Chang Fee Ming's unique achievements as an artist working in watercolour have gained him a passionate regional and international following. This extraordinary self-taught artist began his career in his home state of Terengganu, Malaysia over twenty years ago, finding in watercolour the perfect medium to capture the gradations of light and texture in the coastal landscape and culture around him. An inveterate traveler, his work revolves around a sense of place, and how this is defined by the land and the people who live on it. He has sought resonances between the peoples of Asia, through their shared histories of migrancy, trade and change, their material culture, rituals, performances and daily lives, and has made an effort, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, to capture an idea of Southeast Asia from the inside. He has continued to push the watercolour medium to capture the materiality of his subjects, detailing, layering, mark-making, creating new washes and other effects, to achieve a heightened sense of reality, a rich sense of the texture of the lives and places he portrays. At the same time, he makes use of dramatic compositional ploys to bring across powerful narratives.
While recent years have seen Chang travel through the Mekong region, to Tibet, Bhutan, and even the African coast, he remains deeply attached to Bali, with its singular and special preservation of traditional life and culture. Caressed by the Moon makes reference to the Balinese Topeng performance. A performer sits with his mask in front of him, seemingly taking a rest after his dance. It is a very rare example of the artist working with a night-time subject, and he has captured the arresting stillness of the evening with an intense chiarascuro of dark blue shadows and highlights, bringing out the intensity of the colours of the figure's skin tone and brocaded costume, throwing particular attention on the white mask, much as moonlight would do.
There are at least two 'stories' at play here. One is of the Dalem, whose mask looks out at us from the picture. He is the raja or the king of the Topeng story, representing the best qualities of a ruler - intelligence, nobility and a strong, positive outlook, and meanwhile a handsome romantic hero, traditionally with many wives and concubines. The white complexion of the mask represents cleanliness and purity, while the almond shape of the eyes stand out in contrast to those of the wide-eyed servants and squinting clowns who surround the Dalem. The Dalem's dance is often called Topeng Manis or Arsa Wijaya, and "is performed with consummate grace and style, reflecting inner beauty and refinement of the demigod"(Judy Slattum, Marks of Bali, Spirits of an Ancient Drama). Meanwhile, the artist has depicted the dancer from the shoulders down, typically refusing the viewer his identity, and focusing on the parts of the body which best express the subject's work - his hands and feet. From the richness of his costume, and the grace of his hands, we might assume he is the character of the prince himself, yet we know from the relaxed attitude and the colour of his skin that he is a Balinese dancer, at rest, with his own, possibly also romantic and heroic, narrative. Chang has created narratives with the Balinese mask before, such as in Dialogue Behind the Scene (The Visible Trail of Chang Fee Ming, pgs 96-97), where the masks of laksamana and a king, worn casually on the shoulders of the performers, appear to be having a conversation. Here, however, it is interesting that the "dialogue" in our minds is one between the character and the performer, between theatre and life, between legend and the contemporary.