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A Creative Cast of Craftswomen, Create a Ceramic Catalogue

Not many youths nowadays know that Ipoh was once a ceramic capital of the world. Fueled by the surplus of earth from the tin mining industry and the resilient clay unique to the region, the ceramics industry reached its peak in the 1970s to 1980s. However, with Ipoh moving past the tin mining industry, the practice of this ancient art saw a downturn. While Ipoh is still renowned for its famed white coffee and limestone caves, this part of its rich history should not be allowed to be so easily forgotten.

Aiming to introduce the works of studio ceramics and calling attention to the arts, six women ceramicists; Faerie Lee Yi Hui, Katrina Peierhoo, Cheryl, Choong Tet Sieu, Chew Mun Yee and Ku came together for a group exhibition known as Zao 1.0.

The title for this exhibition “Zao”(灶), or “stove” in Chinese is a reference to their creative process.

Formed by combining the characters for fire and earth or clay, “zao” not only reflects the process of ceramic-making in which heat is applied to shaped clay, but also symbolises the strength and mutual support the women find in each other as they teamed-up for this project. Meanwhile, “1.0” holds the artists’ hope for this exhibition to foster a bigger ceramics arts community in Ipoh and also hopefully, inspire future similar endeavours.

The exhibition featured more than 80 pieces from each of the artists, each with their own unique vision and presentation of the art form; from hand-building and wood-firing to glaze experiments. The artists have also contributed their magnificent work into an economy section in which visitors may purchase pieces at a lower price, as they hope to encourage public interest in appreciating ceramics through accessibility.

The exhibition, which officially commenced last Saturday on the 18th of May, was held at 22 Hale Street Heritage Gallery and the opening ceremony was officiated by the founder of 22 Hale Street, Puan Sri Dato Sandra Lee.

Speaking to the guests and visitors, Puan Sri Dato Sandra Lee stated that when the invitation to address the opening of Zao came in, she was intrigued.

“Ipoh has long been known as a centre for pottery production, mainly its planters and decorative urns. And although the industry has declined over the past two decades, such as the once prolific factories around Jalan Kuala Kangsar having reportedly dwindled to fewer than a dozen; its roots remain.

“So I was pleased to learn about a group of Ipoh women engaged in studio ceramics, which applies individual artistic vision to this most ancient medium. After all, the famous terracotta army of Xi’an is more than 2,000 years old. Practitioners in studio ceramics look beyond the functional, not simply as containers like bowls and plates, in expressing their creativity, ideas and feelings through clay.

“In using everyday clay to make contemporary, personal statements; studio ceramics elevate what may be craft objects to an art form. Even Picasso made ceramics as part of his repertoire.

“But the women behind Zao aim to do more than introduce a selection of studio ceramics to the public. Besides offering mutual support and spurring each other to do better work, they also want to plant seeds for the growth of a ceramic arts scene. For it is in working together to stage such home-grown activities that we can foster greater community spirit and create a nurturing environment for the arts to blossom in Ipoh. Creative expression helps connect people everywhere, be it in music, poetry or painting.

“That is why 22 Hale Street made it part of its mission to provide an accessible space for development of the arts as well as heritage preservation and providing opportunities for people with disability. Several major arts events have sprung up in the city in the past few years, from Art Ipoh to the Ipoh International Arts Festival run by PORT Ipoh, and most recently the March Sensation show held here. Still, the arts community in Ipoh remains a relatively small one.

“So, I congratulate the women behind Zao on their maiden exhibition. May it contribute new energy to the local arts scene and bring more people together. I look forward to their future endeavours.

Co-organiser, Choong Tet Sieu, noted that Ipoh has seen something of a revival of late, evident from the new eateries and other small businesses sprouting across town. And a budding arts and cultural scene is helping to fuel this growth. But despite the history that pottery has in this city, ceramic art lags behind the other visual arts in vibrancy.

And that is how the organisers came to bring about this group show. The exhibition serves several goals: first, it is a way to introduce a range of studio ceramics to the public. Second, it helps focus the energies of those pursuing ceramic art in Ipoh, in order to stir their imaginations and drive them forward.

Coincidentally, most of the people engaged in this field at the moment are women and hence, this all-woman show was formed. By striving for a common goal, it is hoped that the groundwork for a supportive ceramic art community in Ipoh can be laid.

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