Desmond Mah (Singapore, b 1974) is a Chinese-Australian artist who creates and resides in Boorloo, located on the unceded land of the Wadjak boodjar in Perth, Western Australia. Mah holds a BA (Hons) in Painting from Loughborough University in the UK and worked in art education before pursuing his career as an artist.
Born in Singapore, Mah is a third-generation Singaporean (former) with ancestral roots tracing back to the Hui (回族, Hui Tribe, China) and Kinmen ancestry (金門縣, Kinmen Islands, Taiwan). His childhood in Singapore was shaped by his exposure to his maternal grandmother's Taoist temple culture, which exposed him to temple art featuring the monstrous, the macabre and grotesque. This fascination with the darker aspects of art has played a significant role in shaping Mah's creative vision.
As a second-generation Australian migrant and an Asian minority in a culturally different environment, Mah has faced challenges in finding a sense of belonging. These experiences have influenced his perspective and creative vision, and he continues to explore themes of identity, culture, and belonging in his art.
Mah's artistic practice centres around harnessing the potential of his neurodivergent mind to produce innovative, hybrid pieces. His work involves blending painting with sculpture technique, while also incorporating new media and technology. The resulting hybrid works feature interactive, moving, and auditory components that embody the human form, which he utilises to explore the intricacies of the inner self.
Mah's talent has been recognised with awards for his paintings from various art prizes, including the E.SUN Bank Special Selection prize (Taiwan, 2022) and the Southern Buoy Studios Portrait Prize (Australia, 2021). He has exhibited his work in solo and group shows in Perth, Sydney, and Beijing, and has participated in residencies such as the Red Gate Residency (Beijing, 2018), where he was mentored by contemporary performance artist He Yunchang, researching the embodiment of the body. Mah has also received various grants and commissions and has an artwork in the private collection of Judith Neilson.
This year 2023, Mah will be participating in these endeavours, including the HERENOW 2023 group exhibition at Edith Cowan University and his first curation exhibition titled "草船借箭" ("(Re)Borrowing Arrows with Thatched Boats") at the Moores Building Contemporary Art Space in Walyalup (Fremantle). Additionally, he has been offered a first-round place at the Royal College of Art (London) for the Painting (MA) program and will be part of the Fremantle Arts Centre Studio Program for six months.
As an artist of colour, I explore the intricate relationship between cultural hybridity, fluid identity, and the embodiment of the body. Throughout history, the natural body is a way to identify individuals and nevertheless has been a tool of marginalisation in traditional modes of communication, representation, and situating. While the natural body is a fundamental aspect of individual identity, it doubles as a problematic identifier. The body does not necessarily reflect the fluid, evolving, and hybrid nature of our identities, which are consequently transmuted by experiences, cultures, beliefs, and relationships with others.
To broaden how bodies can be communicated, represented, and situated, the embodiments are presented in a new art technique that combines painting and sculpture methodologies. Specifically, the hybrid art form is made from modified acrylic paint as a sculptural material, emphasising form by eliminating superfluous backgrounds and the traditional use of canvas. This approach allows re-imaginings with new compositions, juxtapositions and presentations, moving beyond the conventional exhibition of the natural body.
Additionally, integrating experimental technologies into these embodiments is a further innovation and a crucial aspect of my neurodivergent-based art practice. Paradoxically, the challenges I face with focus and articulation due to my disorder have become motivators in an experimental, multi-sensory art-making approach. Through this, the complexities of identity can be presented in new and innovative ways. I use media and technical components such as smells, mechanisms, programming, sounds, and sensors to create impressions of life within the body and to enhance the viewing experience through multi-sensory stimuli.
These approaches offer visceral perspectives on how bodies occupy and navigate spaces within contemporary art. Moreover, by enhancing the audience's art experience with interactive innovations, I hope to cultivate more nuanced and empathetic conversations about cultural hybridity, fluid identity, and the intricate relationship between the body and identity.
Desmond Mah, 2023
A Kampong village dwelling,
Kampong Bahru, Singapore, 1970s.
Mah's childhood residence.
He Yunchang 何云昌 in his Beijing
studio (Dec 2018).
Judith Neilson, White Rabbit Gallery