Desmond Mah (born: 1974) is a Singapore-born, Chinese-Australian, contemporary artist—painting as its core. Growing up in Post-Colonial Singapore during the late 70’s to early 80’s, Mah had to recite the National Pledge on all school days; pledging his allegiance to Singapore and uphold values like racial harmony. His parents were preoccupied with work and there wasn’t much family time for him. Mah would spend many weekends in his grandmother’s Taoist temple in a public housing apartment, which provided his first, and ongoing experience with art before migrating to Perth in the late 80’s.
Although Perth is now Mah’s 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. Mah never understood racism until experiencing first-hand the impacts of groups like that Australian Nationalist Movement, whose leader Jack Van Tongren, spread anti-Asian sentiment that eventuated into burglaries and arson attacks on Chinese businesses. These memories of racial slurs, bigotry posters and ‘slant-eyed’ gestures still remained. Traumatic experiences for a teenage migrant who had to fight these fears and eventually suppressed his Chinese identity as a defense mechanism in a hostile environment. Since his youth Mah has reaffirmed his Chinese-Singaporean-Australian identity, however, this trauma is never far behind; being called a ‘chink’ and threatened in front of his children by a fellow Australian in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic being politicised as the ‘Chinese virus’ creates social and cultural challenges for Asian diasporic communities already trying to gain acceptance.
Concerned with diaspora, migration, and alienation connected to his own lived experiences of a tension-filled mix between Chinese traditions and globalising Western culture. Drawing on both his hybrid Chinese heritage and his Western locality—Mah questions cultural authenticity and explores these implicative insinuations.
Mah devotes his time to making paintings that ‘perform’, references his childhood memory of Singapore; seeing 真藝" (zhēnyì / true art) or "妝藝" (zhuāngyì / large decorated diorama), which are basically floats carried by moving vehicles, forming the Chingay Parade as part of the Lunar New Year festivities. The crafting of these floats originated from the Chinese communities of Southeast Asia, These dramatic float displays have lights, moving mechanisms, and smoke, etc; ‘performing’ to their audience. Inspired by these floats, Mah integrates elements such as smells and moving mechanisms within his hybrid kinetic paintings.’ In doing so, he attempts to challenge the usual cognitive and visual engagement with the image, such as, an application of smells to cultivate intimacy and emotional connections.
Although Mah graduated from Loughborough University (UK) with a BA (Hons) in Painting (1998), he began his professional practice late (2016) after years of working in other industries. Recently he has won the Southern Buoy Studio 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 Residencies (Beijing), in which contemporary artist, *He Yunchang (何云昌) mentors 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 private collection and is featured as ''One to watch'' in the the current Art and interior design magazine, Art/Edit (Australia).
He Yunchang 何云昌 in his Beijing
studio (Dec 2018).
Chingay Parade float at Ang Mo Kio, Singapore (1980).
Judith Neilson, White Rabbit Gallery