Desmond Mah (b. 1974, Singapore) is a Chinese-Australian, a contemporary artist—painting as its core. Postcolonial Singapore during the late 70’s to early 80’s, was rife with superstitions and folk tales of horror. Stories of Pontianak (Malay undead vampire) and other malevolent spirits terrified his childhood world, living in a Kampong village. Mah would spend many weekends in his grandmother’s Taoist temple in a public housing apartment, which became his first, and ongoing experience with art, before migrating to Perth in the late 80’s.
Although Perth (Australia) is Mah’s permanent home, it represented a very contrasting cultural space to his birthplace; a city that presented tensions for Asian minorities specifically from the late 80’s to 90’s. As a 华侨 (Huáqiáo; a person of Chinese descent migrated overseas) teen, he dealt with racial slurs, bigotry posters and ‘slant-eyed’ gestures. He also would escape to video arcades battling ‘monsters’, as a coping mechanism. Now espoused, his immediate family still experiences occasional acts of racism and racial abuses, especially during the preliminary stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mah returns to horror as a tool to process marginalisation. He equates racial discrimination to horror; both induce uncertainty, draw on everyday anxieties and can be experienced as depression or paranoia. These cultural tensions are explored through metaphorical imagery and the visceral nature of the horror genre. With this, the unsettling image is to challenge the viewer's commonplace perceptions and assumptions.
Recently with a string of events and self-reflection, Mah discovered painfully that he has ADHD (undiagnosed) or carries the symptoms. This clearly puts into perspective of his life journey and processes (mistakes, failures and victories). For this and various reasons, he paints with a distinctive weaving painting style and pure colours to produce his paintings. Every so often his works would include moving mechanisms and other materials embedded within, broadening the scope of contemporary painting.
Mah graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts (Singapore) and Loughborough University (UK) with a BA (Hons) in Painting (1998). However, he commenced his professional practice late (2016) after years of working in other industries. Currently, he has won the Southern Buoy Studios Portrait Prize (2021), been finalists in the Incinerator Art Award (2021, 2020) and other sundry prizes while exhibiting in solo and group shows in Perth, Sydney and Beijing. He has participated in the Red Gate Residency (Beijing), in which contemporary artist, He Yunchang (何云昌) mentored him. Mah is a recipient of various grants and has works commissioned by Diversity Arts Australia (NSW) and Screenwest (WA). Mah has a work in Judith Neilson’s (Owner, White Rabbit Gallery; has important collections of Chinese contemporary art) private collection.
A Kampong village dwelling, Kampong Bahru, Singapore, 1970s.
He Yunchang 何云昌 in his Beijing
studio (Dec 2018).
Judith Neilson, White Rabbit Gallery