Why Do We Teach Art?
This term, Yew Chung International School of Beijing welcomes Desmond Mah as our artist in residence. We discuss the importance of teaching art, and overcoming the drive for perfection.
Please introduce yourself
My name is Desmond Mah. My grandparents are Chinese, I was born in Singapore, and I moved to Perth in my teens, which is where I have lived for most of my life. In this respect, I consider myself a very cross-cultural individual, and I reflect on these distinct aspects of my identity in my art.
I studied Fine Art in the UK, and then worked as a secondary school teacher and also a landscape designer in both Australia and Singapore. It wasn’t until quite recently that I decided to become a full-time artist. I earned representation from a gallery in Sidney, and have a solo exhibition coming up there next year.
I am interested in working with a variety of media, and at the moment I’m experimenting with painting with ground-up incense. I’m in Beijing researching these materials and visiting temples which remind me of my childhood in the 70s in Singapore – so this residency has come at a good time.
Please explain some of the activities you have been doing with students at YCIS Beijing and the purpose of these activities.
Coming from a cross-cultural background myself, I have been keen to explore the theme of identity with the students here. All the students here have an interesting mix of identities. Some of them are Chinese, but have rubbed shoulders with westerners and even lived abroad themselves. Some students have lived in Beijing for many years, but come from western families. Some have parents from two different countries, and speak many languages. Others are moving through Beijing for just a year or two. This is fertile ground for self-exploration, and has been the main impetus for my project here.
The students have been working in clay, beginning with the form of a panda and then putting their own identity and likeness onto it. The panda: because it is China’s national animal and reflects the Chinese side of their identity. Clay: because it is mouldable and can take the shape and characteristics of our own selves. I want the students to explore their identity through these clay pieces, creating a metaphor for themselves in China.
When they are complete, we will hang them together as a tile installation. This is the final part of the project – the coming together of our diverse community.
Why is studying art at school important for young people?
Studying art does not mean you are going to become an artist. Art is about nurturing the soul. It is a mode of expression.
In this age of technology, we communicate all the time, but our communication is instant and simplified and we do not take the time to express ourselves meaningfully. Art allows us to express ourselves more deeply, in more significant ways.
I also find that young people these days are used to perfection. Images online, digital photography and advertisements are all sanitised and perfect. I think it is important to encourage students to embrace difference, uniqueness and see the power of imperfections. They’re actually very expressive.
What do you want the students to learn from your visit?
I think our students are afraid to show themselves and make mistakes. Brands tell them that perfection is already out there to buy, and that their work cannot compete. But I would like them to understand the power and importance of making things with their own hands that represent themselves, and knowing the process that goes into making an original piece of art.
What do you think of our Artist in Residence programme?
It’s fantastic that the school recognises the value of bringing experts into the school, especially that this is not limited just to artists but to writers, scientists and actors too. These visitors can open students’ eyes to new professions, and add new relevance to what they are learning in class. It has also been a positive experience for me, to get to know the minds of our young generation.