Friday, October 22, 2010

Spiritual Art-Making: Chong Keng Sen (Interview)

Source: Createlevoyage (Writer: Aaron Lee)

Chong Keng Sen is pastor of Hope Evangelical Free Church (Chinese) and a visual artist. He recently organised and curated the first Malaysian International Christian Artists Show 2009, an annual regional exhibition in Kuala Lumpur. More details of the show can be found at

Aaron: What are your present artistic preoccupations?

Chong Keng Sen (CKS): Since I left my lecturing days at the Kuala Lumpur College of Art in 2000, to continue my artistic vocation, I have been exhibiting my art both locally and overseas. Back then, as I was also the head of the communication design department, it was difficult to juggle art-making with my responsibilities.

During the mid-’70s to early ’80s, I was quite active in the local arts scene. I was among 23 artists invited for the inaugural Malaysian Young Contemporary show organised by the National Art Gallery, in 1977. Around this time I also became the pastor of a Chinese-speaking church that my wife and I had started some years previously. This new arrangement allowed me to fulfill my artistic vocation. For this, I am grateful to the church leadership for their encouragement and support.

I have a passion for networking with other Christian artists, and exploring ways to help the local Christian community understand the significance of the arts. I have had opportunities to teach in local seminaries and at conferences related to this subject. In 2009, I took up the offer to curate the Malaysian International Artists Show (MICAS09), in which artists from 11 countries participated. I am now preparing for another exhibition in conjunction with the 2010 Christian Conference of Asia assembly, which is held every five years. This exhibition will feature Malaysian Christian artists from the Unity Art Fellowship (AUF), of which I am the advisor. I am also tasked to research and write on the development of Malaysian Christian visual art. Lastly, as the Malaysian coordinator for BuildaBridge International, I am preparing an art camp for refugee children. BuildaBridge International is a Philadelphia-based non-profit art education and intervention organisation that engages the transformative power of the arts to bring hope and healing to societies in need.

Aaron: Is there a particular specific issue or theme that you are exploring at length in your art?

CKS: I agree with the Augustinian understanding that man is a spiritual entity. Presently, I am preoccupied with the spiritual dimension of man, informed by the Biblical worldview. Materialism with its utilitarian logic has sought to replace the need for God. But man is made in God’s image — hence there is a relentless existential tension.

I want my art to bring out the ‘spiritual man’ that is rooted in the divine — over and against the unfortunate, blinding, pursuit of material things. I feel an urgency to heighten this spirituality which is unique to the human race; we are caught up in a materialistic-driven environment, and it is imperative therefore both as an artist and a biblically-informed Christian to dwell on this particular subject. Most of today’s critical issues can only be addressed by a renewal of our spiritual consciousness rooted in the Biblical paradigm.

Aaron: Where does this preoccupation fit into your development as an artist so far?

CKS: Only in the past three years or so, I have begun exploring the ‘motif’ which I think will occupy me for the rest of my life. By this I mean that I hope and seek to heighten man’s spirituality through my art. All of life is spiritual and has spiritual values and implications whatever the human situations and conditions. I want my viewers to remember their spiritual ‘rooting’ in the God of the Bible.

As an example, in my self-portrait I painted myself both as a Chinese as well as one rooted in the Adamic lineage. It is both a recognition and a celebrative gesture, spiritually speaking, hence the art work is entitled Adam’s Song. The ongoing ‘fantasy’ series of imaginary islands and rivers speaks of our longing for something beyond mere materialistic needs in the face of our present man-made degradation — we are spiritual beings.

Aaron: Do you see your work as a calling from God, and in what way?

CKS: It is my conviction that I am made in God’s image. Therefore it is axiomatic that this created image should reflect in various degrees the creative attributes of the Creator (as revealed in the Bible). I am not saying this simply because I am a Christian. Back before I received Christ, I had always accepted the notion of God — especially since, as an art student, I had spent a lot of time observing the natural world.

Aaron: What is the biggest spiritual obstacle you face in your art?

CKS: To me, art-making is primarily both a doxological act — a spiritual act of worship — and a ministering act — the sharing of a life. Again, I do not say this because I am a Christian and a pastor. The fact is that I am constantly being reminded about this spiritual reality in the art of Kandinsky, and recently, of Damien Hirst. I would like to point out that author Ben Okri also likened his writings as an act of prayer.

Thus, for me, the biggest spiritual obstacle is maintaining the integrity of my art-making. This is because my motifs (subject matter) come from my meditating on the Bible and my constant reflection upon what I read in contemporary contexts. This is why I make art, and why I always do so with much rejoicing! Moreover, making something meaningful and pleasing in the ‘here and now’ is also a way to anticipate what I believe will be comprehensive artistic opportunities in the ‘post-Consummation Age’. The Biblical prophetic writings, especially in Isaiah, vividly envision God’s re-creation of the new heaven and the new earth. I like to imagine that in that time, artists will be able to create art in the way that creativity is are truly meant to function.

Aaron: Are there are any artists who are Christian, who have inspired you?

CKS: Definitely! There’s Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Zurbaran, and Barlach, for example. Viewing their works in church settings is both meaningful and inspirational. (Personally, admiring Giotto’s fresco in the Arena Chapel, Padua, is much more enjoyable aesthetically and spiritually speaking than perusing Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel.) Contemporaries like HeQi and Emmanuel Garibay are like beacons that lead the way forward. For me, foremost among them is George Rouault. I aspire to be like him in the way he lived his life — as an authentic (spiritual) human being who sought to fulfil his artistic vocation without the hype that is expected of an artist in our modern-post-modern strictures of ‘high art elitism’.

PS: You may view some of Ps Chong's works at this event

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