Based in: Perth
Desmond Mah is a Singapore-born, Chinese-Australian, Perth-based contemporary painter. Drawing on both his hybrid Chinese heritage and his Western locality—Mah explores identity, culture and authenticity through paintings rooted in personal narratives, collective memory and mythology. 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 experienced 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 Diasporas already trying to gain acceptance.
It is these social and cultural challenges that motivates Mah’s contemporary practice. A practice concerned with diaspora, migration and alienation connected to his lived experiences of racial discrimination; experiences of a tension-filled mix between Chinese traditions and globalising Western pop-culture. To navigating these tensions Mah uses distorted imagery and the scents inside his memory. Developing a visceral approach to painting, he visualises conflicting tensions with exploding lines, colours and scents.
Mah graduated from Loughborough University (UK) with a BA (Hons) in Painting after receiving a scholarship from the Lee Foundation (Singapore). After graduating Mah worked as a high school teacher and landscape designer until 2016 when he began his professional arts practice. Recently he has been a finalist in the Joondalup Invitation Art Prize and Sculpture by the Sea, while also participating in solo and group exhibitions in Perth, Sydney and Beijing. Mah is represented by Art Atrium (Sydney) in NSW, has work in Judith Neilson’s private collection, and is currently mentored by Chinese contemporary artist, He Yunchang (何云昌).
scent, visceral, texture
My homemade palette knife.
Sun Xun: Your audience will come, be patient.
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