Cover Photo: Courtesy of Tunku Khalsom Ibrahim

The artist and mum of one on trading a 9-5 job for the artist hustle, staying relevant in the digital space and finding inspiration in lockdown

After nearly five years of working at an international design firm in Singapore, Tunku Khalsom Ibrahim decided to strike out on her own. To her, the only thing scarier than leaving a stable desk job was actually staying in it, especially when her heart found its calling elsewhere in the realm of paintbrushes and hand-cut butterfly motifs.

“I hated everything about the idea of working for someone else—getting up in the morning, having to be in the office, doing what the client wanted to do—it wasn’t for me,” shares the Johor-born artist who has lived in Singapore for the past 12 years.

What started as small paintings that she sold to friends for S$100 soon grew into massive S$4,500 art works commissioned by total strangers. Her paintings have made their way into the homes of private collectors across Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Hong Kong, the Philippines, France, Greece, the UK, the US and Australia.

Related: An Art Curator's Tips On Starting Your Own Malaysian Art Collection

Known for their vivid use of colour, texture and movement, Khalsom’s works have been featured in shows at prestigious venues like ARTitude Galeria and Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, with upcoming shows slated there as well at the Hollandse Club on March 4, and the Selegie Arts Centre on March 23 – 27.

“I love to create art that people actually want to live with, art they would want to have in their homes, not works that require some out-there explanation as to the meaning behind them,” she explains.  

Revealing the ups and downs of being a full-time artist, Khalsom clues Tatler in on her most ambitious art project and her foray into the brave new world of NFTs.

I love to create art that people actually want to live with, art they would want to have in their homes—not works that require some out-there explanation as to the meaning behind them. 
Tunku Khalsom Ibrahim

What has it been like painting professionally?

It’s gone really well, really quickly. This is my fourth year painting. Last year was exhausting: I made 78 or so paintings throughout the year, selling about 80 per cent of them. It was full-on constantly. I’m obviously so grateful for it but at the same time, I really need a holiday.

Where can we find your artworks in Kuala Lumpur?

I’m participating in an art exhibition in February called Art for All by Art Expo Malaysia at GMBB KL from February 24 to 27. I was recently in Kuala Lumpur for about five weeks for a holiday when I started painting on canvas, something I don’t normally do but wanted to try out, and I had these giant paintings with me. So when I was invited to showcase my work at the exhibition, I grabbed the opportunity.

You’ve recently sold your art as NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Tell us about that.

My skull and butterfly work is a print. The background is one of my paintings that have been photographed, and the skull and butterfly are added in Photoshop. I figured this could potentially make quite a cool NFT. I was lucky that a friend helped me get onto Makersplace where I ended up minting three NFTs of this print. I sold the first one in just over a week, and I sold another in January.

If I’m honest, I don’t completely understand NFTs. But what I love about them is the fact that there are royalties. Once I’ve sold a painting, it’s out of my hands. I could sell it to someone who sells it to someone else and makes a sh*t ton of money. I love that with NFTs, the artist always gets remuneration, no matter how many have been sold. I think that’s a well-deserved kind of reward.

It's interesting, isn’t it? Grown-ups spending thousands and thousands of dollars on something they can’t even hold in their hands. It’s an interesting new world we’re going into.

What’s the most complex project you’ve ever worked on to date?

The most time consuming was a 1.8m-wide, 50cm-strip of black and white butterflies. They all had to be printed and hand-cut, about 2,500 butterflies in that piece.  

Once cut, the edges had to be coloured and I’d pin them in individually. Behind each pin is four or five beads. It roughly took about 100 hours to complete.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I start work at crack of dawn, still in pyjamas. I work standing up, and after five hours of it, I’m done. There’s also lot of behind-the-scene work, from social media to maintaining my website, editing my images and art into different spaces so people can see them. There’s also the accounting stuff, which I hate. 

What have the past two years taught you about yourself?

Last year, I definitely didn’t take enough breaks. I don’t think anyone took enough breaks because of Covid-19. I was working much longer hours than I ever worked when I was in an office. That’s not necessarily a good thing, and I’m trying to learn that it’s ok to sit down, have a cup of tea and actually not do anything.

As hard as I’ve worked in the last three years and as exhausting as it was, I’ve loved every minute of it, especially seeing all the hard work paying off in the end.  

What are your plans in the near future?

I would love to build my reputation as an artist outside Singapore. I would love to do a public piece of art, maybe a sculpture of some kind. And to just carry on doing what I’m doing. I always panic that it’s all just going to stop at some point but I’m very grateful for how it’s turned out.

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