Artists under lockdown feat. Cheryl J Hoffmann, Michelle Lee & Ezzam Rahman
Updated: May 1
As I write this article, I wonder about my car, about how long it’s been since I last heard its old engine cough as it circled around the block and optimistically tries to survive highways. I wonder about my neighbor, whom I have not seen since we both greeted each other on my way out to the office. I also wonder about other creatives and artists, how they keep their minds fresh, and their crafts “fresher". We decided to call up some friends, check on how they are doing, and we had the amazing opportunity to interview these artists who are working and wandering about Southeast Asia. Let's find out how they live, deal with loneliness, what they think of family and of course, how this pandemic has affected their livelihoods.
PT: Hello, and welcome! Thanks for being with us here today. Welcome to the first episode of our virtual coffee shop talk show, Persona Grinds. Let’s get down to brass tacks, tell us about yourself and the work you do.
Cheryl: Thank you, pleasure to be here. My name is Cheryl J Hoffmann, I’m a photographer but I don’t see it as work, I feel freer when I do it that way. Mostly, I photograph “beliefs” without being too concerned about how that’s interpreted. My shots consist of traditional performing arts, spirit mediums, rituals, sacred spaces, and things that go bump in the night, always looking for the artistry beyond the image. Social Media: (Facebook) @cheryljhoffmann
Michelle: It’s good to be here, I'm Michelle Lee, currently the art director and illustrator of project FAM (Fires At Midnight) where I deal with everything on the art side of FAM, starting with the research stage to concept art for both characters & environments, and completing the final illustration look and feel for the entire game. I enjoy the unexpected things in life, and food. Social Media: (Instagram) @micehellwd
Ezzam: Thank YOU for this opportunity, my name is Ezzam Rahman, I'm an art educator, multi-disciplinary installation and performance artist based in Singapore. I’d like to say I'm well-known for my interest in the body and common use of easily accessible and unconventional materials to produce works. Social Media:(Instagram) @theeverydayness
PT: Perhaps you can shed a little light on your lives as artists. Describe it for us.
Cheryl: For me, life as an artist is — A constant bombardment of ideas begging for articulation. Never, ever, being bored. Michelle: I have to say it's not an easy life, especially if we're taking it in as a career. There's always obstacles in every corner that would tell you to give up your career as an artist due to many reasons. Not every artist is born the same and not every artist is as fortunate as the others. Ezzam: To me, making art and living, works hand in hand together and it is almost impossible to separate them apart. Artists create works and those works are reflections of themselves too. When I stand in front of the class, it is my responsibility to inspire my students, to guide them, to challenge, to help them fulfill their goals and I will try in my best abilities to do so.
PT: Which of your work would you say is “the best one” and why?
Cheryl: My photography is not about single image impact. I have a lot of images that I am emotionally attached to and many that I’m proud of. If I must, I would choose my long-term project “Jalan-jalan cari Datuk”. It’s not my strongest photography but it is my most selfishly precious. It has evoked my historical geographer background and makes me chase ideas and ask questions and write. In my search for belonging, that project has connected me to Malaysians and to Southeast Asia, more than anything else.
Michelle: Project FAM would be the best one for now. Working on a project from scratch to finish for 10 months straight is definitely an accomplishment. It's not easy but we made it.
Ezzam: I cannot just pick one. I also cannot say every work that I have made, I am satisfied with them too but I can highlight a few works that are important to me. 1) Here's who I am, I am what you see, 2015 - My award-winning artwork that catapulted my artistic career that gained a lot of recognition and had opened a lot of doors of opportunities for me. Ezzam's Collection 2) You are what I don't want to be, 2015 - This performance in Saint Merry Eglise church in Paris, France is definitely one of my iconic works. I am very lucky to create this site-specific performance work in an old gothic church. It is still one of the favorite works, just because of the location, my collaboration with sound artist Pascal Battus, the reactions I've received from the audience... The experience was pure magic. You are what I don’t want to be – 2015
PT: That brings us to our next question, are there any specific things that you do (outside your primary work) that contribute to your craft?
Cheryl: If I say yoga or classical music, it’s going to feel like an Eat/Pray/Love meme. Is there anything I do that does NOT contribute to my craft? I cannot separate. Michelle: I do enjoy playing games. Overall, I just love the storytelling and the amazing visual that can be created from technology nowadays. It's very inspiring. Ezzam: Like I had mentioned before, I see art and life work hand in hand. For me, my works are definitely a reflection of my own personal experiences. What I see, taste, smell, hear and touch are recorded as memory files that I can use and translate them in my artworks.
PT: If we may ask, how do you deal with loneliness?
Cheryl: I like solitude and the space it gives me for reflection. Sometimes I do push companionship away so hard that I become lonely. Then I cry. I have a mantra for life that helps me with my times of self-pity. “When you feel that you have nothing left, give something away.” If I’m sad because no one has called me, I call someone. Michelle: Mostly just continue my day like usual. Getting work done, eat in time and just remember to take a break and get enough rest. Good rest always helps. Ezzam: By touching myself! HAHAHA! I have a love-hate relationship with my right hand and sometimes I want to cheat him with my left hand! HAHAHA! On a serious note, my loneliness is killing me.. and I, I must confess.. I still believe... still believe... When I'm not with you... I lose my mind... Give me a sign... Hit me baby, one more time. PT: Now that this pandemic is among us, how has it affected your workflow? How is it any different?
Cheryl: It’s been a reality check. When we first started isolating I hopped on the bandwagon and believed that this was an opportunity to complete all of those projects that were waiting for me. It did not take me long to admit to myself that “time” was not the only barrier to getting things done. So, I’ve taken them all off my “To Do” list and with them, the pressure of being productive. Ironically, I think about the projects more and might even get to some of them. These are strange times and I believe that I need to be kind to myself and others, to be ready for the new reality that awaits. Michelle: It hasn't really affected my creative flow at all as I'm used to working remotely. Communication with the team is the key to keep every project going smoothly. Ezzam: To be very honest, I started social distancing and initiated my own 'self quarantine' about a month before it was officially implemented by the Singapore government. It is just my own personal responsibility to behave as such because I am a care-giver to my aging mum, hence I have to take care of myself first and the people around me. I am enjoying my own quiet time, in isolation I am most creative, I get to do the work that I've always wanted and complete the many pending projects. My life has been very hectic, constantly busy with teaching and juggling art projects month after month. Due to the lock-down, I get the time that I need for myself. I have always loved staying at home and making my own works at my own time and this pandemic is also a blessing in disguise, it allowed me to slow down and rest... and sleep!!!
PT: My oh my, look at the time! It’s almost 8pm, which means most stores are closing down, which is also a sign we must wrap things up for now! We've got one last depressing question to ask — what would you like written in your obituaries?
Cheryl: Damn! What was that? Michelle: Died at the age of 98, she rose from the grave a day later just to celebrate her one last birthday before she went back to her resting place. Officially died at the age of 99. Ezzam: "Oh... he die already lor" (insert artist name / date of birth and date of departure)
PT: And that’s all the time we have for now, folks! Thank you interviewees, and thank you readers, for joining us today on our first edition of this new series of talks. Part two will be out very soon. Stay healthy, from us at Persona Theory Games.
Do follow us on our socials on Twitter (@personatheorymy), Instagram (@personatheory) (@firesatmidnightgame), and Facebook (@personatheory) (@firesatmidnight) for more info on us and our upcoming narrative interactive video game, Fires At Midnight — which centers around a young couple living in late 90's Kuala Lumpur, struggling to make ends meet while being stuck in a toxic relationship.
A short teaser of Fires At Midnight.