October 2013 will always be remembered for the shocking partial shutdown of the United States of America’s government, the first event of its kind in seventeen years. The standoff between Barack Obama and a Republican-led congress displays the kind of political polarization that ruled during the twilight years of Ancient Rome between the Optimates and Populares, and heightens simmering comparisons between the fallen empire and modern day America. Interestingly, contemporary Malaysian artist Masnoor Ramli has long been drawing parallels between the two mega-republics, and his intricately paintedMoulding the History could not have been debuted at a more apt moment in time.
Measuring five feet by eight feet, Moulding the History features the silhouette of American president Barack Obama from behind, surveying the Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus, an ancient Roman sarcophagus dated at around 250 A.D. Given that the height of the actual sarcophagus is documented at 5 feet, it is interesting to note that Masnoor has produced an almost life size replica of the famed artifact. Deeply committed to the fundamentals of his practice the artist initially rendered his entire work in pencil, perfectly shaded and completed as a drawing, before painting over it, thus creating an unseen foundation that roots this painting in technical tradition, mirroring the laborious techniques employed by the carvers in 250 A.D. who, via time-consuming drill work, produced a relief much deeper and more refined than others of that period. The dark palette comprised mainly of blues, greys and blacks, affects a forbidding sense of gloom, which coupled with the physical enormity of the piece, sits neatly alongside the political uncertainty that is currently unfolding.
The Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus depicts battle scenes between the Romans and Germans, and as Obama stands before it the audience is free to imagine his unseen face as contemplating the crossroads his own republic now faces, and which path he should lead them down. The approval he needs from the U.S. Senate, despite being commonly considered as the most ‘powerful man in the world’ easily mirrors the situation of Roman politics, where no action could be taken without the blessing of the senate. Masnoor’s faceless rendering of Obama is strongly ominous, indeed the artist is not stating what he feels are the president’s thoughts but rather leaves it open for his audience to draw their own conclusions. Despite his hesitation to proclaim himself a figurative artist, Masnoor enjoys the interaction the figurative aspect of this painting affords the viewer, stating the use of identifiable imagery allows for discourse across all levels, thus widely transmitting his concept.
Despite the international flavor of his icons, Masnoor feels that Moulding the History is strongly rooted in local Malaysian issues. The artist argues that issues undertaken by America, such as the war in Iraq, has long lasting effects globally through spikes in oil prices which cause inflation on local levels, or the dependency of most currencies including the Malaysian Ringgit on the US Dollar’s value. As a true intellectual, Masnoor tries to utilize his art as a platform to engage society in contemplating critical matters on a macro scale, as can be seen in Moulding the History.
The wonderful juxtaposition of ancient artifact and a modern icon, heightened currency of content and technical finesse with which Moulding the History is presented come together in a perfect storm to highlight Masnoor’s quietly unimpeded position in the Malaysian art scene as a truly contemporary artist, and is a tantalizing precursor for his upcoming solo exhibition, which is eagerly anticipated by a welcoming audience.
written by Zena Khan
artist : Masnoor Ramli Mahmud
type : acrylic on canvas
dimension : 164 x 279 cm
price : RM 40, 000.00