The antique shop was brimming, as antique shops normally are. An eclectic collection of furniture pieces, ranging from a sizeable day bed to small wooden chests, formed the surfaces on which countless curios and art pieces were displayed, or against which framed paintings lay. It was not my first time browsing in it, but that day, I meant to buy.

I’ve forgotten the name of the shop now. It no longer exists, having had to move away, because the shopping mall wanted to do something else there. That was probably why I finally felt I had to act, for I would not have the chance again.

Why I was shopping for antique furniture

At the time, I was still in my furniture shopping phase. I promised myself that when I finally moved into my own place, I would take the most opportunity to furnish it with sustainable choices. My apartment came fully furnished, but most of the furniture didn’t suit my needs. They were the sort of furniture that real estate agents put in to be able to say, fully furnished. Less art, more generic.

But I have different habits than most people. I don’t even switch on the flat screen TV on the wall. And I didn’t need most of the furniture. So I gave much of it away on one of the local Facebook groups for Buy Nothing Project (one of the many successors to Freecycle), to the joy of a young couple who had just moved into their first home together.

But that didn’t mean I didn’t need any furniture at all. For example, I previously obtained a Vietnam War era portable US Army field desk, and still use it as a dressing table. And I still needed something to put my books in. I was determined that it should be an antique. There are already so many well-made things that exist, such that I felt I didn’t need to buy these things new. Ironically, it would probably cost more – so I figured, why not go all the way, and look for legit pieces of art?

The Tibetan art of embossed furniture

I must have spent ages. That piece is too large, this piece too low. But I kept circling back to a wooden cabinet. It had a rough look to it, but the front panels were beautifully decorated with dragons.

There was age upon it. Whatever colour it might have had has faded, but I preferred it so. The effect was more subtle, and suited my house better. It was clearly made in a time when craftsmen poured art upon their creations.

An older woman, who looked faintly Chinese, watched me as I deliberated over the cabinet, and the price on the card. She came over, and introduced herself as the owner of the antique shop. Susanna Goho-Quek, she said. The furniture pieces came from what she curated on her travels through China. The one I was contemplating was Tibetan. She waited a moment, then asked my opinion of the cabinet.

I didn’t answer straight away. I liked the cabinet, but I didn’t know why. Yes, it was the right size. I could see how I might use it. But the edges were not even, nor even straight. The sides were not planed smooth. The little doors in front barely fit properly, and you had to open them oh-so-carefully so that the wooden pegs that serve as hinges stayed in. And yet I liked it.

“It feels as though the cabinet is just an excuse, for the artist to put the artwork on.” I finally said. I gestured vaguely at the several faults of the cabinet – from the perspective of a carpenter.

Susanna brightened, delighted at my answer. Indeed! she exclaimed. Animated by my unexpected insightful appreciation of the art, she told me all about the Tibetan artistic method of embossing furniture. I’ve forgotten the name, but it involved clay.

Tibetan embossed artwork of a Chinese dragon's head on the drawer panel of an antique cabinet. The raised lines of the image are yellow ochre against the dark wood of the cabinet.
Oriental dragon’s head artwork on cabinet drawers; rearing dragon artwork on cabinet doors.
Tibetan embossed artwork of a rearing Chinese dragon facing left on the door panel of an antique cabinet. The raised lines of the image are yellow ochre against the dark wood of the cabinet. An old Chinese coin hangs from a loop on the cabinet from a yellow string tied through the centre hole.

The closing down sale sweetens the deal

“We are closing down, you know. There’s a sale because we need to clear out as many things as we can. There’s not enough space to bring everything back to Singapore.” Susanna was kind of Malaysian, but had settled in Singapore ever since she got married, all those many decades ago. She was an artist, whose free spirit had captured the heart of a businessman. And somehow, as far as I could tell, the combination had worked. Perhaps the shared Asian family values made it possible to bind personalities that we often assume don’t go together.

Well then, the sale made my decision easier. I added a smaller Chinese cabinet, whose aesthetic lay in the opposite direction: smooth surfaces and clean lines, down to its metal fittings. I was tempted to add more, but realism prevailed. One who lived in an apartment cannot furnish a house.

Metal Chinese style rectangular outline handles on the doors of an antique Chinese cabinet. The handles are attached to the dark wood of the cabinet on metal cladding.
A simpler aesthetic

But I couldn’t bring myself to make the transaction. The reason was a painting.

The painting & the art process

It lay on the floor, leaning against a stack of other paintings set against the wall. I knew where it was, for it was still where I first saw it when I came to the store with Cristin. She had admired a painting that was mostly red and black, because it reminded her of an explosion. But I was captivated by this blue painting of an underwater scene.

It’s rare to find paintings of underwater scenes. However, while the painting had corals and sea fern and fish, it wasn’t a true to life scene. It was brushstrokes of blue, and purple sea fern appearing from deeper blue. There were yellow fishes in the distance, but also white outlines of fish that were barely visible against the sea. You couldn’t identify the fish from the painting.

It was not a painting of an underwater scene; it was a painting of the feeling of looking at an underwater scene.

Susanna noticed that the painting held me like a magnet. Perhaps she was still pleased with my earlier insight, and decided to tell me the history of the painting. She herself was the artist, of course. But this particular painting was special, for she painted it after a trip with her husband to West Papua. They were still newlyweds, and he was working in the coal business at the time. In those days, West Papua was untouched.

She told me she was a widow now. Reminiscing about that trip long ago, she said her husband had wanted to show her the beauty of the underwater world. But she did not snorkel or dive. So he made her a glass box, that she could look at the coral reef under the surface.

The sight astonished her, and she painted it on canvas.

Oil on canvas art painting of an abstract underwater scene of a coral reef by Susanna Goho Quek. White outlines indicate ghostly translucent fish hiding amongst coral growths. The seawater is painted as blues and turquoise and greens.
Translucent fish

Appreciating the art of an artist goes a long way

But the painting, even with the sale, was a substantial addition on top of the furniture that was actually in my budget. Reluctantly, I told her that I loved it, but simply did not have the money.

Susanna beamed with pleasure, and to my surprise, spontaneously offered an even bigger discount, just for the painting. Because you respected me, the artist, she said. She meant, I didn’t argue with her about the price, or put down her art. I simply accepted that I could not afford to have it.

So many of our folk would pay thousands for a painting by a foreigner, but bargain down our own artists! There was one time, she said, a customer told her that her paintings were ‘too expensive’, for she was but a local artist, and not a foreign one. So she refused to sell her paintings to him, and kicked him out of the store.

The blue painting, that feels like seeing underwater for the first time, now hangs in my living room. Who would have thought that simply sincerely appreciating artwork, and being free of class discrimination, is what put into my possession my favourite piece of art?

Learning more about an artist

By this time we were deep in conversation. I began to have an inkling that Susanna Goho-Quek wasn’t just an antique shopkeeper.

If you drew a Venn diagram of the art world and my world, they barely overlap, so I was blissfully ignorant. But she told me that she was also an illustrator of children’s books, famous enough that a Hollywood … film…. person?.. (see, I can’t even remember if the right term was director, producer, or filmmaker!) had wanted to collaborate with her to produce a series of children’s books for kids in less developed countries. She is a famous person in those circles, but I can’t for the life of me recall her name.

Of course, Susanna was excited. But the excitement gradually turned to disappointment, and she eventually declined the project. She told me she couldn’t get behind the storylines. They simply weren’t relatable to the children they were supposed to be for.

Mystified, I asked what she meant. How could anyone mess up children’s stories?

A local’s perspective from the Global South

But when she told me the storyline, I understood. The story was supposed to have been about a little girl who lost her doll. It was a heartwarming story about how her father came with her to look for the doll. They looked for days, going through the plotline, and finally found her doll again.

But the target audience was children living in deeply impoverished areas. Fathers do not have days to spend looking for a specific doll their child had lost. They would not be able to afford not being at work. It wasn’t realistic, even to imagine.

The values of such a demographic are different. They don’t relate to being attached to a specific toy, but are more about making your own toys from whatever is around. There’s no question of ‘losing’ a favourite toy; they’re shared anyway, and you can make them anew. The values of the Global South are around emotional resilience, in order to prepare for the higher likelihood of loss.

She didn’t feel that the moral of the story was at all helpful to the target audience. But her collaborator did not understand, so she withdrew. She went on to work with children in her own capacity, encouraging them to relax in the face of life. I remember how proud she was with her out-of-the-box approach, demonstrating her colourful clown wig and teaching persona with an irrepressible theatricality.

Looking back, I wonder if that was the first time I began to wonder, whether it was simply not possible for the developed world to tell stories for the developing world. That the Global South people themselves have to tell each other our stories, and help solve each other’s problems.

But of course, that’s not quite true either. It just requires that you acquire enough sincere experience of the real whole world, and completely lose all interest in class discrimination. For I met a performance artist online at Cause to Wonder, who proved it.

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