BLUES MALAYA BY ZENA KHAN
Abdullah Jones’ new series of paintings and mixed media artworks, produced from 2010 to 2015, and presented under the poetic title Blues Malaya, show evidence of the artist’s penchant for social critique. Bold, witty, and colourful, the works on display powerfully combine lively imagery, nods to art history, and text as an entry into a myriad of discussions which can be tied together by a simple concept: patriotism. Past works by Abdullah, such as “Cakap Pasal Outside” and “Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa” have previously touched on this topic; now in Blues Malaya audiences are invited to join the artist in a discourse through an expanded body of artworks.
Born in Kuantan, Pahang, in April 1964, where he continues to reside, Abdullah’s socially active position is manifest both in his artistic practice as well as his key involvement in the artist-run space Rajawali Art Studio. Themes of patriotism, self-critique, and social critique recur throughout his portfolio of artworks, which have received critical recognition both in Malaysia and abroad. Abdullah’s interest in social discourse is embodied through several multi-disciplinary formats, including writing, which he engages in both conceptually as a poet, and from an observational standpoint with short stories. In 2016 he published two collections of past writings: Sajak Sajak Suci, a collection of poems from 2002 to 2015, and Hikayat, a collection of short stories documenting the everyday. Locally Abdullah has presented work at several exhibitions such as Gabung at Pahang State Art Gallery and Saudagar Cinta at Pahang State Art Museum, T!GA (2014) at National Gallery Kuala Lumpur, Benchmark (2016) at Artcube Gallery and Love Me and My Batik (2016) at Ilham Gallery. Internationally, he has participated in events such as Un-Cut at Gallery Shambala in Copenhagen, The Outsider Art at Octane Photographic Studio/Gallery in Ferndale, Minnesota and most recently BATIK: Expression of Identities at Chinese Cultural Centre Museum, Vancouver, Canada in 2016.
In 2007, upon his return to Malaysia after a spell living abroad, Abdullah was instrumental in the creation of Rajawali Art Studio. An artist-run space in Pahang, Rajawali Art Studio was born out of a gap identified in support structures for artists living and working in Pahang at the time. Artist-run studios occupy an important position in the global art ecology, and this is no different in Malaysia as evidenced by other artist-run initiatives, such as 12 by Shooshie Sulaiman, or artist collectives such as Empat Persepsi, and Matahati. Rajawali describes their mission as aiming to help artists based on the needs of the individual – from supplying materials for production, to studio space, to accommodation. In providing a space for artists to interact freely, Rajawali fosters critical discourse and intellectual engagement in Pahang, thus can be viewed as a crucial component in the development of a critical contemporary art scene on Malaysia’s East Coast.
Abdullah’s involvement in Rajawali speaks to a practical awareness of structures that need to exist within the local art world, and the forms they should embody in order to provide support. In examining this socially active position, alongside certain artworks on display at Blues Malaya, in particular “Scare Monger” and “Sketch for Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa”, it becomes evident that he is engaged in institutional critique. A strand of conceptual art emergent in the 1960’s in Europe and America, institutional critique has long sought to unpick the ideologies and structures that underpin the circulation, display and discussion of art. A complex and multi-faceted form of discourse, institutional critique is acknowledged as encompassing intellectually advanced artists, theorists and critics. With this acknowledgement arises a problem – how can general art audiences enter such theoretically complex conversations? Abdullah circumvents this potential issue by infusing “Scare Monger” and “Sketch for Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa” with lively and relatable imagery and text, rendering his works visually accessible, so as to seamlessly include his viewers within a critical discourse.
Both “Scare Monger” and “Sketch for Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa” are mixed media works who use the newspaper “SeniKini”, rather than canvas or paper, as a base. “SeniKini” is a quarterly art publication set out by Balai Seni Lukis Negara, the Malaysian national art gallery situated in Kuala Lumpur. In refashioning these pages from “SeniKini” in his own artwork, Abdullah aims to draw attention to its content, and in the process questions what content would an audience expect to find in the art publication of a national art institution? The artist imagines a publication that incorporates a mix of critical inquiry with facts, and information presented in a visually arresting arrangement. Pre-existing imagery and text on the pages are used a base from which Abdullah builds up a layered final visual. Indeed, these artworks can be viewed as a proposal by the artist for an alternative format which uses creative display as a means through which viewers may be fashioned into engaged discussants.
The intense layering of paint, media, text, and imagery visible in “Scare Monger” and “Sketch for Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa” are a thread that runs through the entirety of Blues Malaya, as Abdullah uses layering as tool to represent the multitude complex ideas that have informed the creation of the works in this solo. At times, these layers signify a cross-pollination of ideas, as Abdullah works across several themes and canvases simultaneously. Consistently however, they reflect the depth that arises from a vigorous pre-production process, as the artist pursues several lines of research inquiry. His multiple interests, arising from this network of various research methodologies, from literature to artworks to intellectual discourse, are made evident throughout this solo exhibition.
Furthermore, the artworks presented indicate Abdullah’s strong knowledge not only of art history, and current social, political and cultural events, but the formal traditions of art creation in which his practice is steeped as well. His vibrant neo-expressionist works are carefully constructed compositionally, easily leading the viewer’s gaze across the surface. As such, the artist is allowed to construct each artwork as a mini narrative: relating a story, offering an opinion, or posing a question. Bold colour palettes are reflective of both an adept insight into colour theories, as well as the colour choices that inform local craft traditions and histories. The influence of the East Coast, often referred to as Malaysia’s ‘cradle of culture’, and local heritage such as batik is most apparent in Abdullah’s choice of colours. Having studied the local craft tradition in Cherating, Abdullah pulls in lessons on composing and merging colour and pattern into Blues Malaya, contemporised by graffiti-like elements and typography. Thus, the artist’s ability to seamlessly represent typically Malaysian culture and commentary within a highly contemporary framework becomes apparent.
In some of the canvases, Abdullah introduces speech bubbles emanating from the central figures with speech that strike at the concept of that work, such as “Siti K”, which shows lawyer and activist Siti Kassim. The speech bubbles highlight particular aspects of Siti’s identity, such as her support of the Orang Asli community, and position as a Malay Muslim woman. “Siti K” is composed in classical portraiture style, contemporised by a looser neo-expressionist treatment of the figure, and overall vibrant, playful tone. “How A Punkster Says Goodbye To His Dead Friend” is again centred around a large portrait. However this painting, which references Jeff Ooi’s controversial comments at the passing of Haron Din, abstracts the figure further, through the use of colourful, expressionist gestures to build up a portrait. The third work in Blues Malaya to use this style of composition is “Openly Closed”, which centres around overexposure arising as an impact of social media in the twenty-first century. The central figure here is completely abstracted however, appearing as a large army-green shape who speaks simply in social media iconography.
Other works such as “Freedom of Speech At Its Highest Level (Free To Insult)”, which acts as a response to Anurendra Jegadeva’s (popularly known as J Anu) controversial artwork “I is for Idiot”, have also utilised the speech bubbles and sock puppets as a means of direct expression. Shown at Whitebox, Publika, during an exhibition meant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Merdeka, “I is for Idiot” caused controversy as J Anu stencilled the title phrase over a canvas which featured the Islamic phrase Bismillahirrahmanirrahim printed in reverse, along with the image of a monkey cycling, and an American flag. Local opinion was divided, with certain factions defending the artwork under the headings of artistic freedom and free speech. “Freedom of Speech At Its Highest Level (Free To Insult)” is a response not only to “I is for Idiot”, but these defensive arguments as well, as Abdullah questions where the lines delineating respect and critical thought are in a multi-cultural society.
The sock puppets lined up along the bottom half of “Freedom of Speech At Its Highest Level (Free To Insult)” that call out “K is for Anu” are an icon developed by Abdullah as a representation of individuals or a group, with a humorous twist. Messages that could be interpreted as sharp or stinging are softened though this embodiment of a playful icon rendered in a caricature style. In the works “Kritik Bukan Bangkang” and “Anak Mak Ke Anak Abah?” Abdullah graces his sock puppets with increased human like characteristics, through the addition of thick white teeth that are visible as they cry out their opinions. This inclusion of a childlike element is reminiscent of the works of pioneering Malaysian artist Zulkifli Dahlan, who Abdullah has cited as an inspiration in the past, and was fond of exploring social issues through cartoons and caricatures in works such as “Kedai-Kedai” (1973). Abdullah recognized the tension that results from merging contrasting whimsical and sombre elements as being highly reflective of the issues swirling throughout contemporary society, resulting in these satirical artworks, such as “Comolot (After Klimt)”.
Compositionally, “Comolot (After Klimt)” references Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt’s iconic painting “The Kiss (Lovers)”. Painted between 1907 to 1908, this modernist masterpiece centres on two lovers locked in an embrace, and clothed in elaborately decorative robes reflective of the Art Nouveau, and Arts and Crafts movements of the time. Abdullah draws on the central composition of “The Kiss (Lovers)” which is mirrored by the blue, red, and white sock puppet reaching down over the shorter green sock puppet as they dominate the left side of the canvas. Speech bubbles emanating from their ‘mouths’ ascertain their identities, and hint at the political narrative underpinning the artwork, as one appears to proclaim the UMNO logo and the other the PAS logo. This acrylic on canvas painting unpicks the reactions towards political cooperation between UMNO and PAS, and acts a base from which local reactions and critical analysis of politics can be understood.
Grounding this artwork in the framework of art history, and pairing it with a title alluding to ideas of closeness and friendship, it becomes apparent Abdullah is highlighting political affiliations. Surrounding the sock puppet icons are several phrases, amongst them: “Orang lain yang bergaduh, kita yang bersungguh”, “Rakyat kenyang makan janji” and “Jangan bakar jambatan”. In etching the phrases in a style reminiscent of graffiti, Abdullah introduces the views of the everyman into “Comolot (After Klimt)”. He questions the impact of political affiliations and pacts on the general public, not only in how it affects them directly, but also in the perceptions of politics within wider society. Rather than offer his own views on the situation, the artist is attempting to encourage his audience to position their views from an analytical standpoint, as opposed to repeating shallow sentiments that have gained popularity.
It is clearly apparent through Blues Malaya that Abdullah is a firm believer in the notion of patriotism. This is perhaps expressed most simply in “Kepala Angin #2”, an acrylic on canvas work measuring five feet by seven feet. An abstracted figure fills the centre of the canvas; from whom a speech bubble emanates declaring “She’s not beautiful you know, but I love her”. Surrounding him are smaller sock puppets chirping comments such as “sweetnya” and “romantisss”, yet the viewer is left with the impression that the sock puppets are mocking the central figure. Abdullah metaphorically speaks of the derision that often meets citizens who openly declare a sense of patriotism, commenting that is often construed as aligning oneself with the ruling political party. The artist rejects this view, stating instead that it is key citizens take pride in themselves and their country, so as to improve on their own situation.
Both through text and imagery, Abdullah has infused his works with a great deal of meaning. At the heart of it, the social commentary existing here at Blues Malaya focuses on the idea of ‘critique’- be it institutionally, socially or politically – while encouraging notions of patriotism. The artist underlines a very present local characteristic of quickening to criticise, and asks if instead criticism should be padded with research and critical analysis? Additionally, he gently raises the issue of ‘self-critique’: can individuals in a society begin to accept a greater responsibility for both their own situations and global issues? As such he attempts to broaden the local understanding and use of criticism and critique from harbouring a possibly negative connotation into a social tool. In merging a complex discourse with vibrant visuals and a sense of fun and wit, Abdullah has produced a portfolio of artworks that are an accurate representation of himself as an artist, activist and individual.