Poh Ling Yeow’s Latest Work Is ‘For Anyone Who Feels On The Outer’

Photo by Chloe Morris
She may be known as one of MasterChef Australia's most successful alumnae, but celebrity chef Poh Ling Yeow's creative talents extend well beyond the kitchen. Prior to first appearing on the cooking show in 2009, Yeow was working full-time as an artist. Even over the past 14 years, she's never completely put her paintbrush down. Instead, she's used art as a form of relaxation and self-expression in her rise to fame and journey of finding herself.
Over 150 images appear under the #pohart hashtag on Instagram, the majority depicting a character Yeow fondly labels, 'The Girl'. Always with a serious expression, as she's placed against contrasting splashes of colour, there's a mysterious air about the girl that's autobiographical in a sense.
"She started off as this sort of meditation, and I created her as this exaggerated form of all the phenotypes I really disliked in myself growing up that made me feel different," she tells Refinery29 Australia.
"Broad face, broad nose, almond eyes — I've exaggerated all those features and created this caricature, you could say. But really, what she represents is a feeling for anyone who feels on the outer."
Photo by Chloe Morris
After moving to Australia from Malaysia at age nine, Yeow struggled with her identity and appearance. She was ashamed of the shape of her nose and face, and wished she was blonde and blue-eyed to fit in with her peers. As time has progressed, art and food have been her means of connecting with her cultural heritage and discovering her true sense of self. As she's grown more confident in who she is, her perception of 'The Girl' has evolved as well.
"I used to paint her as a toddler all the time because it's almost like those feelings of vulnerability were best told through that form," she says. "But I really feel like I'm in this [new] era because I'm turning 50 in December — and I'm in this period of really feeling like I'm coming into my womanhood.
"The girl has really matured. Obviously, I'm a late bloomer because I'm almost 50 and I'm seeing myself as a young lady," she laughs.
Nearing this age milestone, as well as grieving the loss of her mother who passed away in November, has allowed personal growth that's now reflected in Yeow's art. Her signature portraits will shine when they are projected onto some of Adelaide's most iconic buildings in June and July as part of the city's Illuminate Adelaide event — a winter festival of music, art, light and technology.
"This exhibition was such a godsend to me because when I was deep in grief, knowing that I had this exhibition was my lifeline that really got me through it. I knew I could pour all of that into making something beautiful. And one of the buildings is completely dedicated to her."
Since her mother's death, Yeow's reflected on her choice to not have children. She and ex-husband Jonathan Bennett became pregnant just over eight years ago, but lost the baby at 12 weeks.
"I think the reason why I feel so young is I haven't had kids of my own. So I've always been kind of void of those responsibilities that most women have at my age," she says.
"I've been able to live with a lot of freedom and autonomy and I really value it. I don't at all grieve not having a child, even though I did have a miscarriage many years ago and that was very upsetting."
Six months on from her mum's passing, Yeow's felt a new sense of maternal responsibility as she cares for her elderly father and her aunt. Of course, this "shift in my womanhood" is depicted in her art.
"The girls are reflecting that maturation. I think, now that I'm seeing my dad and my Aunty Kim — who's like my other sort of mum — getting older and more frail, it's allowing me to spend that innate maternal instinct."
Whether it's through her art or her cooking, creativity will always lend itself to some sort of personal storytelling. And as Yeow embraces a future of continual growth and self-realisation, she promises she'll always have a spare canvas ready to help her tell her story.
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