Remembering A Cultural Icon

15 August 2017

The life of the first Sabah Cultural Icon, Tina Rimmer is celebrated with a three-month long retrospective exhibition at Sabah Art Gallery. We speak to her close friends and colleagues to learn more about the late artist and the legacy she left behind.

On 1 August, Sabah Art Gallery honoured the life of Tina Rimmer on what would have been her 100th birthday. Tina who passed away on 31 May was recently named the first Sabah Cultural Icon.

Although originally from England, Rimmer was unquestionably a Sabahan at heart. Her journey in North Borneo began back in 1949 when she was appointed as the first woman education officer by the colonial office. Some of the precious things that she packed along with her when she left for Jesselton were crayons, pastels and drawing paper.

Some of the artworks on display at Sabah Art Gallery’s retrospective exhibition on Tina Rimmer.

Fascinated by the local way of life, it didn't take her long before she was drawing portraits of the native people. The first portrait she sketched in North Borneo was of a young man who used to work at the Jesselton Government Rest House where she was residing.

Today, there are more than 1,000 pieces of artwork by Rimmer that celebrates Sabah and its people. In 1951, she staged her first art exhibition at the All Saints School in Likas. She was also the first artist to have a solo exhibition at the Sabah Art Gallery when it opened in 1984.

Jennifer Linggi, Sabah Art Gallery director and Tina Rimmer’s long time friend.

Long time friend and director of the Sabah Art Gallery, Jennifer Linggi remembers Rimmer always having her sketchbook with her wherever she went. According to Linggi, if something or someone captured Rimmer’s attention, she would stop everything and start drawing.

"Tina was very aware of the need for historical documentation. What you see today is very different from what it was like back then. The work she produced is such an important documentation of our people and our heritage," says Linggi. 

She adds, "Tina never did fancy drawings that glorify Mount Kinabalu or anything like that. She was more interested in everyday life. She was very fond of the countryside and was often seen drawing at the Tamparuli tamu [traditional market]."

The earliest drawings that Linggi has seen by Rimmer were from the 1940s, while the last artwork she submitted to the gallery was in 2015. Even though she was already in her 90s then, she never lost her touch. She drew so often that her strokes were always perfect and got everything right the first time.

Local artist Charles Mawan.

The biggest pet peeve that Rimmer had as an artist was recreating art from photographs. Rimmer was adamant that artists should draw live portraits and could even tell if a portrait was sketched from a photograph. She believed that the most important part of a portrait was the eyes and the light captured on the facial features.

One local artist who learnt this lesson very well is Charles Mawan. He had always admired Rimmer's work since he first started drawing in secondary school, but only met her in 1990 through the Sabah Visual Art Association. Every weekend the society would organise activities, visit different places and practise their drawing skills.

In 2016, Tina Rimmer turned her property in Tamparuli into an art centre – the Tamparuli Living Arts Centre.

"I always enjoyed watching Tina draw,” says Mawan. “She would sketch live with a pencil before completing a piece using pastels and oil paints. I remember sketching a portrait of her in 2011. She got so angry because I copied it from a photograph. She told me that if I wanted to draw her, I should go to her house and sketch her live."

Charles Mawan’s 2012 sketch of Tina Rimmer.

Although Rimmer's post-Victorian personality was strict and firm, Mawan remembers her as a kind and caring person. She was always trying to give back to the community especially to other artists. Besides advising them on how they can improve, she also supported the local art community by purchasing their paintings.

Her generosity didn't end there. Rimmer wanted the local artists to have a space where they can create in peace and display their work to the public. With the help of the Tamparuli Living Arts and Heritage Association, she turned her property in Tamparuli into an art centre in 2016.  

Tamparuli Living Arts Centre’s resident artist Herman Duang.

According to resident artist, Herman Duang the association intends to fulfil Rimmer's wish to enhance the local art scene. The centre has an exchange programme for local and visiting artists, writers, researchers and cultural producers. Currently, funds are being raised to improve the facilities so that they can organise more events and make the centre self-sustaining.

Besides the estate in Tamparuli, Rimmer had also donated her home in Likas to the Sabah State Government. Plans to convert the house into a museum and art gallery will commence once approved by the Kota Kinabalu City Hall. The modest house is a reflection of the simple life that she lived. It will showcase her love of art through her paintings, art books and previous documentations.

Rimmer who was also an avid diarist authored three books: The Tamparuli Tamu - A Sabah Market (1999), A Life of Two Islands (2011), and Portrait Drawings of Palliative Care Patients (2015). Her legacy is not only her contributions to the Sabah art scene, but also every life that she had touched.

The Remembering Tina Rimmer retrospective exhibition runs until 1 December at Sabah Art Gallery.

By Rozella Mahjhrin
Photos by Danielle Soong

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