ONE of Malaysia’s art icons, Lee Joo For (pic), died of terminal cancer at the age of 88 years recently. Born in Penang in 1929, he was appointed as an art teacher at St Xavier’s Institution, Penang, in 1948. He held the job until 1957 when he went to pursue his art studies at various British schools, culminating in a two-year post-graduate scholarship at the prestigious Royal College of Art, London. He returned as an Associate of the Royal College of Art (ARSA) and is probably the only Malaysian with this title. He went on to teach at the Specialist Teachers Training Institute in Cheras, Selangor.
Lee was also a prolific writer, novelist, director, lecturer and art critic. He was best playwright of the year in Malaysia for three years running (1969 to 1971) and best radio playwright in Singapore in 1969.He was instrumental in revolutionising and modernising the theatre and stage in both Malaysia and Singapore in the 60s. His play Son of Zen was staged at the Loft Theatre, off Broadway, New York. Unfortunately, three of his five children developed muscular dystrophy and he migrated to Australia in 1973 on the basis of his artistic qualifications so that they could get the best treatment (not available in Malaysia at that time). After becoming a Catholic in 1976, he found peace of mind and acceptance of his family tragedy.
In 1989, he visited me and I revived his art career in Malaysia and Singapore. I gave him several solo exhibitions at my gallery. I also gave him a retrospective exhibition at The Art Gallery, Penang in 1995.
In 2008, the Penang State Art Gallery honoured him with another retrospective exhibition. I was invited to guest-curate the exhibition and edit his 328-page hardcover monograph with major contributions by Ooi Kok Chuen, who flew to Melbourne to interview him.
In Australia, he was much involved with writing and producing stage plays and musicals glorifying the greatness of God. All the while, he continued to paint his watercolour, mixed media and oil paintings. They emphasised social-political issues, especially the emancipation of women, as well as psychoanalytic contents that were often filled with symbolism.
The late Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal in his article on Malaysian art in The Dictionary of Art (Macmillan Publishers, UK, 1996, Vol. 20, p.172) referred to Joo For as “the symbolist painter”.
On April 12, 2017, he wrote to Ooi and me saying, “You are my best friends in the art world and in this world. I am suffering from anaplastic thyroid cancer (the most aggressive and incurable among the known four types of thyroid cancer) and according to specialists have only months to live, especially as I am not consenting to any form of temporary treatment to relieve pain and delay deterioration, such as radiation and chemotherapy. If, and only if, you happen to pass by Australia, it would be nice to see you again.
“Am also praying and hoping that God will in His mercy give me additional time to complete my projected artworks and musicals for this year. Do add your prayers to mine.”
DATUK DR TAN CHEE KHUAN