In certain cultures, the written word is the ruler of all art forms. The way the characters interact, and their shapes, may represent the personality of the writer or even the moral timbre of a society. Languages have enjoyed such privileged status in the arts throughout history. In their early works, Picasso and Braque used images of newsprint and made objects such as bottles or artificial pears out of words. In the mid-20th century, words became the subjects of paintings and sculptures. It was in that era that conceptualism found itself a new form, one that existed in the form of written words and description. Language-based works are still very much alive, and some recent developments can be seen in the works of Goh Hun Meng & Gareth Richards: “Character Types” at Art Space, China House.


The works are simply hung, filled with creative ideas and very much fun to look at. The one-of-a-kind hand-made works range from print on canvas to wires and were created by local artist and designer, Goh Hun Meng, with accompanying text by Gareth Richards, in a search for ways to represent linguistic borrowings and encounters, especially the words that are shared by or influence Bahasa Malaysia. As Goh Hun Meng explains, there are words and expressions in Bahasa Malaysia that originate from other languages which are not a part of the Malay linguistic group. As common and natural as the phenomenon of language borrowing is in languages globally, this is more evident in Bahasa Malaysia than elsewhere. That is most likely due to Malaysia’s incredible diversity and cosmopolitan history.


Words from different languages such as Malay, Hokkien, Tamil, Dutch, Sanskrit, Persian and Thai are represented in some of their most inventive forms in this exhibition. The origins of the words are explained at the bottom right of each board. The artists have certainly done a fabulous research job in tracking down the roots of the words. They present the Dutch word “Doit” (coin in English) and talk about how importing this word into Malay went hand in hand with economic penetration. You may take the Thai word “Anni” for another example. “Anni” in Thai is used to refer and point to things. The artists notice the similarity of the word to “Ini” which is semantically the Malay equivalent. Finally they point out how this may indicate direct borrowing.


Hun Meng and Gareth enlighten the viewer by sharing the story that comes with each and every piece of work that is presented in the exhibition and is a result of their research and artistic endeavour. The inspiration behind each and every work moves the audience and brings a smile to the face. A smile of amazement. So much thought has been given into creating each word, in that there is a connection between the materials used in a word and the cultures that they represent. An example for this would be the pink silk used behind the Persian word that symbolizes the works of famous Persian Poets such as Rumi.

Character Types by Goh Hun Meng & Gareth Richards will be open until April 28th, 2018 at the

Art Space, China House located in 153 & 155, Beach Street and 183B, Victoria Street,10300 George Town, Penang, Malaysia. Opening hours are 10am until 10pm daily. Exhibitions such as this are unique and definitely worth a visit by both language and art enthusiasts.

By Mojdeh Zarbakhsh