Malaysian artist builds parallel universe with collages made from found objects

With the recent lifting of pandemic restrictions, it looks like Penang-based artist Howard Tan will be back in sleepy little towns and flea markets, with his camera in hand.

This IT professional turned photographer is an old soul who loves to remember the life of the 80s, the days of his childhood. Tan enjoys looking at old architecture and dilapidated townhouses, sampling traditional food and snacks – and of course, stopping at a flea market or two, where he searches for curious pieces to add to his growing collection.

He shies away from expensive antiques, preferring to collect “cheap items” like metal Chinese medicine boxes, black and white photos, old magazines and books.

Some of these objects, after having been taken apart or rearranged, can be found in his collage works, one of the artistic mediums he currently appreciates.

“I love to use pages from old books or vintage book covers as a base for my collages. I use images from magazines as well as old photographs, cards and stained paper like envelopes. But at the end of the day, you can use anything to make a collage, from embroidery to rusty metal sheets, ”he says.

Collage work 'The Social Distancing', inspired by the pandemic.  Photo: Howard TanA work called “Engagement Photo,” which shows that the flea market can be a good place for source material. Photo: Howard Tan

Tan’s adventure in the world of collage seemed like a natural progression after years of practicing photography.

Before being behind a camera, he was in front.

“I loved being photographed when I was a kid, on different occasions like birthdays, parties, picnics or while traveling with my parents,” he recalls.

Then, when he was in high school, he borrowed his brother’s camera to take pictures of his friends on school trips or school events.

“For some reason, I thought I took better photos than my friends. I learned to be playful with the composition by moving the object around the corner, experimenting with wide-angle shots and blurry movements. These are things I picked up from movies and movie posters.

Tan’s “L’haltérophile” collage work. Photo: Howard Tan

“I guess I was a lucky kid, I watched a lot of movies back then because my dad would take me to watch Chinese documentaries and movies, my brothers would take me with them to the brothers kung fu movies Shaw and my sisters showed me Taiwanese movies that love drama, ”recalls Tan, 47, the youngest of 10 children.

Yet he never thought of becoming a photographer, until he was presented with a “second chance” in his thirties.

“I was an IT consultant who was posted to Malta for a three month stay. I took lots of pictures during my stay on this Mediterranean island.

When I got back from my trip, I showed these photos to my friend Joe (Sidek, then director of the George Town Festival), who ran a monthly market called Little Penang Street Market.

The collage work Artist Howard Tan (in blue), greeting visitors to his solo exhibition at the Hin Bus Depot in George Town in 2016. Photo: The Star / Filepic

“They were planning to introduce a gallery section and he asked me if I wanted to show some of my photos there. This is how I officially started as a photographer, ”he says.

From photography, Tan began to venture into other art forms and techniques. During the pandemic and various bottlenecks, he found more time to develop and explore his collage work.

“Photography seems like the easiest way to create a work of art, all you have to do is put together a frame and hang it. But as I picked up on other techniques such as drawing, I felt compelled to explore other possibilities in art. I find there is an overlap between collage and photography, especially since I like working with old photos.

“I think my years of training as a photographer help me have a good sense of composition, which is very important to me in my collages,” he says.

Artist Howard Tan (in blue), greeting visitors to his solo exhibition at the Hin Bus Depot in George Town in 2016. Photo: The Star / FilepicTan’s ‘Flyboy IV’ collage work. Photo: Howard Tan

Since he wants to maintain that unique handmade feel, his collages are what he calls “physical cut and paste” works, and never digital.

He has a lot of original creations, like his Birdmen series where every human figure struts around with a bird’s head.

Recently he started to use acrylic paint in his collage work.

Inspiration arises in the most unexpected places.

“I have a series that is inspired by the way people decorated their walls by pasting newspapers, photos, stickers, posters and other random objects on them. They are mostly seen in old shops in George Town or any other old town in Malaysia, where wooden planks were used to separate rooms and people used posters or newspapers to cover the spaces between the planks. The more time I spend on collage-making, the more possibilities I see in it, ”he says. Tan, who runs a boutique (which also serves as a workshop) on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (Pitt Street, for locals) in George Town notes that the art of collage is slowly but surely finding its place in Malaysia, with more and more more people expressing interest and appreciation. for that.

Tan's 'Flyboy IV' collage work.  Photo: Howard Tan

“My collages exhibition birdmen and other extraordinary events at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Penang (2019) and a few other small exhibitions in cafes and fashion boutiques have worked quite well, ”he shares.

In his shop are his works of art for sale, as well as other products such as recycled bags and sachets made from sugar and flour packaging, designed in-house. There are postcards, coasters, and stationery with designs from photographs taken by Tan, like close-ups of wall tiles.

“There are also collectibles that I bought all over Malaysia that are very popular with locals and tourists alike. I think these enamel trays, cake molds, small pieces of furniture, books and clocks go perfectly with my photographic and collage works. After all, I got a lot of inspiration from those vintage items, ”he says.

This year, his works are also showcased in the George Town Festival Shop, which introduces a global audience to Penang’s arts and crafts community.

As domestic tourists flock to Penang now after travel restrictions have been lifted, it appears Tan has stocked up some new items in his shop, like vintage paper cutters and cushion covers made from recycled polyester bags.

“Splash proof, good for use by the pool! he says in his recent Instagram post.

Talk about the sea, the sand and the vibrations of the sun.

More info here.

About William Moorhead

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