Art Detail | Ilham Gallery
Nyonya Nostalgia Series
Nyonya Nostalgia Series

Born of Peranakan descent, Sylvia Lee Goh’s paintings are objects of remembrance for the artist’s cultural roots. In this painting, a woman dressed in a traditional Peranakan baju panjang stands in a central niche that is in turn recessed into a red wall decorated with a floral pattern. Most of the artist’s attention has been dedicated to this pattern, consisting of reds, blues, yellow-golds, and whites, which has been applied with relatively loose brushstrokes. Writers on Goh’s work have often made the point that Goh's focus was never just about celebrating a bygone “Golden Age”, but was also about reclaiming a culture that is rapidly fading. We see this in two distinct aspects of the painting. Firstly, the manner in which the floral pattern that dominates the painting condenses at the bottom and gradually dissipates towards the top of the painting. We could also follow this interpretation in the way the figure is dwarfed by both the overwhelming ornament and relative scale of the painted wall. The figure is made unavailable to us by the remarkable amount of depth achieved in the painting, beginning with the bold strip of red at the bottom forming the imaginary base, the delicate shadowing at the bottom of the ornamental surface further recessing into the painted niche at the centre in which stands the figure of the woman. The effect is the image of a figure conjured to us at an unreachable distance, or a distant memory once known intimately by its viewer.

Oil on board
110 x 80 cm
Credit Line:
Collection of ILHAM Foundation
© Sylvia Lee Goh
About Sylvia Lee Goh

Sylvia Lee Goh (1940 - 2021, Penang) was a self-taught painter noted for celebrating Peranakan heritage in the form of still-lifes filled with Peranakan motifs, symbols and objects, self-portraits, landscapes, and portraits of women in Peranakan dress. These forms and themes are drawn out with the purpose of evoking curiosity, a sense of nostalgia, and to promote an aesthetic appreciation of the culture with her viewer. Her paternal lineage was rooted in Alor Setar, Kedah, where her great grandfather Lee Yoke Cheng was the Private Secretary to Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Mukarram Shah (1855-1879). Loo Yet Leong, her maternal great grandfather was a well known Patriarch in Pagar Tras, in the Straits Settlement of Penang. Though her artistic career began later in her life, she was a veteran artist of forty years with two solo exhibitions under her belt, both held at the National Art Gallery in 1998 and 2015. Goh took part in over seventy group exhibitions, two of which were organised by the National Art Gallery in Indonesia and Argentina. Her works have also been exhibited in Australia, China and Thailand.

Further Readings

  • J. Anurendra, “Sylvia Lee Goh: Remembrance and a Sense of Loss”, Sylvia Lee Goh, A Malaysian Artist: Two Decades of Art - "From the Heart" 1978-1998 (Penang: Penang State Art Gallery, 1998), pp. 8-9. Catalogue essay.

  • Wong Hoy Cheong, “Pleasure, Innocence, Abundance: Sylvia Lee Goh’s Garden of Eden”, Sylvia Lee Goh, A Malaysian Artist: Two Decades of Art - "From the Heart" 1978-1998 (Penang: Penang State Art Gallery, 1998), p. 11. Catalogue essay.

  • Dr. Zakaria Ali, “Sylvia Lee Goh: The Searcher of Beauty”, Sylvia Lee Goh, A Malaysian Artist: Two Decades of Art - "From the Heart" 1978-1998 (Penang: Penang State Art Gallery, 1998), p. 13. Catalogue essay.