Artist, Abigail Phang Gung Fook | A Life Less Ordinary
Artist, Abigail Phang Gung Fook appears unafraid of intimacy. Yet in her joyful colours, expressive technique and naïve language, she masks the deeply personal autobiographical narratives of her work. In doing the laundry she is 'not perfect', yet she wears a fascinator and high heels. Symbols trigger memories – socks and tights on the clothes line once belonged to loved ones – and elevate the simple, everyday ritual of hanging the washing into a meditation on love and remembrance.
Recently shortlisted for the Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize 2018, Phang Gung Fook takes time out from the exhibition to talk us through her life, and how her work “Describes the multiplicity of my family life.”
I grew up in 1970s UK, when immigrant families felt like outsiders. Being of mixed heritage we didn’t fit in with any particular community. Consequently, we were a very close family, private and low key. I am the second of four girls, we were inseparable and mostly played together away from the other children. We spent our early years living on a council estate that was predominantly white. There was always a sense of not drawing attention to yourself.
As a result of my upbringing family has always been important to me. Consciously and subconsciously, memories from childhood have influenced my practice. 'Family first' and solitude still resonate. My family and memories are an endless source of inspiration for my work.
I am a naturally a shy, self-contained person. My desire for privacy has lead me to use humour and ambiguity to tackle stories that are sometimes difficult and painful to paint. I have always used satire, love and positivity to help me cope with difficult situations. This is the essence of my practice, my work reflects this spirit.
My art teacher changed my life when she demonstrated how to print on fabric. I was fifteen years old. I followed the formal route of Art Foundation and a Degree in Printed Textiles. A successful career as a freelance textile designer followed and I managed to balance my career with being a mother for many years. But following the birth of my third son I needed to focus on my children’s needs, so surrendering my career was a difficult decision.
After several years as a stay-at-home mother, I commenced part-time art classes as a way to reconnect with my creativity. I was introduced to portraiture and painting in oils. It was the second 'light bulb' moment in my life. My family became my stimulus and motivation. I began to paint what I was witnessing every day, painting events in my life that have a profound effect on me. I was eventually able to study for a Master’s Degree in Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School, where the tutors guided and supported me, developing my practice into what it is today.
My work is very personal. It is about my observations, events that have happened, the effects and consequences of my decisions. A recent bereavement, marriage, divorce, being a single mother, demanding relationships, bullying and intimidation, the effects on me and my children are themes that appear in my work.
The brilliant vivid colours in my work are a mask for me to hide my emotions behind. The dripping paint adds to the sense of immediacy, disorder, chaos and sadness. It reflects the melancholy I often feel inside as I paint. I also use dogs as a metaphor for people and my emotions, helping to create a cryptic narrative. The story is not always obvious to the viewer.
My work is very cathartic. It is both a release and a relief for me emotionally. Although I find it very easy to paint my stories, I find it more difficult to talk about individual paintings and to publish my thoughts in words. However, I am aware collectors of my work want to know more details. I am slowly learning to open up, but I do find it difficult. I feel empowered, as I have so much to say and I need to say it, but I am filled with sadness and regret at how different situations could have been.
Women supporting their families on a daily basis may appear unremarkable as it is the quotidian, but it is an emotive subject for me. The task of hanging out your children’s clothes to dry on a clothes line, the meals mothers prepare, the walking of children to school, the organisation of homework, are all familiar tasks carried out by women every day, and should be celebrated. I often found being a stay-at-home mother a lonely, isolating task, I felt unsupported. It was only my love of my children and their needs that helped me through the journey. Highlighting the female experience is important to me. It often goes unnoticed and is undervalued.
Including my children in my work is a way of taking a snapshot, a moment in their lives and telling their stories. I am capturing the essence of love and the importance of family. My body of work Communication examines the impact of being online and the necessity to be contactable at all times, and as a mother how frustrating it can be. The children are online, engaged in another world whilst sitting next to you. My children – like all young people – are obsessed with their mobile phones.
The boys take selfies on a regular basis, they delight in the concept of self-representation. They are at ease with the mobile phone camera and become quite animated when I ask for new images. They have the control to convey exactly what they want me to see. I am communicating my interpretation of portraiture based on photographs taken by them. My development of portraiture in my practice developed out of the use of the selfie as their image to paint from. Their faces distort depending on the angle they hold their phone. The cropped image, the comical angle all add to the sense of fun and become the new normal.
They enjoy being part of my artistic process. My thirteen year old son attends one of the top ballet schools in the country and consequently has to board. When he is home from school we spend precious time together. I am inspired by his determination, confidence and tenderness but it is tinged with sadness as I miss him during term time. My body of work A Young Boy’s Journey describes my feelings of pride, loss and sacrifice.
To find out more about Abigail Phang Gung Fook see her website and follow her on Instagram. Her work is being exhibited as part of the Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize 2018 in London until 7 July, and in the Exceptional: Collyer Bristow Graduate Art Award until 3 October.
© Debra O'Sullivan 2018. Images © Abigail Phang Gung Fook 2018. All Rights Reserved.