Alya Hatta, the young woman behind ‘Garden of Us’

The interdisciplinary artist has previously exhibited in London, KL, Tokyo, Milan and Sydney, among other places 


AS I entered Hall 1 of Malaysia International Trade and Exhibition Centre (Mitec) on a bustling Saturday, anticipating a good conversation with a young artist, Alya Hatta, from afar I could see her magnificent artwork(s) displayed so grandly for all art lovers and collectors to gawk at. 

“I’ve always enjoyed putting up an exhibition which showcases our Asian roots and how we can build and narrate our own stories, the way they should be told as we experience them, and not how others perceive them to be,” shared Alya, as soon as we sat down comfortably at a corner of ZHAN Art Space gallery. 

Alya appreciated my enthusiastic comments about her academic achievements at the Royal College of Art (RCA), a name synonymous with brilliance in the art world. 

Alya is a 24-year-old emerging Malaysian artist whose exhibition entitled “Garden of Us” was one of the highlights of the three-day CIMB Artober Art & Soul 2023 in Mitec, with her works featured under the prominent ZHAN Art Space label. 

Chatting like an old friend, Alya told me that she started off doing art from a young age, her parents had always been supportive of her as she was sent to art classes from as young as she could remember. 

“And then, you know, I’ve always known that I wanted to be an artist because I didn’t really enjoy doing anything else at school. 

“I can’t really put a finger on when I got into art — I’ve always been making and doing things here and there.” 

Ultimately, she said she did not think she was aware of what her art would become until she saw people reacting to it. 

She was always motivated by tiny compliments, which made her happier than anything else; subsequently she just took them and ran with them, and now she’s out there making artwork for herself and the joy of others. 

The Journey 

“There was a point where someone had reached out to me when I was about 17 or 18, asking me to show my work and evidently displayed it at the gallery in Publika back then,” the passionate artist reminisced. 

She further recalled that someone actually bought it immediately after her artwork arrived at the scene. 

“Some guy who walked past just really liked what I did with my piece. He then immediately walked to the ATM and took out RM900 in cash and purchased my artwork,” Alya explained excitedly to The Malaysian Reserve (TMR). 

When that happened, it really planted a seed in her mind that this could be a possibility of a beautiful journey, affirming her decision to pursue arts for her A levels at the time. 

She then started showing her work more in Malaysia by having a solo exhibition when she was 17 at a place called Minut Init Art Social which is now, unfortunately, permanently closed. 

“After that, I started applying to open calls. When I was in London doing my undergrad, and I got some attention there, I put a lot of effort into my degree show,” she said. 

Her dream was always to do a master’s degree at RCA and so things really started to pick up after her first year there. There was a really good network and exposure over there, she told TMR. 

When we discussed how education has helped her in her career, she agreed that being in the right institutions helps in terms of connections and networking, and also, the chance to be around other artists. 

“I think the biggest thing that you take away from attending an institution like RCA is really learning from other painters around you. It was the first time I was really surrounded by everyone who just did painting and artistic practice,” Alya fondly recalled. 

She reflected that she learned so much from them, just being influenced by the amazing artists around her. 

“My biggest artist influences were (and still are) literally my friends. I met many people who shared similar backgrounds and similar interests with me. Also, we just kind of feed off each other a lot,” she shared. 

When asked about her favourite medium at work, she responded that there is no separation between mediums. 

She is keen to use everything based on colour and texture and she does not have a favourite, although she really likes the appearance of textiles mixed with paints. 

“And using different beaded works because of the considerable effort that goes into creating these embellished pieces. I believe it adds a new layer to the painting, and I’m always looking for ways to combine mediums together seamlessly because I approached painting in a sculptural way. 

“Just assembling different items to create an object. For me, the process of creating is much more important and enjoyable than focusing on the final product,” she elaborated. 

Then we talked about her daily routine as an artist and her professional career. 

According to Alya, she tried to structure her life in a way that would be similar to someone working a nine-to-five job. 

“I’d wake up relatively early, sort out all the things I need to do in the morning, eat breakfast and then I’m usually in the studio roughly from 12pm to 6pm or 7pm. I’m more organised in the sense that I allocate specific days for painting and structure my time to include other activities afterward,” she said. 

I then probed her further, asking how she developed her art skills over the time, and she responded: “Just years and years and years of painting”. 

“For example, I’d paint something or make something that I would think was insignificant and then return to it months or years later. I’d look at it and if I actually really liked it, then I’d resume (working on it) again. That being said, I don’t believe that art is something that can ever be forced,” Alya explained. 

‘Garden of Us’, with its brilliant, colourful tapestry of plant patterns, recalls the artist’s ties to Malaysia (pic: HAZATUL SYIMA HARUN/TMR)

Things are looking great for this young one as she has been receiving lots of positive feedback from art enthusiasts and collectors. 

“Thankfully. But I’m not a person who allows criticism to affect me because I’m just going to continue doing what I want to do. No matter what, just organically, without other people really influencing me,” she highlighted.

She defines success internally, basing it on how effectively her works convey her personal ideas, rather than relying on external factors like the exhibitions she has participated in.

When discussing the fabric and textiles she incorporated into her work, she emphasised that these were the most significant elements for her. They included aspects of nature and ecology, like leaves and flowers. 

“Those are really important aspects to my work. When I was growing up, my mom always had things like plants and things around us to make us feel at home,” she smiled. 

Reflecting on her childhood, she told TMR that she left Malaysia when she was one year old and lived in Indonesia for a while, before moving to the Middle East. 

“I was in London for a bit and came back to Malaysia for my GCSEs and A levels, and then went back to London to pursue a master’s degree.” 

So having that consistency of those specific motifs of plants around her that really make her feel at home. Also, it just reminded her of her area back in London. Moving on to the purpose of her work, she said 

she wants her work to be a mirror that anyone who looks at it can hold up to themselves. 

“Even though the basis of the work is my personal experiences, it should really be like a mirror image to the viewer. I just want someone at the very least to feel something, whether it be joy or even hatred,” she said. 

Her ultimate career goal is to be featured in as many places as possible, and getting involved in shows at large institutions and museums. 

As we came close to the end of our conversation, Alya shared that her least favourite part of being an artist is being alone with your thoughts for the majority of the day, every day. 

“I find that it isolating prior to me having a studio mate. Therefore, when she’s not there, it’s just me being alone with my thoughts,” she lamented. 

Meanwhile, her most favourite thing about being an artist is the flexibility to work whenever she prefers. 

“I really enjoy working towards shorter deadlines, like a couple months before a show. Also, I really enjoy not having to set my alarm. Taking slow mornings and having a cup of coffee,” she said and laughed. 

‘Garden of Us’, the Exhibition 

The exhibition, she explains, is about the continual search for identity, not merely its discovery. 

Alya’s “Garden of Us” recalls her own ties to Malaysia. Her works are a brilliant, colourful tapestry with plant patterns that evoke memories of her childhood. 

She explores the domains of digital and physical representation of her South-East Asian (SE Asian) identity through the dynamism of colour, form, sound and space. 

She also draws on personal experiences and recollections to explore the realms of digital and physical in depicting her SE Asian identity and portraying the colourful intimacies of the diasporic human condition. 

Alya also investigates the complexities of the “person”, adopting introspective approaches in self-confessional artwork, focusing on the mysticism that underpins relationships, and drawing on the banality of current everyday life and culture. 

Throughout her work, the artist is drawn to items and people in a way that emphasises the value of artefacts and storytelling, and she is frequently inspired by Renaissance imagery. 

These stories gravitate around ideas of imperfect memory and the intimacy behind familial and interpersonal relations. 

This is evident in her contempt for drawing, form and perspective, as well as her ongoing exploration of merging conventional and digital techniques. 

The interdisciplinary artist, who is based in London and Kuala Lumpur (KL), earned her BA Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London, before enrolling in the MA Painting Course at RCA in the UK. 

This year marks Alya’s fifth solo exhibition in Singapore, and she has previously exhibited in London, KL, Tokyo, Milan and Sydney, among other places. 

She is also a part of the “Unamed” and “FloorFive” art collectives, the latter of which is now in residence at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) for a year. 

“Garden of Us” will be showcasing at ZHAN Art Space from Oct 10 to Nov 5.

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition