What is the Definition of an Emerging Artist? The Metamorphosis of Tunku Khalsom
Printer jams always happen when you least need them. Like when they’re supposed to spit out beautiful high-resolution butterflies. And because it’s a fancy printer, it’s also supposed to have cut them out, ready to be applied to your latest mixed media artwork. But this is 2020, and no one can get their hands on Heinz Tomato Sauce at the supermarket, let alone trust an expensive printer slash cutter to do what it says on the tin. So it’s back to hand trimming depictions of winged creatures for now. At least it is for Tunku Khalsom, the charmingly down to earth artist creating vivid artworks for collectors from London to Lombok. But it makes you wonder — when the fleet of paper butterflies that serve as your inspiration are grounded, in addition to your wander lusting spirit, does it change your art?
“I might need to do a Damien Hirst and get some assistants,” jokes Khalsom. It’s an interesting dilemma. Painstakingly cutting out butterflies by hand is slow work. Possibly slow enough to consider a new direction if your output can’t generate enough sales — after all, everyone needs to eat. The aforementioned prolific British artist cottoned on to this early and employed an army of assistants to paint uniformed dots for him so he could focus on the bigger picture, so to speak. Despite artists from Michelangelo to stroke-affected Turner Prize nominee Angela de la Cruz, employing assistants, Hirst copped criticism for farming out labour: Is it really art if you didn’t make it yourself? Can you charge those prices if you never held the paintbrush? Is art in the idea or the execution?
In Khalsom’s case, she’s quite content getting her hands dirty. That meant tracking down chemicals in industrial estates to create her own resins before art resin was available in Singapore. It meant crafting her own wood surfaces to paint on and honing her own frames, “That was very messy! I now get someone to make them for me but I still frame the artwork myself,” she says. And it now means wielding scissors in the wee hours to craft her signature butterflies that give her pieces an otherworldly 3D effect when they’re layered over the inky depths of her backgrounds.
Painted mostly on wood, Khalsom’s pieces are a mixture of layered abstract backgrounds, figurative elements, geometric shapes, saturated and neon colours, dense swirls that almost feel like water, and her iconic motifs of butterflies. “I’ve been obsessed with them for as long as I can remember.” To prove it, Khalsom gives us a tour of her tattoos. Inked on her back wrist, ankle and above her elbow, are hand-designed butterflies in various states of flight and profile. “I got my first butterfly tattoo when I was 16,” she explains. “They’re free, full of change and they have a dark side too. That’s everything I’m interested in exploring.” That both can reside inside a person and in the world around us is the subject of Khalsom’s evolving artwork — paintings with jewel-like hues that evoke smoke, foliage and fabric to both reveal and screen hidden depths.
The cocoon to chrysalis theme resonates with Khalsom. Having grown up in Malaysia to a Malay father and British mother, Khalsom spent her childhood in Malaysia before relocating to the UK for university studies where she graduated with a degree in Interior Architecture from the University of Brighton. She left the UK returning to Kuala Lumpur for a spell, followed by a move to Singapore where she began work designing hotels including designing her family’s Rawa Lombok resort from scratch. Khalsom has been transitioning into visual art over the last few years and (having always drawn and painted on the side), taking on an enviable list of commissions from clients far and wide. “It’s been really busy, and I’m very grateful. I’ve actually been able to work very solidly during the lockdown. Now, I’m looking forward to creating a new body of work. I’ve just created a new collection for Addicted Art Gallery that inspired a new direction in my style and I’m keen to see where it goes.”
With an evolving style and a love of butterflies, Khalsom is the very definition of an emerging artist. And if our bodies can’t fly at the moment, our souls sure can soar living vicariously through her visceral art. We can’t wait to see what Khalsom does next.
Written on behalf of Addicted Art Gallery by Skye Wellington, Lens & Pen Projects