Womanly Aesthetics

Galeri Puteh presents “Hawwa”, a group exhibition celebrating the creativity of 15 women artists whose artistic flair remains true to subject matters expressed through feminine themes like decorative, craft, modern aesthetics, domesticity, and universal relationship. Their dynamic technical skills surpass gender stereotypes, producing visually stimulating and cerebral artworks that highlight varying degrees of superiority in their respective practices through innovative processes.

Presented in various expressions from printmaking, textile, drawing, painting, and photography to sculpture and installation, “Hawwa” reflects the rich diversity in artistic flair among women artists from different generations.

The artworks of veteran artists Sivam Selvaratnam (1937 – 2014); Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri; Ilse Noor; Fatimah Chik, Nadia Särnblom Alsagoff; Dato’ Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir; Khatijah Sanusi; Kalsom Muda; established artists Soraya Yusof Talismail; Umibaizurah Mahir@Ismail; mid-career artists Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi; Nor Tijan Firdaus; and contemporary artists Kika Goldstein; Jayshree Ramasamy; and Trixie Tan Lu Man – gathered in “Hawwa” exhibition – demonstrating stylistic expressions through their formal approach in artmaking.

In “Hawwa”, viewers will get a glimpse of the technical complexity in the history of artmaking from almost six decades ago – from charcoal on paper by Sivam Selvaratnam created in 1965, extraordinary etchings produced by Ilse Noor in 1986, Fatimah Chik’s batik collage from 1992; watercolour and ink on paper by Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri made in 1997; sophisticated mixed media on canvas work by Khatijah Sanusi produced in 2002; Kalsom Muda’s gorgeous tapestry-thread dye on canvas work created in 2003; to the most current artworks such as Soraya Yusof Talismail’s silver gelatin prints; Umibaizurah Mahir@Ismail’s series of ceramic and painting installations; and Nor Tijan Firdaus’s artwork created from e-waste materials. Also featured are abstract paintings by Dato’ Sharifah Fatimah, Nadia Alsagoff, Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi, and Kika Goldstein, as well as figurative paintings by Jayshree Ramasamy and Trixie Tan Lu Man.


Melodic motif


The recurring theme in “Hawwa” is traditional motifs and patterns inspired by mother nature and the majestic flora and fauna. The artworks, presented in vibrant and striking colour palettes, are executed in the conventional domestic sense, such as batik painting, textile, and embroidery, reflecting versatility in execution.

Sivam Selvaratnam’s enthusiasm for raga, which she described as “melodic patterns that colour the mind”, began in the Sixties and later incorporated “energised yantras – divine geometric elements with music to link sound syllables with colour and cosmic principle”.

The elegant palette of “Sunset Raga” (1993) and “Gayatri Mantra” (2011) was displayed in Sivam’s second solo exposition, “Rapt in Maya: A Collection of Artworks by Sivam Selvaratnam” at the University of Malaya Art Gallery in 2012.

Her retrospective featured nature studies, abstract renditions, textile designs and art inspired by “raga” between the 1960s and 2012. The educator-artist had intentionally omitted her figurative paintings in the exhibition – a deliberate decision that art historian T.K. Sabapathy remarked the omission would have been “vitally important for an assessment of her oeuvre.”

As one of the pioneering woman members of the Wednesday Art Group, joining in 1956 and later serving as a secretary in 1961, Sivam was an art educator whose pedagogical values extended beyond the classrooms and into her personal life: sharing her profound appreciation for arts and culture with her children and grandchildren, family members and friends who have been immensely affected by her infectious enthusiasm.

Another veteran artist whose inspiration for artistic endeavours is by colours, Nature, and the universe is Dato’ Sharifah Fatimah. In her fourth solo exhibition titled “The Inner Space” in 1980, she described the symbolic colours found in her abstract paintings through an excerpt of prose. The mentioning of raga bears a familiar ring:


“…black is a bright light in a dark day

black is the annihilation of self

it is the light of Majesty.

Red is fire active and expansive

vital spirit…like the pulsating sun

in the morning in the spring time.

Yellow is air

is the sound of the trumpet filling the spaces

with vibrating waves.

Green is water is hope and fertility

like the trees reaching for the heavens

calligraphy of branches glorifying the Great One

green is the carpet of the earth.

Blue is earth cold and dry

like the strings of the sitar echoing the

nightingale’s call bringing the tune of

raga into the night….”[1]


The vivid hues in her artworks titled “Landscape 1 and 2” (2012) and “Joyous Light 16” (2022) featured in “Hawwa” are consistent with her signature colour palette that defines her painterly elegance.

While Sivam Selvaratnam’s musical inspiration for her paintings derived from sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, Indian Hindustani classical musician Ali Akbar Khan, and Lata Mangeshkar’s sultry voice in “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” number, Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri’s landscape paintings – in the style of Chinese brush watercolour technique – is inspired by the song “Colours of the Wind” by Vanessa Williams from Walt Disney Pictures animated film “Pocahontas” (1995), and poems by the great Sufi and Islamic scholar Rumi, and wise Chinese proverbs. Her solo exhibition of the same song title featured the exquisite rendition of “Waterfall”, displayed at Riddoch Art Gallery in Mount Gambier, South Australia, and Sutra Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, in 2002.

Sharifah Zuriah cares deeply for peace in relationships and the preservation of Nature. In a statement, she wrote: “I am passionate about maintaining and enhancing the pristine condition of our environment. I adore Nature and I paint Nature. In my paintings I strive to mirror the elemental nobility of my environment and to create in the viewer a sense of passion for the natural universe. My art has enabled me to both reflect and explore the human relationship to Nature.”[2]

Similarly, the brilliance of Nadia Alsagoff’s colour palette in interpreting the beauty of Nature stimulates the mind’s eye. Inspired by the “impression of the moments”, Nadia, who has been producing artworks for about five decades, seeks inspiration from the “inner and outer visions that are formed as I wander through the landscape of life.”

The bold outlines that mark her vibrant canvas exude rhythmic senses that express her thought process. She wrote: “The search for a picture that is corresponding with your thoughts is never-ending as your thoughts are shifting and never-ending the lines and shapes of yesterday take on another form today That is process”.[3]

Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi’s contemporary approach to painting feminine floral aesthetics comprises “Dianthus in Starling Pink” and “Orchidaceae Under Paddlepop Wash”. The lushness of the striking and pastel hues, the tactile quality of dense petal formation and the crafty and unconventional format of the canvas spark all senses: her immortal blooms are fragrant and sweet-scented. 

Kuala Lumpur-based Brazilian artist Kika Goldstein create a series of small paintings (50cm by 45cm) in gestural abstraction. She explained: “My current research relates to what I call ‘feminine landscapes’, in which I’m exploring rocks, caves, cavities, fissures, crevices. In ‘No beginning, middle or ending’, ‘Unknown reliefs’, ‘My cave’ and ‘Internal traits’, I’m experimenting with the idea of darkness that takes us back to the origin of things; to that it is invisible, mysterious, unexplained or yet to be understood.”

Kika’s exploration of “darkness” is illustrated by the colour black, whether in the purest pigment or chromatic black: a concoction of several hues like brown and red, brown and blue or other combinations.

She asserted that “these images can only be seen through fractions of light that expose surfaces, volumes, reliefs, holes, orifices, and colour. This new set of works are also about gestures, those initial, exploratory gestures we make to lose the hand. Lines and scribbles or even scratches that are or could be a mere attempt to make sense of things, of what we see. Or as an attitude, a courageous first line aiming to translate a wonder or something we don’t know what it is just yet.”


Expanded Heritage

In 2007, Galeri Petronas presented the “Out of the Mould: The Age of Reason” exhibition that showcased artworks by 10 Malaysian new-generation women artists.[4]  Curated by the late Shireen Naziree (1947 – 2018), who observed that “the characterisation of the female aesthetic was principally determined as an extension of their domestic role”. She wrote in the exhibition catalogue:

“The Malaysian aesthetic is rich in its textile traditions, which have been richly embellished with influences from China, India, and the Middle East. The traditional art of tekat – gold and silver thread embroidery, originally associated with the royal courts – continues to be associated with Malay women with distinct designs and motives identifying their state of origin. Typically feminine, the ornamentation of these crafts reflected the prodigies of the grace and freshness of floral motifs sometimes incorporated with Islamic geometric patterns.”

As manifested in the work of Fatimah Chik, a student of Sivam Selvaratnam’s, her stunning batik designs capture symbolic motifs of the Southeast Asian region. “Alunan: Shibori series 1,3 and 4” were displayed in “The Fine Art of Fabrics” exhibition at the Bank Negara Museum and Art Gallery in 2014. Her elementary geometric design rendered in a range of charming colours applied using the Shibori – an ancient Japanese tie-dye technique – on large-scale cotton mull is a sight to behold. Her “Gunongan” series features a sophisticated batik collage technique rich with the ASEAN region’s symbolic meanings and philosophical motifs.

Kalsom Muda receives encomiums for her meticulous tapestry technique. Her pleasant works convey the message of sustainability, demonstrating her deep-rooted passion for Nature. The painterly quality of Kalsom’s arresting embroidery on canvas proves the seamless amalgamation between fine art and textile with her innovative ways of creating unique artworks that pay homage to the natural landscape.

The brightly coloured mixed media on canvas by Khatijah Sanusi titled “Untukmu” features stencilled arabesque geometric motifs indicative of her Islamic identity infused with Malay woodcarving craft floral motifs echoing the form and soul of Islamic Art.


Immortalising memories

Ilse Noor’s notable suite of intricate etchings highlighting architectural heritage in Malaysia, such as “Rumah Bomoh Hj. Abdullah – Perak”, “Istana Bandar – Selangor”, “Makam Tok Pelam – Terengganu”, and “Istana Lama – Kedah” produced in 1986 commissioned by Shell Companies Malaysia for the multinational’s 1987 calendar.

In 1991, the 24 etchings were compiled into a publication titled “Warisan Nusa Shell Book of Malaysian Heritage” to commemorate 100 years of Shell Company in Malaysia. The updated and expanded edition of the book was released as “Warisan Nusa: Malaysian Cultural Heritage” by Ilse Noor in 2019.

Other significant etchings featured in “Hawwa” include “Taman Impian” (1986) from her “Mystical Dreamscapes” series, “Bunuhku, aku akan tetap menyanyi” (1989) and “Metamorphosis” (1997) from the “Enigmatic Still Life” series; and “Cenderawasih” (2010), the mystical bird of paradise in Malay folklore.

Renowned fine art photographer Soraya Yusof Talismail captured contemporary artist Fadilah Karim and her daughter Aira during Fadilah’s milestone solo exhibition, “A Decade: Fadilah Karim 2010 – 2020″, at White Box, Publika, Kuala Lumpur, organised by Segaris Art Center in 2020.

Titled “Fadilah Karim. Visual Artist – Painter, The Lonesome Painter is not Lonesome Anymore #1, #2, #3, #4” made using Silver Gelatin prints on fibre-based paper and “Fadilah Karim. Study #1” printed on Hahnemühle William Turner 100% cotton rag, the stills portray the unbreakable mother-daughter bond filled with unconditional love.


Sculptural painting


Representing the sculpture-based segment in “Hawwa” is renowned ceramic artist Umibaizurah Mahir@Ismail and sculptor Nor Tijan Firdaus, who uses obsolete electronic parts or E-waste as her primary source of medium.

Umibaizurah’s series of “The Garden Room 1” (2021), “The Garden Room 3 and “The Garden Room 4” (2023), illustrate hybrid birds in her whimsical fashion painted on a rustic background to emulate the coarseness of the wall in a mural painting. Her signature ceramic is in the form of small-sized bottles placed on a wooden frame. As part of her creative practice, Umibaizurah often combines paintings with her ceramic work to form a painting installation body of work.

Umibaizurah explained: “My latest works feature a combination of paintings and ceramic sculptures concerning how we address sustainability issues in many aspects of our everyday lives and how to raise awareness to encourage individuals to engage in sustainable consumption behaviours.

The appearance of hybrid birds as a consciousness evokes instability, change, and a way to disrupt perceptions and assumptions. The strange land they expect to encounter, to live in, is inhabited by mysterious figures and the existence of the extraordinary.”

“A Tale of Greed and Ambition” by Nor Tijan Firdaus features a large square format wall installation made from E-waste on a blockboard coated with 2K matte resin. Adopting the graphics of the classic multi-player economics-themed board game Monopoly, Nor Tijan portrays the Malaysian social landscape that implies current issues such as minimum wage, environment, connectivity, and infrastructure.  


Painting People


Jayshree Ramasamy has been actively participating in group exhibitions since 2008. She has mounted three solo exhibitions, including her first solo in Malaysia, “Small in Size…Big in Role”, at Muzium dan Galeri Tengku Fauziah, University Sains Malaysia, Penang, in 2016. At the time, her focus was on the importance of insects in life, leading to the advancement of biomimicry. Her adaptability in various subjects includes portrait and figurative paintings such as “Gift” and “Silent Beauty”, both created in 2023.

Contemporary artist Trixie Tan Lu Man, albeit the youngest in this group, shows maturity in her highly personal and delicate rendition of the female form and human figure – symbolised through the orchid plant. The orchid is a tangible memory of her late mother, who succumbed to uterus cancer. The plant her mother had tended lovingly bloomed even after her passing. “Cover Up” (2023) suggests a self-portrait rendered in a state of bareness. Her modesty is upheld by lush botanical plants like Moses in the Cradle (Tradescantia spathacea) covering her upper body and the ruby mokara orchid sealing her lips. 

In retrospect, the collection of remarkable artworks in “Hawwa” brings forth the concerns of these selected women artists that continue to dominate the popular and familiar themes. Entering a new age where multidisciplinary artistic inclinations are encouraged, the conventional sense of producing artworks in solitude is thus greatly challenged. The increasing number of critically acclaimed Malaysian women artists today who broke barriers with innovative methods of artmaking elevates the meaning of being a woman artist. From Yee I-Lann’s Borneo Heart community-based projects that feature woven mats representational of egalitarian, communal, feminist politics; Red Hong Yi’s momentous TIME magazine feature of “Climate is Everything” (2021) and more recently “My Alleyway Memories (Once Upon A Longtang)” installation at National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur (2023); to Anniketyni Madian’s complex and highly polished woodwork and resin sculptures inspired by traditional folklores in her solo exhibition “Susey” (2023), are such examples.

The new way of producing brings to perspective the scale and quality of women’s work, notwithstanding the medium and subject matter. Let us celebrate the successes of women artists who persevere in sharing their visions with us despite having to play the dutiful roles of daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, mother, aunt, grandmother and wife.


Sarah Abu Bakar

April 30 2023


Link to exhibition catalogue PDF here.


[1] “Chasm of Light”, Chu-Li, “Chasm of Light: Works by Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir” exhibition catalogue, pages 13 – 14, organised by Artfolio, Takashimaya Gallery, Singapore, 1996.

[2] Artist Statement, “Art as Faith and Search for Divine Truth: A Solo Art Exhibition on Nature by Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri” exhibition catalogue, page 7, Embassy of Malaysia, The Hague, The Netherlands, 2005.

[3] Email correspondence between Sarah Abu Bakar and Nadia Alsagoff, April 21, 2023.

[4] The featured artists are Azliza Ayob, Bibi Chew, Hayati Mokhtar, Nadiah Bamadhaj, Nur Hanim Mohamed Khairuddin, Sharmiza Abu Hassan, Shia Yih Yiing, Umibaizurah Mahir@Ismail, Yau Bee Ling, and Yee I-Lann.