Skip to main content

By Anne-Solène Bayan, Assistant Curator

While working with Duff Woon Yong on his first solo exhibition, ookee (on view in the #art912 gallery until September 4, 2023), I interviewed the Savannah-based artist about his life and work. We talked about his experience growing up in Singapore, his creative process, the origin of the term “ookee,” and so much more! The following was condensed and edited for clarity.

Duff Yong (DY)
Where do you want to start?

Anne-Solène Bayan (ASB)
Start from the beginning! What was your experience like growing up?

DY
OK. Well, you know, I was born in the ’70s, 1976 in Singapore. That makes me 47 this year. Wow, I’m so old. [laughs] One of the most distinct things that probably happened to me growing up, without actually realizing it until I came to America, is that I grew up not so differently from, say, the kids here. My Saturday morning was filled with Disney cartoons from the West. We had Transformers and then we had anime. And that was followed by a Bollywood movie. But it was normal to me because Singapore is a multicultural and multiracial place. So, there was an interesting mix of “I’m as into Transformers as I’m into Gundam” and, what’s even more distinct, is that I would have my Transformer fight a Gundam. They are two versions of robots, but two different interpretations from two continents coming together. Another thing about my childhood was that I was very close to my grandmother who was a World War II survivor. I grew up having, at an early age, a pretty graphic interpretation of the world and mankind.

ASB
What do you mean by that?

DY
I mean my grandmother recounted her experiences to me of growing up during World War II. I think my parents always had a little bit of problem with it, like, “Oh, you shouldn’t say those things to him because he’s so young.” But my grandmother, who was old school, would say, “If you don’t tell him the truth, he’s going to grow up really soft.” [laughs] Overall I don’t think it was a bad thing. I felt like it showed me that on one hand there is this fantasy world, made of toys and cartoons and everything, but on the other, there’s the reality and cruelty of the world. So, when you look at ookee, you could just see the very fun and cute sides of it. But I think there might be more shades of dark grays in there too.

Visitors titling artworks. Photography by David Kaminsky.

ASB
How did you become close to your grandmother? Did she babysit you a lot?

DY
She babysat me while my parents worked, and she lived very close, just down the street. Another part of it is that I spoke to my grandma in a dialect. I had to learn the dialect [Hokkien dialect] to communicate with her. She didn’t speak Mandarin very well and didn’t speak English at all. I would converse with my parents in Mandarin and in English with my sister. My grandma, Amma, was the person I shared a separate language with. In retrospect, I really felt like it was not only learning a language with her, but I was learning about my culture. I’ve never been to China, and she was originally from China. And so speaking that language with her was maybe that little bit of my connection back to my lineage.

ASB
When did your family move to Singapore?

DY
On my mother’s side, I know my grandma came from China to escape Japanese forces during World War II. The war progressed from China down to Southeast Asia. People were moving south to get away from the war, but eventually the war caught up to Singapore and then Singapore was occupied by the Japanese for three years, eight months. My grandmother was there for all of that. And then after the war ended, Singapore was still a British colony. We got our independence in 1965. So, she was able to see both British colonial Singapore and, later, independent Singapore. She would tell me stories about when she worked for Englishmen as a maid. And she would also tell me about how British people lived and their luxurious lives and fancy cars. [laughs] She would tell me stories about China, too, and how different it was for people living in communist China, even in the ’80s.

ASB
Did you start drawing as a kid?

DY

Yeah, I loved drawing. I was always into drawing. That was my favorite thing to do growing up. I loved drawing scenarios like a story. In a big city like Singapore, it’s unlike a lot of places where kids grow up running around the neighborhood or playing with kids down the street. Singapore is made of high-rise apartment after high-rise apartment. Most of the time after school I would be in the house with my grandmother. I had to rely on my imagination a lot to avoid being bored.

ASB
I’m curious about your relationship with your uncle, who you’ve mentioned in the past as the other artist in your family.

DY
My uncle, who did calligraphy, has always been, to me, especially when I was younger, someone I thought of as, “Oh, this is a person I know who does art and enjoys it.” It was good to know that I wasn’t the only person in my family drawing. I wasn’t as interested in calligraphy at the time because it seemed so hard and serious. [laughs] In Singapore, everything is taught in English and we only took one Chinese class. So, I felt like that was always kind of hard, especially writing and calligraphy. It fascinated the hell out of me that someone could do it and do it so well, but also, at the same time too, it’s something that I didn’t invest myself into learning too much.

Installation photography by David Kaminsky.

 

ASB
It’s interesting to think about calligraphy and ookee. I’ve brought that up before, but I’m not sure what you think about it.

DY
I think there is truth in it. This is my way of doing calligraphy without learning traditional Chinese calligraphy. I know calligraphy basics, how to hold the brush, how to make ink and all that, and also how to modulate the pressure. I think this may be my way of doing calligraphy knowing I won’t get reprimanded by the ghosts of my Chinese ancestors. [laughs] I sometimes think of ookee as more of language than an image because of how Chinese characters are pictographical. But I also see my ookees as fungus. You cannot stop them from growing, just like I can’t stop them from coming out through the pen. And fungi are a network. While you can look at ookee as individualized characters, they can also come together to form a network. That network is the ookeeverse. And, that’s why ookee usually does not have a fixed orientation.

ASB
We’ve talked about how your work could be described as doodles, drawings, and paintings. And we also talked about how ookee is none of that.

DY
I think that’s why I gave it a name, “ookee.” Every work I make is an ookee, and the verb that describes me making it is “to ookee.” And I am also ookee, you know? Also, doodling has a negative connotation. But the thing is that I’m not ashamed of the word doodling. I’m never offended by the word doodling because drawing for fun is my goal. It’s my therapy. When I’m making ookee, I am really in my comfort zone. And doodling is like drawing a daydream.

ASB
It’s kind of like the surrealist exercise of automatic writing or automatic drawing.

 

Yong’s workstation in the gallery. Installation photography by David Kaminsky.

 

DY
When I’m creating, I allow my hand to interpret what’s in my mind. I feel like there is a certain liberation to that because there’s no end goal. My other self is a designer, and the designer part of me is always thinking about the end result and the measurement of how much, how well you have reached your designated goal. Everything is measured and measurable in design. And then when I do this, there’s a certain liberation and it’s so fun to get lost. With every stroke, I don’t know where I’m going. I’m just letting my hand drive. People often ask me what I’m thinking when I’m drawing. It’s just like the title of that movie Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. That’s where my brain is. I’m actually thinking of a lot of things all at once, or nothing at all, but it will go, and it will go, and it will go. And that zone … I think that might be the flow state. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned from doing ookee is that I really learned to be confident in not being afraid of the unknown. And, circumstantially, there are really no consequences. No one’s going to die. I’m not breaking any law, and I don’t have to or need to do anything in a certain way. It’s a special, unique sort of meditation. And it’s very therapeutic to me.

ASB
One of the things I find interesting in your work is that you break a lot of unspoken rules of “art,” even though you’re not doing it for that reason. You don’t like titling your work; you prefer having others title your work. Some might reject the idea of their work being described as a doodle, but you embrace it. And another thing is you might burn a work or give it away right after you make it, rather than keeping the final product and selling it.

DY
I’m obviously very proud of ookee. Don’t get me wrong. When I burn them, I am burning them for people who are no longer around. I’ve lost people in my life, and it’s maybe more of a cultural thing … in the East, we burn stuff for the dead. And when I am giving ookee away, it really comes from wanting them to have a life of their own separately somewhere else. You know, it is taking a journey on behalf of me. Also, remember the idea of the network. If they’re out there, they’re creating a network. The most important thing for me was not the artwork at the end. It’s really that process, you know, and the zone I’m in. That’s the most fulfilling part.

Installation photography by David Kaminsky.

ASB
Let’s talk about what ookee is and where that term comes from.

DY

I came up with ookee because I liked the way it sounded. And then I translated it to Chinese phonetically which gave me “烏奇”—which literally means dark strange.

ASB
I always thought it was the other way around!

DY
The “dark” part means the color black or shades of gray. But, like in English, when something is dark it can be interpreted as mysterious or suspect. It just worked, and it really allowed me not to overthink what it is and what I am doing.

 

ASB
I know that street art is an influence for you. Is that something that you encountered in Singapore or, later, in Savannah?

DY

Street art in Singapore is a fantasy because street art is extremely illegal. One of the most famous cases, which happened either in the early ’90s or ’80s, involved an American kid, Michael Fay. He made some graffiti while in Singapore, was arrested, and caned. That is the level of intolerance for street art. So, I have not done any street art in Singapore, but I love street art. Not just because it’s illegal, but because it’s an art form that challenges authority. I value the freedom it symbolizes because I’ve seen art repressed.

ASB
We’ve talked a lot about how Singapore is a really densely populated place and how that may be reflected in how ookee looks.

DY
Singapore is an interesting place. There’s a lot of order, you know, and its architecture is very geometrical. But the city is also full of ridiculously weird buildings. And I do look at ookee as both a highly ordered and messy thing. There is an order to their madness, you know? There’s not another place like Singapore in Asia, or even in the world. … It has a lot of greenery; it’s a city on an island. But Singapore is extremely environmental, too. They are very green minded, but they are also very high-tech. When I’m in Singapore, my work becomes more geometrical. There’s less curves and no Spanish moss. [laughs] The connecting strands in the work become straight lines.

ASB
Well, you also talk about ookee as a place or destination …

DY
I talk about a place because I feel like I’m always challenged by the idea of identity. Are you Singaporean or are you American? Are you a Savannahian? Are you more Savannah or more Singapore? I can guess, but the truth is that I don’t really know.

The artist photographed by Anne-Solene Bayan.

Related to this Article

All(1)
exhibition

ookee: Duff Woon Yong

Jepson Center
ookee—from the term 烏奇, which loosely translates to “dark strange,” in Chinese Mandarin— is an #art912 exhibition of works by Savannah-based artist Duff Yong. Yong's practice typically includes black-and-white painting on wood panels, paper, and recycled materials that have personal significance.
exhibition

ookee: Duff Woon Yong

Jepson Center
ookee—from the term 烏奇, which loosely translates to “dark strange,” in Chinese Mandarin— is an #art912 exhibition of works by Savannah-based artist Duff Yong. Yong's practice typically includes black-and-white painting on wood panels, paper, and recycled materials that have personal significance.
Mailing Address
Telfair Museums
PO Box 10081
Savannah, GA 31412
Phone Number
912.790.8800
eNewsletter Signup
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Signup
© 2024 Telfair Museums. All rights reserved.