by Jia Ying Chia
Known for her whimsical personality and seamless ability to move between art styles and genres. Serene Lau, who originally hails from Sarawak but spent her formative years growing up in Brunei, is the living embodiment that life as a professional artist is far from starving. Her micro-adventure comics and community-based art projects provide insight into her passions which include sustainable living practices. On the heels of her fish-safe paints workshop at the first refill/low-waste store in brunei and at Kaimana Living, we discuss all things weird, wonderful and green.
Q: Your art style is vibrant and often delves into the surrealist realm. Where does this stem from?
A: My penchant for surrealism has two roots: my vivid dreams that started since I could remember and years of consuming animation from cartoons to anime. I, like more other creatives, drew what I think is exciting. For me, that is the unknown, things that scare me, things that I don’t understand and yet have this beauty I can’t explain. Perhaps that’s why I’ve not added eyes to my female characters in my Sewer Princess Series, to give the audience a sense of unease. I also felt at the time that my skills for expressing uncomfortable emotions were still developing and “the gaze” is a tough one to master. The female figures possibly show my own tensions with femininity from growing up in a conservative society and then having an adulthood in an open western society.
Q: What’s the best drink / snack combo to wind down from a busy day with and why?
A: Bubble tea and BBQ tongkeng (chicken tails) / fried chicken! Realistically? A cup of earl grey and seasonal fruits. It really depends on my self restraint at the end of a busy day, which isn’t much. Ever since I started my “no to single-use plastics”, my snacking options have been kept to the fresh produce and loose leaf section. I’ve never known to have such healthy skin and a depressed mouth at the same time.
Q: Can you tell us about the fish-safe paints you developed and your interest in sustainability?
A: It all started from a project I did at Wembley Primary School,. Yarraville where we explored marine plastic pollution with Primary 1’s and 2’s. I used the medium of acrylic pains to do finger paintings of marine animals and single-use plastic items to create an art installation. A team in Brunei also recreated this project in several local schools. Being a project that aims to promote sustainable practices, I started looking into the materials I was using to reduce waste and was absolutely horrified when I realised my favourite medium of acrylic paints was made from liquid plastics! Then the great lockdown came and I fortunately had the time to do more research into sustainable natural paints. I thought my journey was going to end with buying these paints from a shop but there weren’t many options. When my friend, Thel Kin, gifted me “The Secret Lives of Colour| by Kassia St. Clair, I realised that some of the pigments were literally growing in my nature strips. It was so similar to cooking that making watercolour paints was an incredibly natural (ha!) step. I’m proud to have an official colour palette of black, yellow, red, purple, green, peach and brown.
Q: You’ve worked with Australian communities on interactive art projects. Tell us about why this is appealing to you and are there any Borneo equivalents on the agenda?
A: I was unaware when I first started my professional career as an artist, how isolating it was. Even more so me being a very social person. Community interactive art projects were my way of changing that! It is such a joy to hear the difference experiences and ideas from the community when they engage with art made by and for them. I’m impressed with the community that Brunei’s very own Collective Art Events has made because that wasn’t available to me when I lived in Brunei. I’ve learnt that in order to thrive as a creative, you need support and safe spaces.
The biggest influence that my Brunei and Kuching roots have on me is the importance of nature and its beauty. It is unfortunately something that is rapidly diminishing. I grew up with the ability of having nature five minutes away, with the comforts of modern life. I thought it was normal considering that when I visited Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. it was the same deal. It started changing during my annual drives back to Kuching from Brunei when what was a vast rainforest had changed into palm oil plantations. I also remembered the routine of seeing more wildlife and then complete disappearance when there were land clearings for developments. Messy hikes through the rainforest with a celebratory Nasi katok was and is how I bond with my family and friends every time I’m back in Brunei. Hence why I enjoy my nature so much because it made me who I am and why I’m fierce about sustainability with my work and life.