Harum Busuk

Marvin Chan. Artist


L: Serpihan Idaman, Makhluk Dalam Kulit Sendiri 2. 2016 —— R: Laksamana Bunga. 2016

I met Marvin on the opening night of his exhibition, Harum Busuk in November, 2016. His open studio event was well attended and the mood relaxed. There was an air of festivity with a food truck churning out good food for everyone. Six paintings were displayed around the single-story bungalow Marvin works out of. I was told that Marvin had worked on all the paintings simultaneously and he certainly could with the space that he had.

I did not meet Izan Tahir during the opening night but in  the spirit of collaboration, she shares her studio space with Marvin. Apparently, Izan grew up in this house too.

The next morning, I met up with him again in the studio and was struck by how his manner of speech had changed overnight. I was getting the raw Marvin this morning and I quote; “People who swear a lot are very honest.” Marvin is a man who speaks his mind and I asked him if that was what we were getting in his paintings. He said, “It’s all there.”

L: Ribut Menjelang. 2016 ---- M: Dim Follower ---- R: Seintai Harapan; Jiwa Rakyat. 2016

L: Ribut Menjelang. 2016 —- M: Dim Follower —- R: Seintai Harapan; Jiwa Rakyat. 2016

I commented on how well he spoke the night before and he said that he honestly didn’t know what to say as his curator had suddenly asked him to speak. He said he was nervous as he was having a drink outside the house. But that’s what Marvin is all about. Down to earth, loves to share stories but when it comes to his paintings, he usually prefers to let the work speak for itself.

“I didn’t prepare myself for a speech and besides, if you prepare, it’s not usually what you want to say. On the bright side, my friends say that I sounded like myself on the radio, minus the swear words” he says of his interview on BFM. “Chicken rice before a radio interview is a bad idea” when I asked him about the interview. “It makes you forget what you were talking about,” Marvin says of how the interview went. Hard as he is on his public speaking, Marvin’s art speaks well on its own.

Seintai Harapan; Jiwa Rakyat

Seintai Harapan; Jiwa Rakyat

One misconception people have about artists is that they were born to paint; that they were wired that way. Artists put in a lot of hard work to become who they are. Sure, you need talent and ability but much of it is through what you do with your time.

Marvin has paid his dues. He was in advertising for 15 years. A practical man, he did not see a long sustainable career in the advertising industry. I wanted to know what made him think he would be a success at art. HIs answer revealed much about how he approached life. He said, “why not be an artist. Instead of trying to please one client in advertising, he has many potential clients for one piece of painting.” That only makes sense if you’re good at it and Marvin is.

As a young artist, he took part in art shows and activities in the Klang Valley whenever he could find time. He has participated in several group exhibitions but his first solo exhibition was in 2007, titled ‘First Harvest’. This was followed by ‘Inconsequential Consequences of Hope’ in 2010 which firmly established him in the Malaysian arts scene.


Marvin says. “I don’t like to ‘chow fan (be verbose).” Everything is barebones. Once I’m done speaking, we move on. I mentioned that he didn’t use art speak the night before with his guests and he said that he uses it only if he requires the technical terms to address what he wants to say. But to an audience who are here to appreciate the work, using those words might me too much. They’re here not to figure out my work but to enjoy the end-product.” I asked if he thought collectors perceive added value by his ability to articulate his work. He said, “I think the value here is the reassurance that I know what I’m doing.”

“It doesn’t matter what I say. The work should be enough to do the job. Some parts are old school, some parts the traditional super idiot artist, who believes in his work” he said laughing away.

“A large part of value comes from the crafting; from the amount of work that is obvious. I shouldn’t need to talk about what went inside but it’s good to inform. For those who enjoy the impact of my work, then they would want to know more. In that progression, its different. Instead of trying to force it down people’s throat as collectively, everybody as one person would be smarter than me!”


We continued the conversation outside his house where Marvin proceeded to groom his dogs with an electric trimmer. Momo, a white poodlish looking female was the first to go under Martin’s trimmer. Marvin was quite chuffed when I mentioned how Momo looked like a car in profile. A BMW Z3, so says the trimmer, Marvin. There were lots of laughs as he spoke of how he learnt how to groom a dog including running a comb through knotted dog fur. Ouch for those who have dogs.

Max was next but he didn’t have much hair, fur?

Marvin is often described as being self-taught but that can be misleading. He says , “I am  very conscious about not having gone to art school. Education may be viewed as a set of rules. My lack of formal indoctrination results in an influx of diverse and disoriented information, which is why I experiment frequently to examine if a thought is consistent with what I think is true.”

Marvin has spoken

I was quite honoured that he took the cover off a carefully wrapped painting from the same series that had been painted for the Singapore market. He called this the adult version of his Harum Busuk series and I could see why. A naked torso of a woman had been painted with her hair pulled in front of her face. The Invisible Lives: Temping Frailty collection painted for the Singapore exhibition in August.

If Chan’s exhibition in Singapore was a work in progress, then Harum Busuk concludes the narrative of the distressed Malaysian.

Harum busuk

Silakan ke taman rimba

Harum sengsara rakyat

Negara tercinta


Semuanya diselibutkan

haruman bunga-bunga



Andaiannya tiada kebusukan

Di bawah seilimut indah



Tiadanya mayat


Tiadanya rakyat


Mawar, Makhluk Dalam Kulit Sendiri 1. 2016

In looking forward, Marvin continues his search for answers from a deeply personal prism. Marvin says, “Using my visual language, my ideas of the post-colonial may or may not be seen from portraitures. Indeed, this is a personal evaluation and response to how I mark what I see and experience.”

Noor Mahnun Mohamad, the curator of Harum Busuk writes:

Harum Busuk: In his juxtaposition of paradox, of foul and fair, of sacred and profane, of longing and loathing, the artist seeks a cathartic purge of the grief and despair that colour his narrative of personal and national identity. Perhaps it is in this conflict that the artist is healed enough to achieve the much-sought closure to move on.

“When I try to describe who I am, I struggle. I feel like I am no longer as angry as I was yesterday, nor as hopeful as I will be tomorrow; yet I look forward.”

Marvin’s work can be viewed by making an appointment with:

Joshua +60 19 915 3399

Nabil Nahar +60 12 268 3689


Ribut Menjelang. 2016


Ribut Menjelang. 2016

Ribut Menjelang. 2016



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