Desmond Mah/马福民 (b. 1974, Singapore; currently residing and working in Boorloo/Perth) was born into a Chinese family in Singapore before immigrating to Boorloo, Australia during his teenage years in the 1980s—a challenging period for Asian migrants in Boorloo. He pursued his education in fine arts, earning a BA Hons in Painting from Loughborough University, UK, in 1998 and studying at LaSalle College in Singapore in 1997. Prior to embarking on his artistic career in 2017 in Boorloo, Mah worked in art education and horticulture.
Drawing from his diverse cultural heritage, which spans China, potentially with roots in the Hui ethnicity (回族), Taiwan's Kinmen Islands (金門縣), and Singapore, Mah explores themes of cultural hybridity, fluid identity, and the Asian diaspora experiences.
During his time as a horticulturist, his daily task of weeding brought him into close contact with the intricate web of roots beneath the soil. These roots, resilient and persevering, left a lasting impression on him and have become a significant element in Mah’s practice. Primarily a painter, he tempers acrylic paint to form a line mark-making style that is visually reminiscent of plant roots, thus creating his own personal "migrant language." His roots convey the actions of absorbing and adapting, mirroring the behaviour of plants. While his earlier paintings were primarily textural on canvas, in his recent work, intricate paint marks exist independently, articulating its own narrative. He shifts toward a form that blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture. This hybrid approach incorporates Zhizha (纸扎)*, a Taoist paper-effigy-craft that was used in his grandfather's now-defunct Taoist temple in Singapore. These root lines on xuan paper (rice paper) form ghostly living embodiments of himself.
Having recently discovered his condition of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in his late forties, Mah incorporates his neurodivergent mind into his painting practice. While his neurodivergent mind presents challenges in colour mixing, it also directly encourages the bold use of colours. His root mark-making technique proves effective in controlling these vivid colours and becomes more important than ever.
Mah's achievements include winning the E.SUN Bank Special Selection Prize (Taiwan, 2022) and the Southern Buoy Studios Portrait Prize (Australia, 2021). He has actively participated in exhibitions, residencies, grants, and commissions. Notable involvements include the Fremantle Arts Centre Studio Program (2023) and two Red Gate Residencies (Beijing, 2018), where he was mentored by the contemporary performance artist, He Yunchang. Additionally, one of Mah's artworks is part of the private collection of Judith Neilson.
As of 2023, Mah is gearing up for a solo exhibition with Art Seasons in Singapore and an upcoming exhibition with Mossenson Galleries in Boorloo, Australia, scheduled for 2024. Moreover, he received a first-round place offer at the Royal College of Art (London) for the Painting (MA) program, which he regrettably had to decline.
As an artist with diverse cultural roots, I explore the themes of cultural hybridity, fluid identity, and the experiences of the Asian diaspora through my self-portraits. In contrast to traditional self-portraits on canvas, I paint grotesque-looking embodiments of myself, providing a raw and challenging portrayal that prompts viewers to confront preconceived notions and encourages a deeper exploration of human identity.
Although the paint is a weak medium by itself, I persist in tempering it to create a distinctive line mark-making style that constitutes my unique 'migrant language.' This visual language, reminiscent of plant roots, conveys a message of resilience and adaptability, illustrating the inherent processes of absorption and adaptation. Breaking away from the confines of traditional canvas, I choose to paint these marks on xuan paper (rice paper), employing the Zhizha (纸扎) technique—a Taoist paper-effigy-craft method. The resulting artwork exists in the realm between hybrid painting and pseudo-sculpture, offering an innovative approach to artistic expression.
These grotesque embodiments of myself capture the living essence of my identity, which is continuously shaped by experiences, cultures, beliefs, and relationships. My intention is to foster nuanced and empathetic discussions about cultural hybridity, fluid identity, and the experiences of the Asian diaspora. In doing so, I seek to engage with the complexity and richness of both individual and collective identities.
Desmond Mah, 2023
*In Taoist tradition, Zhizha is employed to create paper offerings, such as houses, furniture, gadgets, and even servants for the deceased and gods. These offerings are then ritually burned. The materials used in Zhizha include paper, bamboo, glue, and prints. Unfortunately, Zhizha artisans are dwindling due to related environmental concerns and weakened religious belief. Mah observed this technique during his childhood spent in his grandfather's Chinese temple (now defunct), and he aspires to reinvigorate this paper-craft technique through his contemporary painting practice.
A Kampong village dwelling,
Kampong Bahru, Singapore, 1970s.
Mah's childhood experience.
He Yunchang 何云昌 in his Beijing
studio (Dec 2018).
Judith Neilson, White Rabbit Gallery
Tree growing unconventionally on
a shophouse in Taipei (Dec 2022).
A Zhizha artisan working on a paper
effigy (internet image)