In the studio with Alya Hatta, whose practice draws on personal experiences and memories through dynamism of colour, form, sound and space. We met with Alya to tell us more about growing up in Malaysia, their explorations of narratives, and constant changes of influences and inspirations.
When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
I probably first began to see myself as an artist when I had my second solo exhibition, Playground at ZHAN Art Space in Malaysia. I think what has struck me the most in particular was seeing people I didn’t know come to the show and really taking the time to look at the work, consider it and relate to it – I would overhear people share their ideas about the work within themselves. I think my role as an artist and a large part of my personal fulfilment comes from the sharing of ideas, or starting conversations. Overall, just seeing people interact with the work independent of myself. Another thing I remember is when someone had written a whole review of my show, I was so shocked to even think that could happen. One other thing that makes me feel like an ‘artist’, especially because I’m from Malaysia and not the ‘west’, was being featured on larger international platforms like Dazed and Vogue, and when you see channels like that call you an artist, you definitely feel it.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Malaysia but my upbringing is very diverse. Before settling in Malaysia for my GCSEs and A-Levels I moved between Indonesia, London, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. This meant that I was exposed to many different types of cultures, people and religions. Because I only spent a relatively short amount of time in each country, I’ve definitely developed to become adaptive to many different environments.
Moving around has definitely impacted my work, first and foremost my practice has been shaped and led by the different memories I have in different environments. I particularly like to draw from the past, remembering specific colours, objects, music and different atmospheres.
Another integral way this has impacted my practice is the curiosity I have when making work. A lot of the curiosity within my practice is driven by how my identity has formed growing up. Moving around tonnes has always made me confused about my sense of place and the idea of a home as a physical location so it has definitely created this search for identity, discovering the self and of course a desire to understand the physical and social intimacies of the communities that surround wherever I am in the world.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work?
Like many artists, I started messing around with art since I was little, but when my mom introduced me to an art class when I was a toddler, I remember just always feeling super serious about it and always wanting to do the best I could do. I was in an oil pastel and watercolor class, and I remember these times so well. Being interested in art, I did art all the way through school. I focused on art class as I would any other subject but it was until I received a message from a gallery, Titikmerah Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, to show my work – I had gathered all the pieces I could and someone actually bought my work within 20 minutes of me getting there – I think that was my ping moment, that this could actually be a thing, and other people could be interested in what I made and had to say.
I think I felt the most ‘on track’ and confident to pursue my work during my Goldsmiths Degree Show (2021). At that point in my practice I found the colours and forms in my paintings had the most synchronicity with my personal visions of what I wanted the work to look like. I find that my motivation to practice is quite intrinsic, I’m looking to always transform images I see into works and transform them aesthetically into my own. I’m always excited by new possibilities of what things could look like in painterly, digital and sculptural form and to make work that delivers the same impact, thought, consideration I get from my favourite artists.
What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic?
I find it very intimidating to label my work with a ‘message’, not in a way that I am unclear of what I’m saying, but it is a way where I have a lot to say and I wouldn’t want to create fences around the meaning of the work. Essentially, my work shows the experiences of a young Southeast Asian woman who has grown up and lives through diaspora – something like this is so broad sensually and experientially that words couldn’t do it justice.
The exploration of this narrative stems from navigating this foreign country (England). Despite my diverse upbringing, I am a citizen of a Commonwealth Country and have consistently been in British education, so I am always drawing on the layers of familiarity and differences in what I experience today and how my journey thus far has shaped my unique lens.
The themes and imagery aren’t just from my own experiences, but shared experiences with people that are close to me – we’re always having discussions that are so inspiring to listen to as we explore common grounds and differences, about gendered and racialized experiences amongst other things. What I tune into specifically is the idea of ‘affect’, the feeling of being in the body and hypersensitivity to my surroundings, as well as the ghosts we as people leave in used spaces.
Briefly, my aesthetic diverges from traditional realism and tries to convey real emotions with the shapes, forms and expressions of the figures, if this means making the arms and legs long and sinewy, squishing the face or bending the figures in unimaginable positions. Colour is also very important to me, I like things to be vibrant and loud though I feel like I’m still exploring the way I work with it, trying to find a balance between maturing my palette and approaching it with naivety and joy.
Who/what are your greatest influences?
I have many influences and they are constantly changing, but I’ve always been inspired by the digital work of Ian Cheng (his generative simulations) as well as Wong Ping and his animation style and use of colour and the way he applies narrative to his work. Some painters that I’m really inspired by include Ambera Wellman, Francis Bacon, Michael Armitage, the tiny paintings of Sophie Barber and Jennifer Packer, who’s show I’ve recently gone to see at The Serpentine. While I was invigilating at the Camden Arts Centre, I was super inspired by the materiality of Jonathan Baldock. I’m not the biggest reader but an artist/author that really inspired me to start using colour is David Batchelor. He’s a seminar leader at Goldsmiths and his passion for colour is super motivating, his book ‘Chromaphobia’ is one of my favourites of all time and made me completely reassess my relationship with colour.
An unexpected source of inspiration?
I’m always inspired by food! Desserts and their cute vibrant and pastel colours and textures. I’m really into anything ‘yummy’ whether that be things like cake and jelly or non-edible things like fonts or ceramics. I love working with my local area too, I love dumpster diving for objects I can paint or stretch canvas over. I also always walk around my neighbourhood for objects people want to discard – the other day I found tonnes of vintage CDs that I want to extract sound and video from.
What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?
I don’t have an audience reaction in mind when I’m making work, what I have in mind is kind of like putting together a puzzle of composition and colour and there’s always a discomfort and dissatisfaction that I feel which pushes me to get it just right, I love that part of the process because its so engaging mentally and so satisfying when I finally get it right. What I’d want people to take away from my work as a whole is that each piece chronicles a moment in life that is enriched by different layers of emotion – what the figures are feeling, what the colours are feeling and what the overall composition is doing. I think the point is that every moment is multidimensional (how we see things versus how things are felt in the moment and after we process them) and I’d like for an audience to consider how they relate to that personally in their everyday life experiences. My degree show work was titled ‘Always Greener’ after the phrase ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’, I guess I would want the audience to consider whether the work is really as fun and playful as it seems, despite the vibrant colours and childlike figures, what’s beneath the exciting exterior? At the bare minimum however, I’d just want the audience to have a feeling of fun and joy and enjoy the work as they would interpret it on their own.
What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved?
I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint a specific moment, but as I mentioned before, definitely moving about a lot and having to adapt to environments around me. I feel like I have been enriched with such diverse cultural stimuli that there’s always moments to look into and move forwards with. My art definitely evolved after I started using digital mediums in my practice. During university I learned to code in C# and create and animate 3D assets that I put together in Unity, a game engine. Lots of my digital work comes from making generative simulations and messing around with the randomness and flaws of technology. This was an evolution of my physical work because both aspects of my practice have definitely informed each other, especially the use of colour.
Currently, I’m experimenting with tiny drawings and paintings and the vulnerability/intimacy of it all. I’m trying to ‘hide’ less behind bright colours for a bit. I’ve been keeping diaristic entries and taking photos of my friends around me and drawing them very authentically.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a good piece of work?
Ideally, I would be in a studio situation with my friends around me, working on their own things, but just distant enough that we can all focus but then have a laugh and take a break – just like how we did at Goldsmiths. I’m thinking of my dream studio space right now, and definitely there would be an open plan space with massive windows and every day would be sunny with good natural light, and I’d be overlooking central London. Music is the most important thing though, I’m the type to rinse the same song over and over again until it’s dead to me, those moments of trance just vibing to music and dancing and being happy is what makes the best work. There are days where your hands and brain just connect and the vision comes together so smoothly.
Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?
‘Chun-Li’ was inspired initially by my experience going to the gym as a woman. Because I lift weights, I always feel like this area was a treacherous environment, like a jungle, where there were just tonnes of men. I was working out one day and some man called me Chun-Li, the asian female fighter in Street Fighter, as a joke just because I had two buns in my hair. It became a running joke and it bothers me so much. In fact I get ‘Ni-Hao’ed on a weekly basis in South London where I live just because I’m Asian, it’s crazy that men think they’re actually making moves on me, I just look at them like Why Dude? The painting is just me venting my frustrations, dreaming to be back in sunny Malaysia where racialised things like this happen much less often.
Something in the future you hope to explore?
I’m really excited to work on more sculpture and digital work alongside my paintings! Something that I’ve been really trying to do is bridge the multi-disciplinary parts of my practice together into an installation. I’ve been wracking my brain about how to do this for a while now. Sculpturally, I love working with painted ceramics and inflatables, just yummy things. Digitally, I’ve been trying to up my 3D modelling and coding skills and am looking to build a game type artwork.