The first time I spoke to Australia-based, Malaysian-born artist Kara Inez, I had just discovered her works at S.E.A. Focus way back in 2020. Even back then, I was convinced of her genius.
And with good reason. Inez’s works are simply like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Far from a traditional painting or contemporary abstract sculpture that you might find at an art fair, the very first works that I encountered were from her Defective: Absent Bodies series.
Inez’s love affair with the grotesque, horror, and all things the wider public might deem unseemly can be traced back to growing up with multiple physical and mental health conditions.
During her formative years, she struggled with psychosis, a symptom of bipolar disorder. This made her see “really hectic, horrific stuff… [such as] people walking in and out of the house and bugs crawling on the wall.” These experiences manifested as works such as the performance piece Mattress, which explored “the artist’s personal battle with mental illness and her 4-month experience in a psychiatric home.”
Another pivotal moment that shaped Inez’s practice was her diagnosis of endometriosis at age 17, after enduring years of intense menstrual pains. Her medication for the condition resulted in weight gain and facial boils, deeply affecting how others perceived her and ultimately her relationship with herself.
This experience spurred her to consider the pervasive societal expectations of the female body, such as unrealistic beauty ideals, which are ultimately unrelated to its biological functions. Embodying these revelations were Defective: absent bodies, which cemented Inez’s mission to challenge how society perceives female bodies.
All of this made her realise that growing up in Malaysia, she had essentially no access to information on periods (“I had no idea what periods were supposed to feel like!”) or women’s health at large—prompting her to conceptualise her works as educational tools that shed light on the reality of having a female body.
While her works undoubtedly touch on the wider context of women’s issues, learning about them made me feel seen. That an artist so close to home could so clearly elucidate the self-consciousness that comes with having a female body; the self-consciousness that plagued my life growing up.
So imagine my joy and surprise when I found out that Inez was going to have her debut solo show at The Back Room in Kuala Lumpur. Elated, I immediately sent her a DM on Instagram to arrange an interview about it—to which she agreed, with plenty of heart emojis.
Read on to learn more about Inez’s solo, how her practice has developed over the past few years, and her strange social experiment-slash-art performance that saw her take her artworks (which she lovingly calls her “monsters”) out on walks across Melbourne.
Into the belly of the beast
Since I’m based in Singapore and the solo is taking place at The Back Room in Kuala Lumpur, I get Inez to walk me through the solo’s concept and what’s on display.
Titled (M)othered Meat—a play on the term ‘Other’ and a clear reference to femininity—the exhibition presents works, (or as Inez calls them, “sites of trauma”) that bring to light both her personal narratives and those of Malaysian women.
It’s obvious that this is far from any conventional ‘white cube’ exhibition. Stepping inside feels like entering someone’s old house, a vision of decades long past, as vintage dark wood furniture and a Persian-style carpet fill the space. Works, featuring small, flesh-like blobs and seemingly random objects, rest on various furniture surfaces and hang from the ceiling.
“I wanted to create an environment where these things could exist, like a home,” Inez began. She was keen on the exhibition space resembling a living room of “a monster or a woman, something in between.” Diving further into the speculative lore of her exhibition, she elaborated,
“The monster is like an old auntie but she’s missing from the scene. All the furniture is worn out and is probably inherited. With this woman having to take care of all these monsters, there’s this burden of inheritance—maybe [some monsters] have been passed down through generations.”
On some level, this idea of inheritance could point to generational trauma or the conditions of being mentally and physically ill, as elucidated by the artist saying, “Maybe this house is empty because she didn’t want to have kids and pass down the burden. And maybe this is the first time [in a long time] that people step into this house and discover these monsters. This burden is no longer hers to carry, but now it’s up to the public to do what they want with these monsters and enforce change.”
Strands of hair, jasmine buds, and butt plugs
A recent shift in Inez’s practice is her desire to incorporate social issues into her works, as marked by her newfound inclusion of found objects.
Long locks of synthetic hair and fingernails grace artworks that bring femininity to the forefront, while sex toys like vibrators and butt plugs also take centre stage, referring to women’s self-pleasure, which tends to be taboo.
She also includes objects such as batik and plants such as jasmine flowers for their cultural associations, noting that “If you couple those together [in an artwork], they tell a story and speak on important issues that should be part of the public sphere, because these objects contain our understanding and knowledge of them.”
Inez was also particularly inspired by Kota Kinabalu-based artist Yee I-Lann’s depiction of the Pontianak in her 2016 series Like the Banana Tree at the Gate. This prompted Inez to view the mythological creature as a symbol that’s “supposed to be feared and represents everything a woman shouldn’t be,” and as an avatar through which the physicality of having a female body, and the horrible experiences that come with it, could be expressed.
Embodying these ideas are some of the works on show, such as Sp-lit and Nasi Le, Mak!. Sp-lit features two silicone sculptures placed inside and on top of a transparent canister, with pin needles puncturing the one on top. At the canister’s heart is a jasmine bud, arranged to resemble a flame. The canister rests on top of a ceramic candle holder, from which tendrils of black synthetic hair spill.
Returning to how she wanted her works to appear as objects in a monster’s home, she tells me with a laugh, “I imagine this to be the Pontianak’s or a female monster’s kill, since to me, the smaller blob looks like a castrated penis. To commemorate a kill and repurpose it into a pin cushion… this is something I imagined to be on the monster’s dressing table.”
On the other hand, Nasi Le, Mak! responds to Malaysia’s ruling in early 2023 that prevented Malaysian women from passing on citizenship to children who are born abroad. While the ruling has since been overturned, the work highlights the relationship between mother and child, especially when “an unjust ruling forces a separation between [them].”
The work depicts two silicone sculptures separate from each other, while long strands of black hair connect them. One sculpture is rendered in tones of peachy pink and sky blue. The other is a pale, drab beige, sitting atop a bed of dried leaves and jasmine buds.
But these aren’t just a random selection of organic materials. They also refer to another of Inez’s inspirations: the folklore behind the creation of Nasi Lemak. It states that Seri, the daughter of a widow Mak Kuntum, created the dish when she accidentally spilt coconut milk into a boiling pot of rice. When her mother came home to the aroma, she asked Seri what had she cooked, and Seri replied, “Nasi le, Mak!” This translates to “rice, mother,” harkening back to the work’s title and materials.
Referring to how the blob’s lack of colour is meant to represent “a child in search of its home,” Inez explained, “With this piece, I wanted to evoke the feelings of belonging and longing, to be welcomed and accepted, but instead, there is the stripping of cultural identity.”
The series Milk Vessels also discusses the objectification and sexualisation of the female body. It consists of nine found porcelain vases bearing blue-and-white floral motifs, with silicone nipples placed on each vase’s mouth. The vases—literal decorative objects—represent the objectification of the female body, while the title refers to the biological functions of breasts, which tend to be sexualised despite the fact that they aren’t actually sexual organs. As Inez sums it up:
“It’s necessary to realise that the social constructs imposed on the female body are not biologically inherent.”
Taking to the streets
Besides the exhibition, another project that I was keen to learn about was the times when Inez brought her artworks (yes, the fleshy blobs!) out and about for walks on the streets of Melbourne.
The first time I saw them on my social media feed, the absurdity of it all made me burst out into laughter. Her Instagram posts featured her nonchalantly standing on pavements, with a leash in hand—though a limp blob stood where you’d think a dog would be.
Walking her monsters throughout various Melbourne suburbs, such as Fitzroy and the Central Business District, Inez was met with a variety of reactions.
“Some people were completely horrified, [while] others loved it or ignored it because they were more focused on their phones or just not paying attention,” she enthused, before adding that her monsters seemed to scare the dogs around them. “The dogs were so scared that they would bark at my monster or try to attack it.”
The artist noted that older adults and the elderly loved what she was doing, with people in the park stopping her to pat her work. “All the different reactions made me wonder about how these people’s personal histories might have affected their reactions,” she mused.
Inez was keen to play a role and chose not to inform passers-by what her monsters actually were. With a grin on her face, it was evident that Inez had fun with the project, while she had people hold the leash as she did her shoelaces. She also told people cryptic things, such as if she were to let it go, the monster would start running away or singing.
But this wasn’t just an out-of-the-blue performance. For Inez, “My monsters are physical manifestations of my struggles. I wanted to turn my monsters from art objects into things that walked amongst us… and place them in a public sphere.”
“For me, it was also a reclamation of power. I have this thing that represented my past and trauma and now I’m walking down the street with it, showing everyone what I went through and that I survived. This is a huge part of me, but doesn’t have to define me.”
A lesson in the grotesque
Something else that comes up repeatedly in our conversation is other people’s reactions to Inez’s works. On a personal level, this fascinates me because I love them for their unconventional appearances and narratives. She tells me that when she sent out invites to her solo, one of her friends said they wouldn’t be coming because they thought Inez’s works were too disturbing.
With such explicit works, Inez wants viewers to think more deeply about why they might deem her work disgusting. “The feeling of repulsion towards these forms is not innate and they don’t threaten you,” she explains, believing that any physiological responses to her work are “socially cultivated.” She contrasts this with how one’s body might begin to feel nauseous after eating something bad because the body knows that the food isn’t right for it.
“We have to ask why [people] have these visceral reactions to these bodies and forms that don’t fit what a socially accepted aesthetic of what a body is ‘supposed’ to look like,” she noted, referring to how what we consider disgusting or attractive are, more or less, social constructs.
Not convinced? I encourage you to see (M)othered Meat for yourself and pause for a moment to consider your initial reactions to the work on display. You might realise that those reactions aren’t even yours, to begin with.
(M)othered Meat runs at The Back Room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, till 13 August 2023. Click here to learn more about the exhibition.
Click here to learn more about the artist.