Regional Artist Profile: Jacky Cheng

Regional Artist Profile: Jacky Cheng

Regional Arts WA

As a young woman in Malaysia, Jacky was unable to pursue her passion for art freely.

Jacky Cheng, a successful visual artist and arts educator, was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur in an environment unsupportive of her artistic dreams. This, however, did not quell her fire, but instead fueled her to move to Australia and express her artistic freedom, and to champion others who feel they have no voice!

Jacky Cheng. Image by Tim Acker.

“… making art was already part of my upbringing although it was not recognised as an artform at home…I most certainly was not allowed to pursue art as a career.

So, I found the next best and most glamorous job in the dictionary and thought being an architect would somehow bring me closer to art – very large 3D art.

But of course, my intention was tested and the thought of me, a female, not carrying the family name after marriage was not worth the family’s investment.”

A pivotal point in Jacky’s life was when she decided she would never change her last name but, instead, would continue her love of art in secret. From here, Jacky then went on to pursue a degree in Architecture, a career move deemed respectable by her family. Her degree received the financial backing of her parents on the proviso she excelled in every subject, which she did at the expense of her social life in Malaysia.

Jacky Cheng working, portrait.

In 2001 Jacky chose to further her education by studying a Bachelor of Architecture – Honours 1 at the University of New South Wales. It was with the help and encouragement from one of her university lecturers that Jacky found her voice. For the first time, she was told her work was good, giving her the confidence and motivation to pursue the arts. It was during this time that she realised, “It is okay to do better and to want more for yourself.”

“In my uni days, I rebelled. I secretly enrolled in classes and made art to appease myself. My lecturer encouraged me and sort of gave me the ‘permission’ to explore, play, and make mistakes.

I engaged in lateral thinking activities and problem-solving projects… it was heaven to work and engage with like-minded students.”

Naturally, when the chance came up for Jacky to be a part time session teacher at her university she jumped at the opportunity, excited to share skills and learn from others in the class.

Portrait of Jacky Cheng

It was in 2006, while nannying for a Sydney family at their holiday home in Broome, that Jacky found the place she could call home. After only two weeks in the coastal town, Jacky resigned from her jobs in Sydney and relocated to Broome permanently, but it was not until a chance conversation with a Broome local that her life truly changed forever.

“As a Malaysian Chinese woman in Australia, I initially felt like I looked out of place, like I didn’t belong. I was in town one day chatting to a resident, she said she was part Chinese, Japanese, Scottish, and Aboriginal. She told me about herself and about her history and I suddenly realised I knew nothing about Australia. It was a revelation; this is where I want to be!”

This yearning for a sense of belonging is deeply woven into and reflected in Jacky’s art.

“My practice is fundamentally about identity and awareness through cultural activities and memories of home, country, and personal and community relationships.

I am interested in navigating and weaving narratives from my native experiences through social relationships from my Malaysian Chinese heritage and my newfound home, environment, and social surroundings.

Being an individual in a transcultural environment, I continue to explore and question the notion of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ – ‘here and there’ and the ‘in between’. My desire is to explore ideas through practicing the methodologies of two extremities of the same continuum and simplicity in complexity – much like my struggle in comprehending the Australian colloquialism and mistranslating the idioms.”

Jacky’s first job in Broome was teaching art in the remote Aboriginal community of Bidyadanga. She also taught community members how to sell and explain their work to people from different walks of life including tourists from overseas who had no prior knowledge about their art. Jacky’s work at Bidyadanga caught the eye of David Wroth from Japingka Aboriginal Art Gallery in Fremantle and, not long after his visit, he invited the community members to exhibit their art at Revealed in Perth.

Emerging Indigenious artists’ art for ‘Revealed’. Image by Jacky Cheng.

“Some of this work takes me out to remote locations engaging with diverse community members. I often think that I am so lucky to be based regionally.

These experiences are so precious and no one experience is the same. They only familiarise you for the next challenge.”

Jacky has also taught in prisons; teaching participants keen to tell their own stories and be involved in the classes. Jacky is constantly wowed by art and believes it “can take you anywhere and everywhere.”

Jacky Cheng working with community members at Bidyadanga Community.

It is amidst a thriving array of diverse cultures in Broome, Jacky has found her mob. She noticed her art practice has flourished from the get-go and beyond.

“I realised I never really left ‘home’ but more so, I embraced a slightly different narrative of ‘belonging’. My practice touches on personal experiences and at the same time takes the liberty to investigate the notion of ‘place and identity’ or what Broome means to me.”

Her passion for teaching has been recognised by winning ‘Best Trainer/Teacher of the Year in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector in WA and Australia’ and was also a finalist for the ‘Curtin University Teaching Excellence Award’ by Awards Australia.

She has also won many awards for her art in Australia and Malaysia. Jacky’s pieces have been exhibited worldwide, and local and international collectors have bought her work.

Jacky Cheng receival of Australian Trainer Award. Image by Greg Nichols.

Currently, Jacky is exploring using the Chinese Lunar Calendar in her art. As a child, she was tasked with tearing each page off the family calendar to signify the start of a new day, a ritual she enjoyed and has continued to do for the past 9 years.

“I am currently weaving, cutting, stacking, moulding, learning, playing, and celebrating failures with new ideas, all with a fresh pair of eyes in Fremantle Art Centre as a resident artist until end of March 2021.

I am intrigued by the narrative of celebrations, when the calendar dictates good omens, and the disregard of superstitions when they don’t suit our contemporary Chinese society.”

Jacky is also keen to experiment with her late Grandmother’s mooncake mould, exploring its potential as more than just a cooking utensil and attempting to interpret her own mould with her own immigrant identity.

Celebrations and Superstitions* is one of three parts of an overarching project, Making to Remember, and has been partly funded by the Regional Arts Resilience Grant from Regional Arts WA.

“I make art without the approval of my family. Being away from my homeland allowed me to nurture my own identity and it is imperative for me to keep my grandmother’s stories and teachings alive. I now make to remember.”

‘Conversations’ artwork by Jacky Cheng.

Using the medium of paper, Jacky’s work explores 2D and 3D sculptural forms incorporating a philosophy she refers to as ‘slow art’ – letting the work flow naturally, free from deadlines or rules and allowing inspiration to take its course.

“My introduction into the manipulation of paper was highly influenced by my elders’ cultural practices and duties for Chinese Ritual purposes. I have since amalgamated both architectonic and visual language, using papers and fibres as the predominant mediums in my practice.”

Jacky uses a variety of different papers in her art, preferring paper that can be explored further without being destroyed too easily.

‘The Best Kept Secret’ artwork by Jacky Cheng.

Residencies in overseas countries have also been of interest to Jacky as she explores more of herself, the world, and her art practice. She has enjoyed opportunities to fully immerse herself in her work without distraction in Finland, Spain and Japan.

Her on site-specific ephemeral installations are installed with respect to the environment, as she prefers to return the landscape to its complete natural state after the removal of her installations.

‘Rethinking Corners’ artwork by Jacky Cheng.

“Living and practicing in Broome is special. The motivation is different – it is respectful and sensitive story telling. Culture comes from place. Everyone has such a rich and diverse story with strong family connections. It continues to baffle me how much I do not know even after 14 years of living in Broome. I channel that interdependence in my art practice. It embodies my practice with intent and with purpose.”

Currently, Jacky is involved in two public art projects in Broome and is working alongside all relevant parties to deliver the projects soon in 2021.

For more information about Jacky’s art, her community workshops, to collaborate with her, or to engage her in Artist Talks, visit her website or follow her on social mediaFacebook and Instagram. To contact Jacky email or call 0400 184 191.

*Working title

The Regional Arts Resilience Grants program is funded through the State Government’s Regional Arts and Cultural Investment Program.

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