Contemporary art is frequently viewed as a recorder of the times in which we live. Artists today are tasked with interpreting their societies through a critical analysis of the transformations and progresses that surround them, before presenting their findings in engaging pictorials. As countries themselves develop – economically, politically and technologically – so do their visual traditions develop from craft-based to critical contemporary art. Often, elements from the past remain, albeit in updated versions. This provides an interesting documentation of cultural legacies, as well as immediate knowledge on the state of society today. In Malaysia, contemporary artists understand the value of this mergence of past and present, as is apparent in the works of Anniketyni Madian and Mohd Fairuz Paisan. Both of these emerging young artists have developed strong independent practices that, while extremely current, are localized in their cultural environment, through being grounded in a strong study of woodworking.
Woodworking is one of the most well known of Malaysian crafts. Its established presence is unsurprising given Malaysia’s abundance of tropical forests, filled with an assortment of timber. Conventionally, woods were carefully carved to create representations of the symbiosis of nature and mankind. These carvings easily found their way into the community as both decorative and functional elements. The art of woodworking was passed down through the generations, learned from family or community members. Each artisan, while remaining true to time-honoured techniques, was free to add their personal creativity to their carvings. Subsequent emergence of this craft in the contemporary art sphere can be viewed as a continuation of this system, aided by technical developments, critical concepts and context, in order to elevate the genre into the sphere of fine art.
Anniketyni has shown a keen adeptness at straddling heritage with the new, both through her technical skills and conceptual ability. Born and bred in Kuching, she has quickly gained a following for her sculptures that draw heavily on the customs of East Malaysia. Her most recognizable works have been those that derive inspiration from the ceremonial Pua Kumbu textiles of her native Sarawak. In combining heritage-based patterns with a graphic aesthetic, she manages to re-interpret notions of tradition via a highly recognizable artifact. This re-interpretation manifests itself as both a commentary as well as a visual demonstration of shifts in Malaysian society today. Recently, she has added to this discourse with the inclusion of calligraphic elements within her hardwood sculptures. As such, she expands her dialogue to include notions of ethno-religious identity and the shifting constructs of identity for the Malay-Muslim community.
Clear parallels exist between the production of Anniketynis’s sculptures and Pua Kumbu textiles. Woven by the women of Iban tribes, these ceremonial cloths are a testament to the creative, technical and artistic skill of their weavers. Ideas for motifs and designs are found in the extensive canon of oral literature that exists amongst the Ibans. It is common for several motifs and icons from myths to be intertwined with personal symbols, resulting in beautifully detailed narratives. Studying this mix of motifs, Anniketyni pares them down into sharp slim lines, originally set against a flat surface.
With this latest set of sculptures she demonstrates marked technical transformations, as her carvings take on a decidedly three-dimensional effect. Viewers will note a fresh flow to the patterns as they curve inwards and back out again. This is not the only change in her visual; while previously her graphic patterns were enclosed mainly in geometric shapes, these new works include more organic shapes, with the introduction of a new series, titled Butterfly.
These progressions are directly inspired by Anniketyni’s recent European travels. Noticing the detailed carvings and cornices that dominates European architecture she was inspired to adapt this relief quality within her own practice. Naturally this segued into an interest in extrapolating the space her sculptures occupy. Such developments hint not only at the flow of culture that has historically coloured the visual arts of South East Asia, but also speak to the influence of Western culture locally as the world becomes increasingly homogenized. In extending the space her sculptures occupy three-dimensionally, Anniketyni creates a contrast to the classical Pua Kumbu style where motifs were encased in rigid forms that acted as protective barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds. Indeed, these shifts in physical perimeters can be viewed as a mirror to the shifts in Malaysia’s socio-economic development, thus acting as a bridge between the country’s cultural past and future.
Anchoring Anniketyni’s new set of sculptures is the seminal piece, “Ash-Sharh 5 & 6”, which can be seen as a culmination of her progressions over the past year. Bringing the calligraphic inspirations from her recent residency at Rimbun Dahan, together with her more recent experimentations in medium and three-dimensional carving, this eighteen-foot wall sculpture comprehensively communicates her current artistic state to viewers. Based on the Surah Ash-Sharh, it features the lines: “For indeed with hardship (will be) ease. Indeed, with hardship (will be) ease.” In inscribing the fifth and sixth lines from the prayer, Anniketyni recounts her youth in Kuching, when she would often participate in Quran recital competitions, coached by her religious teacher, where she fondly calls Tok Guru. She connects this to her current state as an artist, where she is beginning to find the recognition, or ‘ease’, after several years of devotion to a challenging practice. Created as a tribute to her late Tok Guru, “Ash-Sharh 5 & 6” is a contemporary example of mixing traditional motifs with personal narratives to create new visuals. Despite the strongly graphic lines from her Pua Kumbu borders and the natural inertia of the hardwood, “Ash-Sharh 5 & 6” has a delicate appeal. This can be attributed to the flow of the Arabic lettering stretched across its centre. Anniketyni embosses the Arabic letters across the length of “Ash-Sharh 5 & 6”, edging them with smaller Arabic characters hand carved into the surface. This embossing process is new for the young sculptor, acting as a development of yet another innovative technique within her repertoire. Finishing off this mix of the fluid calligraphy and graphic aesthetic with a coat of black paint results in a refreshingly unique finish, thus opening Anniketyni’s practice up to a host of new possibilities in terms of concept, medium and visual.
Similar threads of culture, religion and personal narratives are identifiable in the creative practice of Fairuz. Originating from Rembau, Negeri Sembilan, he concerns himself with merging reflections of personal experiences with elements from local Minangkabau and Islamic culture, resulting in a beautiful series of layered wooden assemblages. Audiences will again note associations between heritage, familial ties and contemporary art, as Fairuz traces both his affinity for woodworking and appreciation of Minangkabau culture back to his grandfather, a carpenter who worked on constructing wooden homes in the traditional Minangkabau style.
Recognising the value of architecture as a cultural gauge, Fairuz constructs his assemblages from wood salvaged from the walls of Minangkabau homes. In being careful to choose wooden planks from structures over twenty-five years in age, he roots his work in the original ideologies of Minangkabau craft tradition. Through a thoughtful selection process he is able to build up a colour field via reclaimed elements, opting to preserve the original patinas on the wooden strips. The background arrangement of these wall-based works hints at the source of his material; Fairuz composes the planks to imitate the structure of walls in a home. Once satisfied with this base, he traces on his images, before carefully pasting on further layers of cut-up wood to build up a relief-like image. This process mirrors classical art creation, with its layers of paint to create a visual. As such, Fairuz demonstrates a thorough understanding of the formal tenants of art creation, an aid in his ability to uncover fresh avenues within production, which is a prized quality in contemporary art.
The prevalence of Minangkabau culture is evident throughout the state of Negeri Sembilan, particularly through their distinct language, adat (customs) and architecture. A matriarchal civillisation, the Minangkabau people have adapted their conventions over the centuries to sit neatly alongside the local society that governs them, successfully balancing between the two to develop a set of rules known as Adat Perpatih. Fairuz comments that while this has been effective for generations, the advent of technology and modern day living has caused disconnect with the old customs, noting neglect in adhering to them amongst the younger generation. Through his creative practice he aims to reiterate the beauty and value within the Minangkabau institutions, seeking to reframe the customs so as to refresh their appeal within his twenty-first century audience.
Fairuz has successfully found ways to translate the heritage of his community in order to resonate with a wider audience. Understanding the value placed on literature and narratives amongst the Minangkabau people, he strongly incorporates this threads, albeit in a visual form, as against the established oral traditions. In order to establish a strong link, he turns to familiar icons in his assemblages, such as the large kerbau centering “Monang Kabau”. The kerbau is seen as a mascot for Minangkabau society, with associations centered in myths relating to the society’s development. In other works such as “The Story of the Scorpion”, he mixes new icons such as the scorpion with local elements such as the Durian fruit. In doing so, the artist builds up contemporary personal narratives that are rooted in conventional styles, accurately transmitting a commentary on the shifts society is undergoing as a result of development.
It is interesting to note that in continuing woodworking traditions and developing a contemporary context for heritage, both of these young Malaysian artists have strongly incorporated calligraphy. In studying the significance of these religious texts, both artists have also developed a strong personal signature within the genre of calligraphy. While Anniketyni has continued on developments begun within her Rimbun Dahan tenure, Fairuz builds on his penchant for narration and the inclusion of strong pictorials within his assemblage practice, as is exemplified in “Syahadah – The Very Important Job In Our Life (After Hassan Musa)”.
“Syahadah – The Very Important Job In Our Life (After Hassan Musa)” is based on the Syahadah, which is the declaration of faith in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) emphasized the vital role of the Syahadah to Muslims by stating it needs to reside within the heart of each believer. Fairuz conveys this through a traditional Persian style by building up the form of an individual consumed in prayer through the curves of the Arabic letters. As in his secular pieces, Fairuz demonstrates a thorough understanding of the history his practice is grounded in, through the use of classical elements, in this case the recognizable Persian calligraphic style. It is precisely this thorough understanding that enables the artist to extend the framework of contemporary Malaysian art in order so as to communicate the traditions of culture, religion and artistic craft to a dynamic new generation of Malaysians.
As Malaysia transforms into a developed nation, so is her culture being updated. Anniketyni and Fairuz are shining examples of the importance of contemporary art in establishing the value of Malaysia culturally on a competitive global scale. Indeed, each of these talented young artists has been receiving critical attention for their inventive processes. In 2003 Fairuz was awarded the prestigious Philip Morris Minor Award, while Anniketyni has received invitations to participate in several high profile residencies such as the Rimbun Dahan and Vermont Residency. Cutting-It comes at an interesting point in the careers of both Anniketyni and Paisan, as they develop new directions within their portfolios and demonstrate a growth in concept, aesthetic and finish. It is precisely these technical talents coupled with an ability to communicate the evolution of their society in easily decipherable terms that are marking these two artists as a pair of exciting emerging talents in the contemporary Malaysian art world.