined in most of her work today.”

Fadilah’s international participation includes a group show in Art Jakarta 2019 entitled “Independence” alongside Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Rafiee Ghani and Hanif Khairi, represented by Segaris Art Center.

In this show, Fadilah exhibited two large-scale paintings whose stylistic maturity evoked a sense of contentment and affection not seen in her early works.

“Volatile Love” depicts Fadilah reading a book, lounging comfortably in the corner of a long bench. Her relaxed posture – one hand holding the book and the other resting in her lap, the tip of one foot touching the ground and the other raised midway off the ground – suggests downtime. Positioned in the opposite corner of the painting is Aira who is seated on a rocking horse and gazing outwards.

Fadilah’s predetermined configuration was inspired by French modernist painter, Balthus, whose brilliant pictorial compositions, as seen in “The Living Room” (1942), became her primary stimulus. In this Balthus piece, 19th century Rococo Revival furniture plays an integral role, as equally important as the two young girls depicted. But in Fadilah’s adaptation, her minimalist interior allows her viewers to focus on the mother-and-daughter bond.

Appropriating Balthus’ “Girl at the Window” (1955), Fadilah illustrates a self-portrait in the same manner in “Greener Pastures” with the addition of Aira, standing on her toes against the stool on which Fadilah is resting her knee while leaning against the window sill. In this painting, both mother and daughter explore their curiosity together.6

Global pandemic

The launch of Fadilah’s monograph in celebration of her 10th anniversary as a professional artist was initially scheduled for the highly anticipated Art Jakarta 2020 from Aug 28 to 30. But the show has been postponed to Aug 27 to 29 next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the local Movement Control Order (MCO) that was imposed from March 18 to June 9 this year, Malaysians stayed home, adapting to the new normal. Businesses were severely affected and jobs were lost.

In a survey by the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) conducted online from March 19 to April 9 to measure the impact of COVID-19 on artists, 93% of the 519 respondents said they were negatively impacted while 70% said they had lost all or most of their income.7

To “pivot” and be agile during these trying times, several art galleries moved into the digital realm. G13 Gallery, for example, took advantage of its Viewing Room, which was launched in 2018 to provide a virtual exhibition experience for online visitors.

Fadilah, alongside Shafiq Nordin and Filipino artist Winner Jumalon, participated in a virtual exhibition by G13 Gallery entitled “Unseen Conn3xion” that was held from May 6 to 20.

The works displayed were “Isolation #1” and “Isolation #2” that feature Fadilah looking through a pair of binoculars. “The ‘Isolation’ series is about the global pandemic. I painted them during the MCO. The idea is to capture the ‘stay-at-home’ experience, metaphorically observing life through a pair of binoculars from a distance. And the feeling of helplessness for not being able to do anything, in the hopes that everyone is well,” explains Fadilah.

Another work entitled “Thick and Thin” depicts the artist caressing a goose. “The protective and loyal nature of the geese intrigues me. I can relate to that now that I have a family and a daughter. My utmost priority is to protect my family,” says Fadilah.

At the time of writing, she was working on two new paintings for her upcoming solo exhibition organised by Segaris Art Center. “Invading Territory” depicts Fadilah working in her studio while Aira plays with rolls of tissue paper. The second painting titled “Terrible Two”, illustrates Fadilah slumped in an armchair with tissue paper strewn all over her while Aira is being playful with the tissue paper. Both artworks measure 183cm by 152cm.

As Aira turned two in June, Fadilah is facing her terrible-twos development stage that wearies her, as depicted in the second work. Indeed, her latest work encapsulates her journey through parenthood, raising Aira.

“Motherhood has taught me a great deal like maintaining calmness, multitasking, and how to behave in front of my child. Time seems to fly by really fast.

“My work routine has also changed since becoming a parent. I paint when Aira is asleep between midnight and at dawn. Even though it is tough and slow process, I persevere because of painting is my passion,” expresses Fadilah.

Secondary art market

Over the years, about 15 of Fadilah’s paintings have gone under the hammer at auctions and 80% of her paintings have found new owners, indicating strong demand for her work.

The first painting that entered the secondary art market was an early work entitled “Happiness” dated 2010 through Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers on April 13, 2014. It was sold for a conservative RM8,960 (estimates RM6,000 to RM8,000).

A record-breaking price for Fadilah’s paintings at auction was for “Light Inside These Dreams” dated 2012. The price of the 198cm by 229cm oil on canvas was estimated at between RM28,000 and RM45,000 and was sold for RM53,7608 at Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers Malaysian and Southeast Asian auction on April 29, 2018.

Kenny Teng, a firm believer of Fadilah’s talent and her contribution to the contemporary Malaysian figurative art scene, says, “Although the figurative painters in our country are largely male, I see Fadilah holding her own in the field. Her work offers deep insights into her life and in this way, she intrinsically represents the standpoint of a female artist on the contemporary Malaysian art scene.”

Dr Steve Wong shares the view. “Although Fadilah is young, she is now one of the most-sought-after artists in Malaysia, literally selling out at every show, with many collectors having to be put their names on the long waiting list. I believe foreign collectors are also showing great interest. She has broken into the male-dominated Malaysian art scene, advancing the female cause. Her images, brushstrokes and colours are unique and she is a breath of fresh air in contemporary figurative painting. She has influenced and inspired younger artists, mostly female, to take up figurativism as the subject matter,” he says.

A joy to behold

As we look to the future to be immersed in Fadilah’s visual journal, the uncertainty of time influences the new narratives that illustrate her past joys and predicaments.

In retrospect, looking at the 100 over paintings that Fadilah has produced, her style of painting has certainly become more refined in recent years with a brighter colour palette and intriguing interiors supplemented by personal effects that started to appear from 2019 onwards.

Saiful Razman comments on Fadilah’s series of work: “Melihat karya-karya Fadilah membuatkan saya rasa senang hati. Kebanyakan lukisan (yang pernah saya lihat) yang dihasilkan oleh beliau memaparkan apa yang di sekeliling beliau. Beliau berada di ruang selesa. Sejujurnya saya sering tertanya jika Fadilah keluar dari zon itu dan mencabar imaginasinya tanpa terlalu bergantung pada realisma photography sebagai rujukan.” (“Seeing Fadilah’s works makes me happy. Most of her paintings (that I have seen) display her surroundings. She is in a comfortable space. Honestly, I often wonder if Fadilah came out of that zone and challenged her imagination without relying too much on realism photography as a reference.”)

Fadilah remains steadfast in documenting her personal memories and encounters with the people around her. “Perhaps in the future, I will explore other means of expression beyond painting people and portraits. But I will continue to be loyal to the painting medium,” she comments.

So, what are Fadilah’s hopes and dreams for the future? She says, “I hope that my work will continue to be accepted by viewers not only in this region but also beyond. One of my dreams is to be recognised as one of the best artists in Malaysia, regionally and internationally.”

Sarah Abu Bakar August 8, 2020

  1. “Analysing textiles found in Francis Bacon‘s studio to aid authentication of his artworks”, Elke Cwiertnia, Justin J. Perry, Brian W. Singer, Joyce H. Townsend, https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/Media_276728_smxx.pdf
  2. Francis Bacon, “Two Studies for Self-Portrait”, 1970, oil on canvas, 35.5cm by 30.5cm each, diptych, https://www.francis-bacon.com/artworks/paintings/two-studies-self-portrait
  3. “The Mirrors Behind Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits”, Steph Yin, The New York Times, July 13, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/science/rembrandt-old-master-optics-mirrors.html
  4. “Lighting the Fire: In Conversation with Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Bayu Utomo Radjikin in conversation with Adeline Ooi via Skype on September 11, 2013, Young Guns, Malaysian Art Award and Exhibition Travels to Singapore, 20 February to 9 March 2014, https://www.chanhori.com/young-guns
  5. LIMA https://www.li-ma.nl/lima/catalogue/art/abramovic-ulay/rest-energy-2012/18383
  6. “Independence”, Art Jakarta 2019, August 30 – September 1, 2019, Segaris Art Center e-catalogue, written by Sarah Abu Bakar, published by UiTM Art & Design Sdn Bhd.
  7. “COVID-19 Impact to the Arts Report”, Cultural Economy Development Agency, https://www.cendana.com.my/clients/Cendana_78A7CADC-1C4A-44E8-A815-E2B4C1D11FE0/contentms/img/COVID/covidreport-29may2020.pdf
  8. Lot 166, Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers Malaysian and Southeast Asian auction, April 29, 2018, http://hbart.com.my/index.php/component/virtuemart/?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage_lite_pdf.tpl&product_id=1885&category_id=18