Interview | Rozana Lee

Recently making her way to INSTINC SOHO in Singapore for a one month residency, Rozana Lee sat down with us to speak about her work, her residency experience, and the benefits of being a mature student and a mother.

Rozana Lee’s current body of work explores notions of excess, vitality, and movement in painting. Looking at new potential in image making, Rozana embraces diverse cultural motifs, colour, and gestures. Her intention is to create a work of art with an intensity that is unrestrained, disorienting, and at times overwhelming to viewer’s sensorial experience. With this in mind, she applies the method of painting on horizontal picture plane, applying of paint from different angles, and at different speeds, erasing or scraping, collaging, and layering “as the painting responds to contingencies and moves toward new rhythm as they depart from tradition”.

Rozana’s work is vibrant. Undeterred by colour she describes her initial exposure growing up in her father’s fabric shop-house in Aceh, Indonesia as a major influence in her work. Surrounded by colour and mixed-matched patterns that is where she found her comfort in the chaos. She started using Indonesian batik fabric in her first solo show ‘Tsunami Hour’ (2013), and now she has incorporated Japanese textile, Indian sari, Chinese silk, and French toile in her work.


Chinatown, Singapore

Although you could say my work is abstraction, it is very grounded by the way we are living, things we are seeing, imagining, or the experience of the everyday world.

For me, art and life aren’t separated – they form a simultaneous experience. Deleuze speaks about how a canvas is never empty because the artist is always influenced by things in his head or surrounding him. Sometimes we have to take out or erase whatever clichés we have in our head, of what we want to paint and only then can the painting start. I love that idea because I do have a lot of clichés and things in my head. So all of the time when I work I try not to start with a preconceived idea… Deleuze also addresses the idea of the logic of sensation through his analysis of Francis Bacon’s paintings, of how sensation is never rational nor cerebral. It is something that comes instinctually at a particular moment, and I use that approach in my painting process.

Rozana finished her Bachelor of Visual Arts at AUT at the end of 2015. Having taken many art courses before returning to school, she doesn’t feel held back by being a recent graduate and has a drive that she attributes to being both a mature student and a mother.

I have the benefit of being a mature student, knowing what I want and what I want to focus on. There are fresh graduates who want to take their time to explore different things before deciding on their main interests, which is totally fine. I don’t think you should box in ‘if you are this, you should do that’. There is no hard and fast rule. I think I was pretty stressed before leaving for my artist residency, you know, with my kids left behind and I was thinking ‘Why did I do this’. But being a mum makes me focused and driven. I wanted to make the most out of the valuable time away from my family.

Her residency took place at INSTINC, which has run almost sixty residencies since it began this programme in 2009, aiming to encourage collaboration, cultural exchange and the sharing of ideas.

Clarke Quay

Clarke Quay

I was at INSTINC’s SOHO space, right in the city centre of Singapore. It’s a really convenient place to move around, so I’d walk a lot, to art shops, galleries, important landmarks, including a couple trips to art schools. When I went to the art shop and bought big roll of canvas, I’d have to bring it back on the bus.

I decided to operate where I was staying instead of using the bigger studio INSTINC has at Kallang, that way I could save time commuting and it worked out well. It meant I could work ‘til one or two in the morning.

The first two weeks were the most important for me; when I was starting and preparing all my canvases – I started with two big and four small canvases at the same time – it helped living in the same place as I was working. The space at first was a bit intimidating, they’ve got black marble shining floors and to work in you feel that you want more natural light. But I think adapting to it really helped. I thought ‘Okay I’ll work with it.’ At the end it really payed off. The paintings were made and exhibited in the same space which meant they were site specific.

Exhibition Installation Shot

‘Singapore Sensation’ exhibition installation shot, Instinc, March 2016.

Behind the studio, there was Clarke Quay where the river is located, and at night the buildings around the area were lit with vivid colour which created spectacular reflections in the water.  I went there often during my painting breaks, it was beautiful. When I exhibited my works, there was this reflection of my colourful paintings on the black shiny floor, just like of Clarke Quay. I was pleasantly surprised.

I did consciously take in the colours of the surrounding, because I wanted to bring in the vibrancy and the colours of the local environment. All the lines in the work that I was making was referring to Singapore MRT (train) lines – red, green, blue, yellow, orange, purple – so there was a bit of intention there.


Singapore Sling, 1355 x 1275mm, acrylic, ink, fabric, and paper on loose canvas, 2016.

This wasn’t Rozana’s first experience of Singapore, having lived there before, but it was her first time there as an artist. Rozana’s husband, a New Zealander, was living in Singapore and her two children were born there.

My husband always used to say, ‘Do you know Singapore is the size of Lake Taupo?’ It’s now slightly bigger than Lake Taupo (due to land reclamation) but has a greater population than the entire of New Zealand. Another perspective is that Singapore doesn’t have natural resources. It doesn’t even have water and has to source it from Malaysia. However, Singapore is rich in human resources. It is a great multicultural country that recognises four official languages.

I’d lived in Singapore for twelve years. I picked up my Diploma in Investment and worked in the banking industry, so it’s quite interesting being back as an artist. It was totally different, I ventured and experienced things that I’d never done while living in Singapore.

I think when you’re just visiting for a short time you tend to value your time more rather than take it for granted, so that’s what happened. It was a month long residency and I had to hit the ground running. The first two days I was sourcing materials. I brought my own paint, but I have to source for canvases and local fabrics to incorporate them in my paintings. So I went to Little India and Chinatown which were not far from the studio.

One of the exhibitions she happened to be lucky enough to attend was Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Childhood Memories’ at Pearl Lam Gallery located at Gillman Barracks, the old colonial barracks where many international galleries have popped up recently.

Shonibare has been important to Rozana’s work as she spent a lot of time researching his work in her undergraduate years. His use of fabric is implicitly tied to the identity of a culture, colonisation and post-colonisation, ideas also of interest to Rozana. Batik became popularised in Nigeria partly by the Dutch, who in turn had learnt the method during their long occupation of Indonesia. The history of a specific fabric or pattern in relation to a certain culture, the introduction to another culture through time and travel, and later becoming associated to notions of identity, such as with paisley, is fascinating to Rozana. Paisley was the pattern she started to research in Singapore, due to it being so popular in both Little India and Chinatown.

Rozana with Yinka Shonibare's work 'Childhood Memories'

Rozana at Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Childhood Memories’

Rozana is a mentee on Artists Alliance 2016 Mentoring programme. In addition to her Visual Arts degree and Diploma in Investment, she also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language and Literature. In her work, Rozana wishes to expand conversations among cultures in its reflection of a multicultural and globalised world we are living in. She believes that cultural diversity is a dynamic process; it changes while remaining itself and in a state of openness to one another. Speaking from her personal experience, she thinks cultural identities nowadays are not easily reducible to definite categories, which represent opportunities for further dialogue based on exploring commonalities. Find her at

Visit of Jennifer King (Asia NZ Foundation) at Instinc studio

Rozana in conversation with Jennifer King, Director, Culture, Asia New Zealand Foundation at her Instinc studio.