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.
TANAH TUMPAHNYA DARAH is the latex solo exhibition by Malaysian renowned figurative painter; Md. Fadli Yusoff. The exhibition is showcasing 15 artworks that will be on display from 20th October until 27th November 2016.
TANAH TUMPAHNYA DARAH
by Zena Khan
Born in Kelantan, Malaysia, where he continues to reside and work, artist Fadli Yusoff casts an analytical eye over his environment as a source of inspiration. His keen sense of observation acts as a technical, as well as conceptual entry point. This is evident both in his skill as one of the most talented Malaysian contemporary figurative artists, as well as in the complex subject matters addressed through his portfolio of large scale figurative paintings that have won a series of critical awards. These include the Juror’s Choice Award at the Philip Morris Art Awards (1999), 3rd place in the Formula Malaysia Art Award (2000) and Grand Prize, Kijang Award from Bank Negara Malaysia (2004). Indeed, the figure is a unifying theme that binds the works presented here at Tanah Tumpahnya Darah to address questions on a variety of issues running through Malaysian society today, from the political, to social, to religious. The subjects of his portraits are a mix of well-known icons and acquaintances, used as cultural references to establish the shifts and status of present day Malaysia. In the process, Fadli creates relatable imagery that open up lines of communication between artwork and audience, resulting in a conversational atmosphere between his thought process and his viewer.
Tanah Tumpahnya Darah has been two years in the making, a time frame that suits Fadli’s chosen genre of contemporary realism. This exhibition marks his fourth solo. In 2000 he had his first, Matafizik, at Pelita Hati Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, his second, Md Fadli Yusoff 2007- 2013, was in 2013 with Gallery 12, and in 2014 he showed a smaller solo A Day In Kota Lama at Whitebox, Publika. With Tanah Tumpahnya Darah, Fadli builds strongly on techniques and threads of thought he began exploring with Md Fadli Yusoff 2007-2013, a body of seminal paintings created over the span of five years. In the catalogue accompanying Md Fadli Yusoff 2007-2013, curator Shooshie Sulaiman touches on the importance of observation in visual art, an idea that holds particular resonance in contemporary realism. In working through the figure, Fadli uses traditional painterly techniques to accurately illustrate his subjects as close representations of his observations. This is indicative of a natural skill bolstered by rigorous training in classical painting skills, including anatomy, figure drawing, composition, and techniques in oil paint. Over the years he has honed these skills through a discipline of practice and experimentation within the genre, beginning from his time as a young fine art student at MARA University of Technology (UiTM), under Amron Omar. Amron is widely recognized as a master of figurative art in Malaysia, particularly with his widely acclaimed Silat series. At UiTM, Amron was notorious for running a figurative class marked by strict standards. In this space, Fadli blossomed, impressing his tutor greatly and attaining the highly coveted, almost mythical A Grade that Amron handed out sparingly. As he graduated with a BA in Fine Art, a bright future as a figurative painter beckoned, or so it seemed.
As Fadli began immersing himself deeper into his religion, a chasm began to appear between his artistic inclinations towards the figure, and the obligations he perceived for a devout Muslim. Questions arose in his mind over the acceptability of a figurative practice for a Muslim. This was compounded by a book he read from the United Ullama Council of South Africa, The Ruling on Photography based on Islamic Law according to Fatwa Issue, and for the next eleven years, he turned his attentions strictly towards experimentations in abstract work.
The mark of a great contemporary artist is their ability to communicate observations and analysis on events – be they social, cultural, political, or religious – which often stems from an inquisitive, experimental nature. Certainly this holds true for Fadli, who is known for a curious nature. Even after making the decision to set aside his figurative career out of religious obligation, he continued to research the subject, curious as to the rules and guidance for individuals such as himself. Eventually he concluded that his artistic practice was in fact a form of dakwah, a conversational process through which he could spread knowledge on Islam, but that he would be most successful engaging an audience if he worked with his strongest talent – realism. Thus in 2007, Fadli returned to figurative works. From 2007 to 2012 he worked on a series of paintings centered around the figure through which he established himself as a leading contemporary artist and critical thinker in Malaysia’s contemporary art scene, culminating in a solo exhibition, Md Fadli Yusoff 2007- 2013, with Gallery 12.
One of the most seminal works from Md Fadli Yusoff 2007-2013, “Stand Here and Choose Yourself (Museum Piece)”, speaks to the ideals that formed the basis of this return to the figure. A piece that merges a large scale acrylic on canvas painting with an instructional performance, it demonstrates a keen desire to engage audiences in physical and conceptual interactions. The left of the canvas features a contemporary figure in suit and tie, while the right of the canvas is dominated by a man in a thobe (traditional Islamic tunic). In presenting the two ‘choices’, that is secular versus Islamic, Fadli invites his audience to choose the figure that best represents them, their belief systems, and way of life. For the artist, choices are made based on knowledge, a concept that has deep roots in Islam where believers are encouraged to read and seek knowledge at all times. In the instructional performance accompanying “Stand Here and Choose Yourself (Museum Piece)”, audiences are questioned on their choice of figure along with a justification for their choice, with their answers recorded on video. This produces a documentation on the knowledge and reasoning existing within society at large at that point. As a result “Stand Here and Choose Yourself (Museum Piece)” articulates contemporary thoughts on the parameters of knowledge through Islamic philosophy in contemporary art practice.
This interest in including Islamic philosophy in his artistic practice extended to contemporary calligraphy. Indeed, Fadli can be seen as a key contributor to the development of a contemporary calligraphy movement within Malaysia. What is particularly exciting about Malaysian contemporary calligraphy is the way local artists use Arabic or Jawi script as an icon through which they transmit broader conceptual, cultural, social, or political ideas and commentaries. Fadli is no exception, but pushes this boundary even further by merging calligraphy with realism. Earlier experimentations into communicating Islamic themes and discourse through a figurative practice featured neat lines of romanized writing woven through the Arabic script and deep dark backgrounds, with beautiful realistic images overlaid, resulting in arresting visual tensions.These are continued in the body of works brought together at Tanah Tumpahnya Darah, especially “Ampunkanlah Aku” and “Dua Muka”. “Ampunkanlah Aku” features a man on his prayer mat, presumably post- prayer, with his hands raised as he makes doa. Overlaid on the figure is a column of romanized text that reads “Ampunkanlah aku wahai Allah, Ampunkanlah aku wahai Allah yang Maha Agung” (“Forgive me O’Allah, Allah is Great”). The use of realism and romanized text lend a truly contemporary atmosphere to the painting as it deals with issues resonating
with tradition, culture, and religious practice. As such, Fadli makes these weighty issues relatable to a wider audience, both Muslim and secular, engaging a younger generation in his conceptual practice. The emergence of the figure and colored text from a deep, dark background are classic Fadli, and mark his formal interest in working with established painterly techniques, particularly chiaroscuro.
An Italian term meaning “light-dark” that originated during the Renaissance, chiaroscuro makes use of light and shade to create strong tonal contrasts to suggest three- dimensionality. Paintings seen here at Tanah Tumpahnya Darah such as “Aku Pung Anak Malaysia Jugok!” or “Hope” feature figures set against deep, dark backgrounds, giving the illusion of a spotlight on the central image. Drawing viewers into a close visual relationship with his subject in this manner, Fadli subtly narrows their focus onto the concepts represented by each portrait. By including several other elements in his compositions, in the form of architectural drawings, pop culture references, and text, the paintings are grounded within the framework of specific contemporary conversations. At times these build on earlier dialogues – as can be seen in “Aku Pung Anak Malaysia Jugok!”, which continues an examination first initiated in 2011’s “Stand Here And Choose Yourself II”, of state versus federal governance in his home state of Kelantan.
This idea of contrast between heritage and the now via two figures is one Fadli has reworked here in “Aku Pung Anak Malaysia Jugok!”, but can be traced back to works such as ”Stand Here And Choose Yourself (Museum Piece)”. Compositional links can be made through the framing of each canvas by figures linked through a broad central element, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Perfect Man or the Malaysian flag. “Aku Pung Anak Malaysia Jugok!” relies on a series of opposites – colour versus sepia, light versus dark, calligraphic fonts versus graffiti, and the past versus the present – to ruminate on ideas of duality, and the line between perception and reality. “Aku Pung Anak Malaysia Jugok!” delves into this theme by raising the issue of separation between state and federal governance.
At an impressive 18 feet in length, “Aku Pung Anak Malaysia Jugok!” is the largest work in this solo exhibition, and a confident assertion of Fadli’s skills and experimental desires within portraiture. An acrylic on jute piece, it draws inspiration from a billboard displayed in Kota Bharu in 2012, coinciding with Malaysia’s 55th Merdeka Day celebrations. On the right of the painting, Fadli replicates the famous image of Tunku Abdul Rahman raising his fist as he declares Independence. Painted in sepia tones, the work easily marks itself out as a historical reference, whilst bringing to mind the values on which the nation was founded. A large crowd is hinted at behind Tunku Abdul Rahman. Administered in a range of abstract brush strokes in sepia tones, they come together not only to build depth, but also the sense of a host of individual characters, gathered in unity; an idea reinforced through the 1Malaysia logo stenciled on this edge.
Directly opposite the reproduction of this archival image is a larger than life portrait of a young woman, whose Kelantanese identity appears confirmed by the batik scarf draped over her head. In contrast to the strong sepia figure of Tunku Abdul Rahman, this anonymous Kelantanese woman is painted in colour, cementing her as a contemporary figure. Her gaze on the historical leader appears fixed and softly questioning. A fluttering Malaysian flag is stretched out across the centre of the canvas, bridging not only the two
figures, but also creating a temporal link between past and present. He lays the text “Aku Anak Malaysia” over the flag, a direct nod to the original billboard that sparked this work. Punctuating this proud statement however are the words “Pung” and “Jugok”, Kelantanese terms for “as well”. Bright red with an exclamation mark, they are rendered in a graffiti style that sits in opposition to the carefully painted decorative words, emphasizing their role as a declaration of inclusion.
Through “Aku Pung Anak Malaysia Jugok!” Fadli raises awareness on the country’s history and inception, with a focus on values of identity and inclusiveness. Concurrently he opens up examination into the place Kelantan occupies within overall federal governmental policies. What is of note is that yet again Fadli does not offer a fixed position on the issue he is addressing. Rather, he draws attention to the contributions Kelantan makes as part of Malaysia, through the oil industry, or as the nation’s cradle of culture, which is strongly hinted at through the prominent pink batik in the work, and the complaints that some of the state’s residents have. In the process, he aims to create an intellectual space where audiences can be made aware of historical and current issues, but through self-reflection arrive at individual conclusions.
As mentioned earlier, the search for knowledge through self-reflection and research is a defining characteristic of Fadli, both personally and professionally. One of the threads running through Tanah Tumpahnya Darah is the idea that things may not always be as they appear, and that we live in a world of dualities. As in “Kambing Hitam”, he indicates a distaste for assumptions. Each canvas in the triptych features a statement over a figure; “kambing hitam“ (black sheep) over a black sheep, “kambing hitam bukan hitam” (black sheep that isn’t black) over a brown sheep, and finally “kambing hitam bukan kambing” (black sheep that isn’t a sheep) over a man dressed in a thobe. Taking the idea of the black sheep from the literal to the metaphorical, and including the social media concept of hashtagging, he points out the ease with which society accepts a truth. This has become particularly prevalent through the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, and is indicative of refusing to think and analyse to come to independent conclusions.
The need to form conclusions independent of existing or popular opinions in fact comes back to a critique of the local contemporary art industry. Despite the highly acclaimed standard of critical contemporary artists and artworks emerging from Malaysia, historically there has been a lack of support for the contemporary in terms of institutional collections, archives, and documentations. This writer in particular, has examined existing curatorial theses alongside evidence such as artworks, archival imagery, and artist interviews, in an attempt to circumvent this issue of discursive exclusions, such as questioning the established narrative on figurative art in Malaysia. This act of setting aside ‘received knowledge’ to allow for the birth of ‘actual knowledge’ parallels Fadli’s perspective of refusing to blindly accept information, and continuously reading, researching and analyzing. “Hope”, a larger than life portrait of this writer with a line drawing of the Royal College of Art (RCA) overlaid, addresses the value of research, documentation, and curating as a necessary support for contemporary artists, that has been absent to a large degree locally. At the time of working alongside Fadli to produce documentation on Tanah Tumpahnya Darah, this writer was pursuing a Masters at the RCA, which as an institution is known to
prize the production of new knowledge and theses. It is interesting to note that Fadli often tackles stronger statements through the use of an identifiable female icon, for example Aung San Suu Kyi in “We Who Are Left Behind I” and “We Who Are Left Behind II”, or Malala Yousafzai in “Malang Malala”.
In his quest to produce faithful depictions of his observations, Fadli engaged in a thorough pre-production process. Beginning with clear concepts in mind, he approached several acquaintances to act as sitters for him, styling and posing each in a series of specific ways, and having them photographed professionally. The most extreme of these was for “Tanah Tumpahnya Darah”, where the sitter agreed to be tied up, and hung upside down from his feet, as the myth relays was Tok Janggut’s fate. Working from these posed photographs adds a layer of depth to Fadli’s pre-production process, allowing him greater creative autonomy and reproductive ability, while cementing the value of observation for him as an artist. Indeed, it is this skill to observe the world around him, and transmit his observations through a mix of technical skill and critical commentary, that has always set Fadli apart. As he continues to grow, spiritually and intellectually, audiences are able to see these growths mirrored through an increasingly complex, and layered portfolio of paintings which cement Fadli’s reputation as one of Malaysia’s most talented contemporary figurative artists.
You are cordially invited to the opening reception of
A Solo Exhibition by
To be officiated by
3-10 & 3-13, Level 3, Intermark Mall
The Intermark, 348 Jalan Tun Razak
50400 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
You are cordially invited to the opening reception of
A Solo Exhibition by
To be officiated by
3-10 & 3-13, Level 3, Intermark Mall
The Intermark, 348 Jalan Tun Razak
50400 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
SPACE INVADER(S) is Azad Daniel Haris inaugural solo exhibition which showcasing 19 artworks that will be on display from 15th July – 31st August 2016.
(visit our facebook page to view the artworks)
by Zena Khan
From the mid-twentieth century, globalization has been on the rise. Demarcated by several factors, amongst them, an increase in free trade, economies of scale, as well as international media and multinationals. Along with rapid technological advancements, globalization shrinks the spaces between countries and cultures. While the term itself seems to imply cross-pollination, questions arise if it is actually a new route through which Western civilizations are able to assert dominance in the post-World War II landscape. Indeed, in his essay “Globalization and Political Strategy”, celebrated American literary critic Fredric Jameson asks, if what is really meant by ‘globalization’ is a spreading of American military and economic power, representing new forms of imperialism? At the heart of globalization lies the increasing standardization of world cultures, along a Western (usually American) trajectory, as local cultures and traditions are replaced by American food, TVs, clothes and films. These questions, along with those of consumerism and identity, often inform the practice of Azad Daniel, who continues these explorations in his inaugural solo exhibition, Space Invader(s).
A young Malaysian contemporary artist, Azad has been garnering notice for his portfolio of distinctive super-glossy artworks that extend the precincts of painting as a genre. Influenced by popular culture, and ideas of appropriation, he translates everyday objects such as iPhones and doughnuts into witty, thought-provoking artworks. Over the past few years he has worked to refine an experimental style of painting, where he primes MDF boards or cast fiberglass and Perspex surfaces with cement, before painting on them with auto paint, in a process usually reserved for the automotive industry. While auto paint might not instinctively lend itself to detailing, Azad circumvents this by illustrating his images on a computer, and then prints these images out as a series of super-sized sticker stencils. Layering them onto his surfaces one at a time, he builds up his painted surfaces to achieve sharp, detailed and glossy images that have captured the attentions of critics and audiences alike. This acclaim has manifest in several ways, such as his participation in several key exhibitions, including Iskandar Malaysia Contemporary Art Show (IMCAS) in 2009, the National Portrait Exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur (2013), Young Malaysian Artist – New Objection at Galeri Petronas (2013) and World Art Festival in Seoul, Korea (2008). Space Invader(s) excitingly provides audiences with the first opportunity to view an entire body of Azad’s works at once, which conceptually and technically build on his earlier efforts.
Space Invader(s) can be separated into two sets of works: one series of super-flat works and another of three-dimensional cups set against MDF boards. Visually, the series is reinforced as a single thread of thought, via a series of black lines painted on the gallery walls, connecting the pieces, and providing a linear map to guide viewers through the space. Anchoring this exhibition is Azad’s first major installation, titled “Space Invader(s): I”. Standing at 17 feet in length, it is primarily made up of around 800 cups with cast fiberglass lids that replicate Starbucks’ takeaway coffee cups. Azad began working with this fiberglass technique in 2013 with “Private Funk”, a flat fiberglass work finished in auto paint. He went on to experiment with this technique by casting 6 feet high iPhone covers in his popular iPhone series, indicating a desire to push his practice into three dimensional shapes. With “Space Invader(s): I”, he successfully achieves this through the production of these complex-shaped coffee cups and lids; indicating advancements in his mastery and control of this medium. Their cylindrical shapes proved to be technically-challenging, and had to be worked on a 360-degree plan, versus the artist’s typically flat stencils. In order to seamlessly connect the two different materials, Azad glued the lids to the bases before meticulously sanding them down, and applying a second undercoat over the first plastic glue primer. The cast cups are stylized; the distinctive Starbucks logo has been removed, and they are painted in a variety of auto paint colors, overlaid with a high gloss lacquer sealant. The cups were finally arranged in a meticulously pre-planned composition, building up images of Space Invader icons across the length of the installation. Thus, the original connotation of the logo-stamped coffee cups has been recast, and conversations on globalization and youth culture are initiated within a local context.
As Malaysia becomes increasingly educated, urbanized, and affluent, so too has there been a rise in consumer culture, a subject that holds known fascinations for Azad. These changes are occurring against the backdrop of twenty first century globalization, and the rise of social media. As such, individuals now have unprecedented access to products and lifestyle options. Consequently, larger global realities are integrated into smaller local ones, changing the landscape of how consumers think, act, and perhaps most importantly, spend. Social and cultural systems are now overlapping with each other’s values, morals, skills and tastes. Azad, in pointing to himself as a representative for the Gen Y demographic, dissects this phenomenon within a local context, utilizing the cups as metaphors for the shifting social landscape he observes. Where previous generations might have gathered at a mamak stall or kopitiam, Azad sees his generation drawn to the rising ‘café culture’. Throughout the city, international coffee chains such as Starbucks are springing up, pointing to a growing Western influence and homogenization of culture. While on one hand this can be viewed positively as a sign of society’s growing affluence, there is a flip side to the preference of a uniform global identity, particularly for a post-colonial nation. Recalling colonial ideas of Western moral and cultural superiority over the local, the artist questions if this homogenization is instead the surreptitious form of neo-imperialism suggested by Fredric Jameson? In trying to reconcile the multiple facets that construct his identity – from being a Muslim, to a Malaysian, to a member of Gen Y – Azad analyses the possibility that such a homogenization is in fact, an incomplete set of values that gloss over the complexities involved in carving out a contemporary cultural heritage? Or, he asks, is he being paranoid; and is a cup of coffee simply that: a cup of coffee?
Azad’s dialogue with Gen Y is made clear in these works, especially through the use of Space
Invader icons running across the exhibition. Indeed his ability to engage audiences in complex, critical discussions through highly relatable aesthetics is well documented, demonstrating an innate understanding of society’s functioning. The Space Invader icon here is directly appropriated from the popular video game that was created in the 1970’s, and has been a popular cultural icon for Gen Y. As Space Invader itself was a hallmark game that broke the barrier from novelty activity to global industry, it can be seen as a general nod to the gaming industry, as an example of how technology rapidly seeped into the everyday lives of today’s generations. Much like the rise of ‘café culture’, video games have transformed the social landscape, with regards to social and interpersonal interactions. Azad comments on his choice of this motif as an investigation into contemporary forms of ‘invasion’. He deconstructs the word ‘space’ into having a duality of meaning. On one level it could be referring to the galaxy itself, as a literal comment on the video game that aesthetically inspired him. This introduces an element of ‘lightness’ into what is essentially a serious discourse on globalization and neo-imperialism. On the other hand Azad speaks about the creation of a ‘space’ for dialogue, offering the staging of his solo exhibition as an area where audiences are able to reflect on a series of questions and thoughts, in an effort to consolidate their own critical viewpoint. As such, he indicates a desire for Space Invader(s) to act not only as a conceptual and technical progression for him creatively, but also as a ‘space’ in which critical thoughts and debates can be sparked.
What can be inferred from Space Invader(s) is perhaps the fact that a growing world economy and free trade cannot inaugurate a universal culture. With this body of works, Azad comments on the need to strike a balance between achieving modernization with a renewing of individual cultural traditions, as opposed to mimicking the ideas of an overarching Western identity. These ideas connect to his previous inquiries into consumer and popular culture, and subtly propose increased investigations into the rituals of daily life in twenty-first century Malaysia, in the search for a contemporary identity that can successfully invoke the complexities of mixing heritage and development.
BEBAS is a solo exhibition by Malaysia’s well-known contemporary artist : Suhaimi Fadzir. The exhibition is open for public from 21st of March 2016 (Monday) whilst the launching night will be held on the 24th of March on Thursday, 8 PM at Artcube.
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(Written by Zena Khan)
Over the span of his career, Malaysian artist Suhaimi Fadzir has drawn from a variety of influences – including the deconstructivist philosophies of Jacques Derrida, conceptualist techniques of Marcel Duchamp, formal aspects of Western art history, the history and contemporary environment of Malaysia, and his training as an architect – to create a unique blend of mixed media art he terms Archipainting. Despite being best known for this expansive, sculptural genre, in recent years, Suhaimi has been returning to experimenting with two-dimensional mixed media and painting works. His current solo, Bebas, here at Artcube Gallery, demonstrates the ease with which Suhaimi, a truly inter-disciplinary artist, is able to move between two, and three dimensions in his creative practice. At the same time, his position as a key intellectual thinker in contemporary Malaysian society is solidified, through the depth of ideas – ranging from themes of politics to society to religion – in the works presented.
Born in 1963 in Perak, Malaysia, Suhaimi originally trained as an architect at the Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. During this time, deconstructivism, as exemplified by employing shapes to distort or dislocate fundamental structural elements, emerged as a form of postmodern architecture. This influence has been strongly evident throughout Suhaimi’s artistic career. Indeed, his development of Archipainting can be seen as a fulfillment of the deconstructivist’s aim to show the construction and mergence of ideas and structures. Till today, Suhaimi maintains two studios, one in Malaysia and one in America, moving between them as he does between two and three dimensions in his art practice. He affirms that physically shifting between spaces enables him to broaden his insights on local social themes, by constantly infusing them with the discourses raised through viewing the world through different lenses. Through this layered way of working, Suhaimi manages to embody a truly cosmopolitan artist, whose works draw upon several international references, yet are infused with a strongly specific Malaysian cultural resonance.
Audiences and critics have responded well to his endeavors. Suhaimi regularly exhibits at important solo and group exhibitions, both in Malaysia and internationally. In 2012, he was awarded the Dublin Biennial Award of Excellence. Other important exhibitions he has participated in include the 12th and 13th Venice Biennale (Architecture), alongside famed photographer Ansel Adams in America, at the Saatchi Gallery, and at the GMCA I and GMCA II exhibitions in Malaysia. Critically, he has further established his relevance through the receipt of the prestigious Smithsonian Fellowship, as well the Art St Louis Residency programme, both in America. Several key artworks by Suhaimi can now be found in public and private collections in Malaysia, Korea, Ireland, China, USA, Indonesia, Singapore, UK, Japan, Philippine, Spain, Uzbekistan, Germany and Mexico.
Bebas brings together a wide selection of artworks by Suhaimi, which have been produced over the span of the past eight years. As such, the exhibition functions as a mini retrospective, highlighting a specific period of the artist’s career and documenting his progressions, technical developments, and conceptual threads, during this time. His penchant for assemblage is strongly demonstrated, particularly through the display of “Ferguson (For The People)”, Ferguson (Hands Up, Don’t Shoot)”, “Merdeka 1957” and “Kontrak Sosial”. These four mixed media wall assemblages are composed mainly from found objects, a key material Suhaimi has regularly revisited over the course of his career. Audiences will note that these works are increasingly refined from those produced during his early Archipainting experiments. The composition of each piece is more structured, drawing inspiration from classical Western paintings, as opposed to the freer, expressionist style that demarcates his earlier works. Additionally the works have a finer finish. “Ferguson (For The People)” and “Ferguson (Hands Up, Don’t Shoot)”, made up predominantly from found metal objects, are perhaps the most visually similar to Suhaimi’s earlier works. However, in being anchored by extra-large steel woks with lights below them, the works are endowed with a smoother, and more polished finish overall. Similarly, “Merdeka 1957” and “Kontrak Sosial”, which are finished in dominantly-white palettes, show Suhaimi’s progression of Archipainting into an increasingly sleek, contemporary direction, echoing the refinement of society at large.
“Ferguson (For The People)”, “Ferguson (Hands Up, Don’t Shoot)”, “Merdeka 1957” and “Kontrak Sosial” feel like natural starting points from which to begin intellectually navigating Bebas. Not only do they assert Suhaimi’s creativity in inventing a genre, Archipainting, but also the elements in their compositions have had a strong influence that can be tracked throughout the rest of this exhibition. The razor blades that fill the backgrounds of “Merdeka 1957” and “Kontrak Sosial”, are again visible in “Angin Senja”, “Hadirnya Dendam Bila Sabar Sudah Tiada Di Hati”, “Allah Is The Light Of The Heavens And The Earth (Orange)”, “Allah Is The Light Of The Heavens And The Earth (Green)” “Allah Is The Light Of The Heavens And The Earth (Purple)”, juxtaposed against mixed media backgrounds, overlaid with print and neon lights. In presenting these works within the same space, in a singular exhibition, the gallerists’ communicate not only the artist’s development over time, but also that of assemblage within contemporary Malaysian art.
It enabling audiences to follow the more critical developments of Suhaimi’s practice over time, a weight is lent to Bebas as being an intellectual space in which he can raise discourse on subjects close to him, while demonstrating his technical mastery. This is clearly exemplified in “Allah Is The Light Of The Heavens And The Earth (Orange)”, “Allah Is The Light Of The Heavens And The Earth (Green)” and “Allah Is The Light Of The Heavens And The Earth (Purple)”, from the Jawi/Neon series, where Suhaimi simultaneously expands on his experimentations with neon lights and calligraphy. Over printed backgrounds filled with razor blades, Suhaimi personally inscribes calligraphy of verses from Surah An-Nur. The verses hold personal significance for the artist, who was introduced to their magnitude through an alternative medicine man, with whom he spent time. The calligraphy is repeated in neon lights that mimic Suhaimi’s own Arabic writing, and are affixed to clear Perspex panels overlaying the pieces. Steel cookware, such as saucepans and pots, are arranged in a neat box across the bottom third of each piece, creating a visual link back to “Ferguson (Hands Up, Don’t Shoot)” and the artist’s penchant for metallic found objects. As a mixed media artist, Suhaimi demonstrates an innate understanding of the need to carefully structure his works through the use of several layers. The base of “Allah Is The Light Of The Heavens And The Earth (Orange)”, “Allah Is The Light Of The Heavens And The Earth (Green)” and “Allah Is The Light Of The Heavens And The Earth (Purple)”, are initially primed with black and white imprints of luxury brand logos, seemingly as a nod to the materialization of increasingly affluent societies, such as Malaysia. He links these works visually to “Hishammuddin Hussein Onn”, by repeating these prints as the initial layer on the artwork’s surface.
A large-scale triptych, “Hishammuddin Hussein Onn” is a nod to the three generations of the Onn family who have been pivotal to Malaysian politics since Independence. Each canvas features a large painted portrait – the first is of Onn Jaafar, founder of UMNO, the next is his son, Tun Hussein Onn, the third prime minister of Malaysia, and the last is of Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, the current Malaysian Minister of Defence. Over the printed logos, Suhaimi prints a scaled-down mix of the three portraits, before painting over them with expressive double layers of faces that give each canvas a sense of movement. In painting the portraits of these members of one of the country’s most prominent political dynasties, in an expressive, contemporary style, Suhaimi nods to historical traditions of depicting influential figures while expanding the canon of Malaysian contemporary painting.
“Hishammuddin Hussein Onn” is from the Merdeka series, which explores personal observations of nationalism, the Malaysian constitution, and social contract, as well as political issues. ‘Merdeka’, the Malay term for ‘independence’, commonly denotes Malaysia’s independence from the powers of colonial Britain. As such, these works are meant to explore the Malaysian constitution in terms of the original structure; that is, what it was meant to convey and subsequent interpretations in modern times. The other work included in Bebas from this series, “Standing Tall (RAHMAN)”, clearly depicts this through detailed layering of images, portraits and text. At 42 feet long, this work weaves an intricate narrative on the “Rahman Myth” alongside a discussion on the successful policies by previous Malaysia leaders that have propelled Malaysia into prominent economic and political positions on the global stage. The “Rahman Myth” suggested that the initial letter of the first six Malaysian prime ministers would come together to spell RAHMAN. Suhaimi questions whether the foretelling of this anagram was a myth or coincidence, given the fact that it has actually come to pass. From this, he goes on to ruminate on the contributions of each of the six prime ministers to Malaysia, in particular Tun Abdul Razak, who is often referred to as “Bapa Pembangunan”. Several of Tun Razak’s policies, such as the New Economic Policy, which was focused on the eradication of poverty and social construction through rural development and education, have been major contributing factors to the increased urbanization, development and affluence witnessed by Malaysians today. With a complex layering of collages, acrylic, emulsion, and medium transfer, Suhaimi brings together key images, symbols, and points that speak to the impact of these six prime ministers, in an aesthetic that a contemporary audience can connect to with ease.
In presenting a cross-section of works by Suhaimi from the past eight years, Bebas enables viewers to understand the artist’s creative progressions – technical, creative, and conceptual. As such, this exhibition situates Suhaimi within the context of the Malaysian contemporary art movement, as a key innovative figure, who continues to make important contributions to the canons of Malaysian art history.
BENCHMARK is a group exhibition comprises the works of five Malaysian contemporary artists; Hamir Soib, Masnoor Ramli Mahmud, Zulkifli Yusoff, Abdullah Jones and Abdullah Hamdan. The exhibition is open for public from 5th of February 2016 until 5th of March 2016 whilst the launching night will be held on the 18th of February on Thursday, 8 PM at Artcube. The Opening of the show will be officiated by our guest of honour, Puan Nori Abdullah.
(visit our facebook page to see the Artworks)
In contemporary societies, the role of the artist is considered crucial for cultural, political and social discourse. Understanding critical contemporary art to act as a mirror of contemporary culture, it offers a rich resource for society to reflect upon, as it considers ideas and rethinks the familiar. Socio-political art in particular has been an important part of the visual landscape for centuries, a way to challenge authority, and rethink social conventions, as has historically been seen in the works of luminaries such as Francisco Goya. Developing this thread of thought with updated and experimental mediums, contemporary artists encourage reflection and analysis, thus promoting intellectualism within society. Indeed, this trait is clearly apparent in the paintings of Hamir Soib. A titan of contemporary Malaysian art, Hamir has witnessed, and encouraged sweeping change in thought and behavior within the contemporary art world, with his large-scale witty observations of events within the rapidly evolving social landscapes of our time.
As a result of the scale and detail of his paintings, Hamir’s works are relatively singular. Accordingly, the opportunity to view a compilation of his paintings within a single exhibition is a rare treat. On the rare occasion he has had a solo exhibition, for example 2005’s Pameran Tunggal, they have gone on to be recognized as key markers within the timeline of Malaysian art history. Not only have Hamir’s solos marked new developments within his portfolio, but also they have acted as an indication of neoteric movements within the contemporary Malaysian art market. This can be attributed to a combination of his astute analytical and innovative abilities, as well as his far-reaching influence over the next generation of artists. These threads are again apparent here in Benchmark, where Hamir presents a selection of five important pieces. Created over the past year and a half, “Al-Fatihah”, “The Gatekeeper”, “Beban”, “Wasted Energy I” and “Wasted Energy II”, span a wide variety of established and inventive techniques, thoughts on culture and politics. As such, viewers are provided with a much-anticipated insight into the creative growth of arguably Malaysia’s favourite contemporary painter.
Centering this compilation are national, economic and political seam lines. Despite being painted within a singular timeframe, this collection appears split between two distinct styles. While four of the paintings are filled with perfectly detailed surreal imagery, “Al-Fatihah” is a monolithic example of the contemporary calligraphy style Hamir has been instrumental in popularizing. These two opposing visuals are bound together however, by the artist’s trademark responses to the socio-political landscape of current times. Consequently, these five paintings come together as a dynamic response to the changes in Malaysian society, raising critical discussions and promoting debate on subjects and histories in real time.
Hamir’s 2014 canvas “The Hot Seat” can be studied as a precursor to these new paintings. Despite the dreamy imagery of a riderless golden horse set against a starry night sky, “The Hot Seat” was a searing insight into Malaysian politics. Linking international events such as America’s pivot to Asia, the war in Gaza and the Russian and Ukrainian crisis with the unprecedented aviation disasters of MH 370 and MH 17, Hamir outlined 2014 as a year that saw Malaysia in a precarious political position. Often, these kinds of local struggles and superpower manoeuvres can lead to external and internal forces inciting unrest, resulting in colour-coded revolutions, as Thailand and Ukraine can testify to. The key to surmounting such issues, and making the choices that will lead the country to greatness lies with the leader, commented Hamir, as he has the final say on governance, diplomatic and economic policies. A cherry-red saddle seat acts as a metaphor for the desirable position of Prime Minister of a country that is literally made of gold, due to its abundant natural resources and a strategic geographical position. In a humorous play on the title and local political stratagems the ‘hot’ seat is twisted and warped from the heat it emanates, acting as a caution to approach the seat of power with care and respect.
Over the last year, Hamir has expanded on the ideas founded in “The Hot Seat”. He observes the split factions within society – political, social, racial and economic – attempting to articulate the cause of their emergence. “Beban”, “Wasted Energy I” and “Wasted Energy II”, are a direct visual response to ongoing socio-political issues the artist observes. Painted in a flawless realist style, these three works feature protective symbolisms, in the form of a metal diving suit, life raft and life vest respectively. However there is a twist in each visual, gently unsettling the canvases and sparking off points of discourse.
In “Beban”, the deep-sea diver is on land, with flames licking the edges of his metallic suit. A freshwater fish is detailed swimming in the diver’s helmet, which jars against the saltwater ocean depths where divers require such suits. There is a sense that the diver is in the wrong place, an idea carried over in “Wasted Energy II”. The perfectly detailed life vest, with long straps and a whistle, looks functioning. However, it is shown submerged underwater, where it is rendered useless, much like the raft in “Wasted Energy I”. At first glance, it appears to be an attractive, realist depiction of an object. Closer inspection reveals the raft has been nailed down at the top. The inclusion of the tiny nail completely transforms the boat’s functionality, explaining the slight sense of unease viewers feel despite the piece’s perfect finish. By achieving his aim to unsettle his audience, Hamir raises the issue of angst swirling around Malaysian society today, gently prompting viewers to reassess preconceived notions of the relationships between the individual, society and government. He questions, if society wants to continue on the paternalistic political path they are used to, where they place heavy expectations on the government, or if citizens are instead ready to begin accepting increased responsibility for themselves and contributing back to society at large for the greater good of all?
The works presented here are reflective of the skills Hamir has been developing over the last five years. “Beban” is a continued experimentation of his metallurgy paintings, as has been most recently seen in “The Hot Seat”, while “Wasted Energy I” and “Wasted Energy II” are a follow on of the perfect detailing from the Polo series. It is in “The Gatekeeper” however that viewers are shown several of Hamir’s signature styles in a single canvas. A large-scale work, it incorporates several of his most well known elements. Painted in bitumen, a notoriously difficult medium of which Hamir is considered the undisputed master, it involves intensive layering, resulting in the hidden images that emerge throughout, leading to a dreamy, gothic narrative on ideas of cultural gatekeeping.
Conceptually, “The Gatekeeper” mixes personal and wider social undertones. Hamir points out that as one aims for success on any front, there are members of the old guard jealously guarding the established status quo that need to be bypassed. By passing the gatekeeper is next to impossible, and often times they try to press others down in order to retain a dominant position. This can be linked back to the Malaysian art industry and the early years of Hamir’s career. In the 1990’s there was a strong focus on modernist artworks, with a general penchant for abstract pieces in four foot squared dimensions. Hamir broke out of this mould with his monolithic canvases filled with figurative visuals, often underscored by darkly humorous connotations. Despite his unquestionable talent, he struggled for several years within the conventional confines of the art world, which was reluctant to allow for such a dynamic, and drastic new movement. The gatekeeper is not pictured as triumphant however; here he is shown crouched on all fours, clutching a large sack as he slinks along with termites crawling around him. Audiences are left with the impression that no matter how hard he tries, he is unable to stem the march of progress, and is thus left behind in a bitter, twisted position. This parallels the local art industry, which through the emergence of private galleries and collectors, has embraced both Hamir and the critical contemporary movement, leaving archaic institutions far behind.
Rounding off this new collective of works is “Al-Fatihah”, Hamir’s largest in-depth calligraphy painting to date. Spanning an impressive sixteen feet in length, “Al-Fatihah” again deals with dual issues, personal and social. Hamir has spent a large portion of the last few years developing a strong contemporary calligraphy portfolio, commenting that his calligraphic works mark a personal journey into understanding the tenants of his religion and spirituality. At the same time, “Al-Fatihah” continues his commentary on the socio-political landscape of Malaysia today. As the country progresses and becomes richer, so has religion emerged as an increasingly potent force. Due to the advent of social media platforms, the masses are able to witness firsthand the opulent life lived by those who benefitted economically from Malaysia’s rapid development. Naturally this leads into questions of materialism versus spirituality, leading to an increased prominence of the role of religion in society. “Al-Fatihah” is imbibed with a talismanic quality, which neatly ties it in with the iconography present in “Beban”, “Wasted Energy I” and “Wasted Energy II”. The appearance of the phrase “Ihdina’s-sirata’l-mustaqim” (Guide us on the straight path) bisecting the expansive emerald green canvas clearly identifies the prayer. The remaining six lines from the prayer have been painted in layers over the canvas, one at a time, in an amazing display of technical prowess.
It is interesting to note that in an art industry largely dominated by talented and successful multi-disciplinary artists, Hamir has emerged as the favourite talent of a generation, with a portfolio devoted exclusively to painting. This speaks volumes to his mastery over his medium, as well as the experimentations and new developments within painting in Malaysia he has been crucial in developing. Through his immeasurable depth of concept and imagination, coupled with this bold, innovative handling of paint, audiences are able to understand how Hamir single-handedly captures the attention of the entire art industry, while providing a model for artists of later generations. As such, this rare collective of works are certain to go down in the canons of Malaysian art history as an exciting moment in the progression of the local art industry.
Masnoor Ramli Mahmud
Masnoor Ramli’s series Moulding The History is probably best described as a continuous examination on notions of politics, myths and events that personally fascinate the artist himself. By examining such ideas and framing them within a distinctly Malaysian context, Masnoor has demonstrated time and again his position as a key intellectual of our contemporary times. He reinforces this position with his latest piece from this important series, “Moulding The History – Mother Earth Mother Love”.
A long work measuring approximately eight feet by two feet “Moulding The History – Mother Earth Mother Love” is produced in Masnoor’s inventive photo print on aluminium style. The artist first unveiled this new medium in his celebrated 2014 solo Aviation, and has since gone on to rework and refine what is becoming a signature style in his multi-disciplinary practice. Printing images and photographs on a matte finished aluminium, he achieves an almost mythical quality through an experimental process. Usually the printing of images requires four base colours, but Masnoor cuts this down to three. By using the natural grey of the aluminium as a substitute for white, he lessens the intensity of his palette, while retaining the aluminium’s textural quality. As such, “Moulding The History – Mother Earth Mother Love” is imbibed with a dream-like quality that perfectly communicates Masnoor’s melodic, philosophical character.
Masnoor communicates a fascination between Heaven and Earth, or the tangible and intangible, using a NASA photoprint of the landscape on Mars as a starting point. Born in the 1960’s, Masnoor grew up in a generation where space exploration was a new and exciting phenomenon. The galaxy and other planets held an inexplicable, mysterious quality that has not lessened for the artist through scientific discoveries and new developments. Rather, he feels confronted by ever increasing questions, theories and possibilities. Recognising the photoprint sent by Viking 1, when it first landed on Mars as a milestone in scientific advancement, he investigates the reasons behind mankind’s unending desire to conquer new spaces, linking it to historic discoveries of New Lands by explorers such as Christopher Columbus. In doing so, he uncovers an inherent colonial tendency within mankind, situated alongside a desire for possibility and hope. As such, he blurs the dualities present within humans, much as the dualities between Heaven and Earth are increasingly blurred, in a commentary on the often-oppositional elements within a single existence.
In his essay Fascination From The Beginning Of Mankind, Alexander Soucek theories that astronomy and space travel are crucial cultural achievements, due to its demonstration of technological advancements and ability to feed intangible fascinations inherent in mankind. Certainly, the unknown realms of the universe hold an allure that navigates all cultures and generations. As such, “Moulding The History – Mother Earth Mother Love” can be seen as marrying together, highly current content with a technical finesse to reaffirm Masnoor’s position as a favourite within the Malaysian contemporary art world today.
In art, symbols are incorporated as solid visual representations of ideas or concepts that would otherwise be tricky to characterize. In contemporary art, symbols included from both popular culture as well as traditional icons easily categorize an artist’s heritage, his views and attitude and immediately open up forums for debate on their hypothesis of contemporary society. Noted international artists with this ability include Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Keith Haring, while in Malaysia, one of the most popular contemporary artists who incorporate vivid cultural iconography and symbolism, is the celebrated Zulkifli Yusoff.
An eminent artist who successfully works across the mediums of painting, sculpture and installation, Zulkifli has won many major awards. In both 1988 and 1989, he was presented with the Major Award for Young Contemporaries at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, and in 1992 he gathered three prizes at the third Salon, the Grand Minister’s Prize, Major Award and Consolation Prize for sculpture, and also won an Honourable Mention in Painting in 1995 at the Philip Morris Awards. Zulkifli has been invited to participate in several important international exhibitions, most notably at the Venice Biennale in 1997. He has also shown at the Biennale of Visual Arts in Seychelles, the Fukuoka Asian Art Exhibition in Japan, Immunity 11 show at Art Space, Sydney and the First Asia-Pacific Triennale in Brisbane, Australia. Major international institutions, including the Fukuoka Museum of Art, and Hiroshima Art Museum in Japan and the Singapore Museum and Gallery, as well as local institutions such as Bank Negara Malaysia and the Kedah State Gallery, collect his work.
Referencing his ever-changing environment and issues, through an intense research-based practice, is the cornerstone of Zulkifli’s practice, as is evident in his Green Book series. This series is a continued exploration on the rhetoric and policies of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Tun Razak, which began with the series Tun Razak Speeches. His new works “Mari Kita Ke Ladang (Buku Hijau Series)” and “Berbakti Kepada Bumi (Buku Hijau Series)” follow on from 2014’s installation “Tun Razak Speech Series – The Green Book” in producing a contemporary narrative on the Green Book policies implemented by Tun Razak in the 1970’s. At the time, Malaysia’s economy was heavily dependent on the rubber industry, which was faced with an international price depression. Tun Razak recognized the need to create new economic avenues, and the agricultural initiative of The Green Book was launched. Zulkifli speaks to this historic precedent of economic diversification, which is a highly relevant conversation today. Under the stewardship of prime minister Najib Razak, Malaysia has again been seeing the implementation of several policies to ensure a sustainable and inclusive growth. As such, these works act as prime example of Zulkifli’s penchant for reinterpreting historical texts and events within a contemporary framework, so as to encourage intellectual discourse within society.
Technically, “Mari Kita Ke Ladang (Buku Hijau Series)” and “Berbakti Kepada Bumi (Buku Hijau Series)” are a refinement of the strip collage technique Zulkifli began developing with his seminal installation “Pendita”. This pair of mixed media triptychs is made up of fiberglass and epoxy resin, laid over fabric and canvas. While monochromatic palettes and neat linear compositions demarcate Zulkifli’s early strip canvas works, “Mari Kita Ke Ladang (Buku Hijau Series)” and “Berbakti Kepada Bumi (Buku Hijau Series)” feature intricate grid-based compositions and increasingly vibrant colours. The central panel of each work features a sculpted resin dome, inset with images of livestock and agriculture, while the borders on each panel, feature further such collaged images and texts such as jagung and ikan. This stark symbolism directly ties the two works in to the policies, texts and visions of The Green Book, seamlessly merging Zulkifli’s concepts and aesthetics.
Zulkifli strives to use his position as an acclaimed artist to propagate the values he holds in high regard such as patriotism and social awareness, as well as awareness on current and historical issues. His practice has evolved over the last two decades from a raw, slightly loose application, to a super-refined and intricately-detailed practice, mirroring his growing confidence and recognition both internationally and locally, as a vital component in Malaysia for the resonance of his creative practice within society, as is demonstrated here in “Mari Kita Ke Ladang (Buku Hijau Series)” and “Berbakti Kepada Bumi (Buku Hijau Series)”.
“Cakap Pasal Outside” and “Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa” are two new paintings by the Malaysian contemporary painter Abdullah Jones. Measuring five feet by six and a half feet each, these brightly coloured acrylic on canvas pieces are a wonderful mix of solemnity and humor. Worked in the artist’s signature expressive style, they form the basis of a new series for the artist, with sock puppets as a central icon.
Born in April 1964, Abdullah lives and works in Kuantan, Pahang. His place in the critical sphere of Malaysian contemporary is evident through his key involvement in the artist-run space Rajawali Art Studio, as well as his participation in several exhibitions. Abdullah has presented work not only locally, at exhibitions such as Gabung at Pahang State Art Gallery and Saudagar Cinta at Pahang State Art Museum, but also internationally in shows such as Un-Cut at Gallery Shambala in Copenhagen, and The Outsider Art at Octane Photographic Studio/Gallery in Ferndale, Minnesota. The attention Abdullah receives is in large part due to the critically questioning nature behind his paintings, presented in highly attractive, expressive aesthetics, as seen here in “Cakap Pasal Outside” and “Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa”.
With these new works, Abdullah aims to examine a series of current issues he observes affecting contemporary society. It is interesting to note that by living and working in the East Coast, he chooses to base himself in the heartland of Malay culture. In a post-colonialist environment such as Malaysia, he thus demonstrates an awareness of valuing one’s own culture as society re-establishes identity in the post-colonial era. This subject is strongly hinted at in “Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa”, whose title translates into “A patriot not understanding Bahasa (Malay)”. Language is central in uniting a nation and providing national identity, particularly in a multi-ethnic environment. Additionally, establishing Malay as the national language restores a sense of dignity to Malaysian citizens after a long period of being ruled by the British, who used English as a tool in suppressing the indigenous during colonization. In comprehending the role of language to patriotism, Abdullah thus questions the validity of identifying as a Malaysian, should one be unable to communicate in Malaysia’s national language.
Part of Abdullah’s success in establishing a strong rapport with his audience lays in the humorous tone his aesthetic offers. He softens the potentially sharp, stinging message of his paintings by incorporating a playful icon, that of the sock puppet. The inclusion of a childlike element is reminiscent of the works of pioneering Malaysian artist Zulkifli Dahlan. A strong influence on Abdullah, Zulkifli 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 somber elements as being highly reflective of the issues swirling throughout contemporary society, resulting in these satirical, self-deprecating paintings.
“Cakap Pasal Outside” and “Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa” form the basis of a new series for Abdullah, as the artist continues to explore the state of contemporary society through a highly critical lens. Brightly coloured, thought provoking, expressive and filled with humor, they are an accurate reflection both of Abdullah himself, as well as his inspired artistic practice.
One of the assets of mixed media art is the versatility and beauty that can be achieved through the intense layering necessary in its production. In bringing together several mediums, textures and layers, this genre is a favourite for contemporary artists to visually communicate complex conceptual thoughts, particularly those of a socio-political nature. Pahang-based artist Abdullah Hamdan, who is part of the Rajawali artist collective, beautifully exemplifies this with his latest piece, “Golden Hearts”.A long work that measures three feet by twelve feet, “Golden Hearts” represents a new and experimental technical direction for Abdullah. While the artist is known for his carefully composed realist paintings, this triptych branches out into new territories, with the use of plastic toys, collage, acrylic and aerosol spray on canvas. While there is still a prominent painted element, in the form of the Malaysian flag that covers the centre panel, it differs from his usual practice of painting figures. The flag is flanked on either side by homochromatic white canvases swarming with tiny toy soldiers. Despite the vastly different aesthetic of this new piece, audiences familiar with Abdullah’s work can draw parallels between the artist’s previous painting-based practice and “Golden Hearts”, through his skilled compositional skills. The careful consideration with which Abdullah places the figure in his paintings has resulted in a training of composition, that is vital in mixed media art. As mixed media works are the result of a careful buildup of layers, the decision of each structural element’ placement is key in achieving a successful work. By branching out into this new genre, Abdullah builds on his existing skills to challenge his own creativity, while expanding his repertoire.
Abdullah’s progression into a new medium stems from his observations of the relationship between medium and message in contemporary art. Placing value on both aesthetic as well as content, he has investigated new ways of communicating visually with his audience. As is suggested by the prominence of the Malaysian flag, “Golden Hearts” explores themes of nationalism and patriotism. By placing the flag between swarms of white soldiers, Abdullah speaks about the two key elements he feels are central to the existence of patriotism. The first is the subject that generates such emotion, such as the national flag, and the second is the individuals who respond to the rallying symbol. The staff numbers of Malaysian policemen killed during the Bukit Kepong Incident stamped horizontally across the flag, further represents these patriotic ideals. A confrontation with the Malayan Communist Party during the Malayan Emergency in 1950, the Bukit Kepong Incident was seen as a rallying point that strengthened the resolve of the Malayan government and people in the fight against communist insurgency. It is interesting to note that much as in the style of “Flag” by Jasper Johns, Abdullah seemingly wraps the center canvas in the image of his flag, presenting his audience with the choice to view it as either a flag or a painting. By changing the presentation of such a familiar symbol central to Malaysian identity, Abdullah gently raises the question of patriotism and nationalism within society at large today.
It is interesting to note that the two Rajawali artists presented h
Bacalah is the first exhibition by Mohd Noor Mahmud, popularly known as Mat Nor, since the presentation of his seminal 2014 series, Siri Rasa Bertuhan. The exhibition features two multi-panel mixed media paintings based on two Muslim prayers: Surah Al-Alaq (Iqra’) and Surah Al-Fatihah. Translating into ‘read’, Bacalah is an apt title for an exhibition centered on the presentation of text-based works. With these contemporary calligraphy pieces, Mat Nor continues to redefine the shifting constructs of Malay-Muslim identity, packaging it in a way that resonates with a new generation of Malaysians entering the twenty-first century.
A LOOK BACK
A Kelantanese artist, Mat Nor has long drawn on his cultural identity for inspiration in his mixed media practice. From the beginning of his artistic career, he has looked at the craft traditions of Malaysia’s East Coast as a springboard into exploring ideas of the effects of globalization and contemporizing heritage. The symbol he turns most often to in this effort is batik, as has been seen since his inaugural series Siri Imajan. A key body of works in the development of Malaysian contemporary art, Siri Imajan explored the effect of globalization and an increasingly homogenous Western identity on cultural strongholds such as Kelantan. Showcasing a switch in the daily uniform from batik to denim jeans, Mat Nor spoke about the anthropological role textile traditions have in documenting history. In the process, he introduced batik as a key part of his visual vocabulary, setting the stage for a career-spanning signature.
Another signature developed during the Siri Imajan period was that of Mat Nor’s highly textured canvases. During the artist’s early period, he achieved texture mostly through the use of paper mache, pasted over large areas of canvas. However, in the vein of all successful mixed media artists, Mat Nor consistently conducts extensive investigations into the effects of various mediums. Such innovative research has always allowed the artist to set himself apart from his peers visually, and led to the textural sawdust, acrylic and glue compositions that make up the foundation of the works presented here at Bacalah.
A technique first explored during the production of his Siri Gua series, Mat Nor’s highly-textured, sawdust-based aesthetic gained prominence with Siri Rasa Bertuhan. Audiences were enthralled by the finely detailed, multi-coloured facades bearing the Divine Names of Allah. In Iqra’ and Al-Fatihah, Mat Nor continues working with this relief-like base, beginning with a gummy blend of sawdust and glue, slathered over a primed surface. At the end, he adds paint, until a thick, marbled layer is achieved. The result is a soft foundation, similar to a viscous paste, which is easily impressionable. Mat Nor imprints batik patterns into this wet surface using antique copper batik ‘chops’ from his personal archive, in a process mirroring the batik textile production that is a crucial cottage industry for Kelantan.
By drawing a parallel between the traditional batik production method and his contemporary process, Mat Nor encourages his audience to view traditional craft through the lens of postmodern thinking. As such, this examination creates an engagement of heritage and contemporary creativity, and in the process enriches a national cultural artifact with a sense of belonging to current audiences. Mat Nor understands the importance of this linkage in documenting Malay-Muslim culture today, and achieves it through the use of his antique batik chops. The stamps themselves are made up of pretty floral patterns in copper, yet the artist utilizes them in a novel way, so that their appearance is almost abstract. Through cropping and the creation of new compositions, he imbibes the well-known floral representations with a quality viewers are not accustomed to. A resulting visual conflict is instrumental in drawing the audience in for a closer look, causing the reconsideration of a once familiar image and the position of heritage in current times.
IQRA’ AND AL-FATIHAH
Mat Nor’s exploration of Malay identity has recently been extended to include the community’s ethno-religious characteristics with the introduction of calligraphy. Calligraphy is a popular icon in infusing an Islamic identity into art. After all, the written word has always been at the center of Islamic visual culture. Arabic text first appeared in Mat Nor’s portfolio with the series Siri Rasa Bertuhan, and since then he has quickly established himself as a forerunner of the contemporary calligraphy genre in Malaysia. Malaysian artists are unique internationally, in their ability to extend the artistic potential of calligraphy beyond that of a legible word; rather they use it as a pictorial element to reference a multitude of issues. Mat Nor demonstrated this beautifully in Siri Rasa Bertuhan, using the Asmaul Husna (the Divine Names of Allah) to study religion and gratitude, as well as the dynamics of Islam and Malay culture. He resumes this thread now with the production of the two new body of works shown at Bacalah: Iqra’ and Al-Fatihah.
As a continuation of an earlier concept, there are some familiarities within these two new pieces for those acquainted with Mat Nor’s practice. However, having perfected his calligraphic technique through the five-year production of the 101 works embodying Siri Rasa Bertuhan, he now pushes himself to work in a more complex technical, and conceptual vein. Each of the two titles consists of several canvases; Iqra’ is made up of five and Al-Fatihah is made up of seven. The number of panels corresponds directly to the number of lines within the two prayers that inspired this body of work. Whereas his earlier calligraphy works simply featured a single name inscribed across their center, Mat Nor now writes out entire sentences in challenging compositions. It is crucial at this junction to remember that Mat Nor declares himself to be a painter, not a calligrapher, pointing to his method to substantiate this differentiate. Calligraphy tends to be written in a fluid, free-hand stroke. Mat Nor deviates from this by painting his text with the use of large stencils, handmade from thick cardboards. As his confidence has grown, so have his compositions become increasingly decorative and complex, demonstrating a mastery over his self-developed calligraphic process.
Each of the two prayers the artist has chosen plays an integral role in the history and practice of Islam. Iqra’ features the first five lines from Surah Al-Alaq. Beginning with the command “Iqra!” or “Read!”, they form the first of the Divine Revelations received by Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) as he meditated in Cave Hira’ during the month of Ramadan. These five lines contain several valuable pieces of information for Muslims, beginning with the commandment from which Islam is established. These lines give the cognizance of Allah, as the single Creator and Lord, who granted the power of thought and sense to mankind. Coupling this information with the fact that the first word revealed is ‘read’, further determines the value on knowledge and educating oneself in Islam, verifying the religion as an enlightened one.
Al-Fatihah, as its title suggests is based on the Al-Fatihah prayer. A succinct seven sentences, it is the first chapter of the Quran and often referred to as “The Opening”. Indeed, on a practical level this is an apt description, as the Al-Fatihah serves as the opening prayer of the Quran, the first prayer recited in each raka’at (cycle) of the daily prayers, as well as several other everyday occurrences in a Muslim’s life. There is a deeper meaning to the epithet however, as the Al-Fatihah is also viewed as a conversation between a believer and Allah, an idea Mat Nor alludes to, by inscribing each line on a separate canvas.
The practice of keeping calligraphy in the home by Muslims, traditionally serves both decorative, as well as talismanic purposes. There is a belief that seeing, touching or reading the word of Allah will protect a person from evil, and act as a conduit for good fortune and blessings. Talismans are sometimes also charged with not only shielding, but also guiding. Mat Nor explores this aspect by choosing two key prayers that reinforce opening oneself up to accept faith. Indeed, Muslims are often reminded of their ability to make conscious decisions, such as accepting Allah, and deciding to practice their religion, and this is an underlying concept in both Surah Al-Alaq and Al-Fatihah. In depicting these two verses over a series of canvases, the artist encourages his viewer to stop and reflect, on the meaning and intent behind each individual sentence, thus fulfilling the spiritual obligation set to calligraphers.
Mat Nor presents to his audience, two of the most famous Islamic phrases in a recognizably Malay context, through the use of colour, texture and pattern, via a highly contemporary technical process. In creating his signature batik-infused textural surfaces, he endows each panel with an individual identity due. Mat Nor chooses vivid shades for his backgrounds, that wouldn’t typically be selected to sit together when using the scholastic fundamentals of colour theory. This colour clash comes together beautifully, representing a typically Kelantanese attitude to colour. By merging his conventional craft techniques and religious identity, and then juxtaposing it against a contemporary artistic practice, Mat Nor articulates the ethno-religious identification of the Malays, and their position in an increasingly borderless world.
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Bacalah by Mohd Noor Mahmud.
An exhibition that brings together explosively talented and critically acclaimed contemporary Malaysian artists, The Great Malaysian Contemporary Art Show, or GMCA as it is affectionately termed, returns for a second year in Art Expo 2014. As was witnessed in its inaugural 2013 show, the GMCA aims to foster the concept of handpicking artists based on their critical value and showcasing a manner of mediums from painting to installation – thus transcending the limitations of regular local exhibits in both aesthetic and curatorial terms. Not only does the GMCA present works by the most exciting critical contemporary Malaysian artists, it also seeks to provide documentation and context on the art shown, thus creating an environment which allows the Malaysian public to appreciate and connect with the immense local talent.
The GMCA first launched in 2013, with a selection of thirteen artists, exhibited by Core Design Gallery and curated by Farouk Khan. Artcube and Core Design Gallery, two top contemporary Malaysian art galleries, have now joined forces to present the GMCA 2014 – an exhibit worthy of the artists shown. The impact of a super-sized, well-curated space is one that has never been seen before at Art Expo, and it was with this reason in mind that both galleries came together. It must be noted that Artcube and Core Design Gallery have been at the forefront of raising the documentation and representation within contemporary Malaysian art, and their innovative and professional approaches haves quickly set new standards within the industry, as is demonstrated by the quality of the GMCA 2014.
Meticulously curated, the GMCA 2014 focuses on contemporary Malaysian artists ranging from established to mid-career to emerging. The exhibition stems from the long-standing vision of collector Farouk Khan who noticed a disparity between commercially successful and critically acclaimed art in Malaysia. Farouk’s ability to contextualize art from both a local and international perspective has guided his curating to include those artists who set international level benchmarks within the Malaysian art industry. An example of this phenomenon is artist Susyilawati Sulaiman, who is arguably the most prominent contemporary Malaysian artist on the international art scene today. Famed for her narrative driven works which study constructions of identity from a highly personal starting point, Susyilawati has been extensively exhibited at key international events. These include the prestigious Documenta 12 (2007), Asia-Pacific Triennale in (2009-10), Singapore Biennale (2011), Florence Biennale (2003) and Continuities: Contemporary Art of Malaysia At The Turn of The 21st Century, Guangdong Museum of Art. 2014 brought with it an invitation to show at the Gwangju Biennale from Jessica Morgan, creative director of the biennale. Just as exciting has been Susyilawati’s inclusion at Art Basel Unlimited, where she has been described as South East Asia’s most important artist – an honour for both the artist herself as well as for Malaysia.
Disparities in critical acclaim and commercial success may be attributed to the fact that critical artists tend to make avant garde art. Working ahead of their time, these pieces appeal to a more developed and sophisticated art palate as opposed to decorative art, which tends to find quick success locally. Casting away the idea of equating art to pretty pictures means the GMCA is a much needed platform in which artists can express themselves and show the types of works which have garnered them international fame. One such example is with the artist Zulkifli Yusoff. Zulkifli is one of the foremost installation artists in the country and has been invited to participate in several important international exhibitions, most notably at the Venice Biennale in 1997. He has also shown at the Biennale of Visual Arts in Seychelles, the Fukuoka Asian Art Exhibition in Japan, Immunity 11 show at Art Space, Sydney and the First Asia-Pacific Triennale in Brisbane, Australia. The lack of a local platform has led to Zulkifli exhibiting his key works outside of the country, but the curatorial vision of the GMCA now provides a local arena for his art to be showcased. The 2014 GMCA show will exhibit his latest large-scale installation, The Green Book. A piece from his series on Tun Abdul Razak’s speeches, it covers aspects of economics, politics and society within a Malaysian context.
Similar parallels can be drawn in the careers of Tan Chin Kuan and Eng Hwee Chu. Chin Kuan, an artist whose repertoire encompasses painting, sculpture, performance and installation, is well-known among curators and critics both in Malaysia and abroad. Not only has he displayed at the Gwangju Biennale (1995) and Osaka Triennale (1993 and 2001), he has also had a solo exhibition at the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan and won numerous prizes for his works. Both 1989 and 1990 saw him win the Major Award at the Young Contemporaries, National Art Gallery Kuala Lumpur, in 1991 he won the Minor Award at the Salon Malaysia 3 and in 2001 he was presented with the Bronze Prize at the Osaka Triennale. The critical endorsement from his plethora of awards and exhibits has earned Chin Kuan a place in museums such as the Fukuoka Art Museum, The Osaka Prefectural Government & Osaka Foundation of Culture in Japan, The Singapore Art Museum and the National Art Gallery Malaysia. Again it is now here at the GMCA that Chin Kuan has found a space to present an artwork which fits in with his ethos of producing shockingly impressive art, to upset complacency and engage viewers in debate. Eng Hwee Chu is the wife of Chin Kuan and impressive in her own right. She is often described as a Malaysian Frida Kahlo for her surreal paintings filled with reflections of herself. Her autobiographical painting practice has earned her several important awards such as the Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards (1994) and Painting Award at Salon Malaysia 3 (1991). Additionally, Hwee Chu has displayed at the Osaka Triennale (2001) and Asia-Pacific Triennale in Brisbane (1996).
Equally exciting are the works of Fauzin Mustafa and Mohd Noor Mahmud. These established artists demonstrate not only thorough understandings of fine art’s formalistic tenants but also innate understandings of the framework of Malay cultural identity. Both work in mixed media, demonstrating real flair for building up textural surfaces with the use of materials traditional and non-traditional materials such as cut canvas, batik, acrylic, sand and glue. Hearty helpings of references to symbols such as calligraphy, batik and Malay poetry render them as key players in bringing culture into forums of contemporary discourse and thus they are known as important visual documenters of heritage in a rapidly developing environment.
Blending similar inferences to heritage, society and patriotism with ultra modern materials such as neon lights and razor blades is Suhaimi Fadzir. Pioneer of a new type of assemblage, “archipainting”, Suhaimi uses his architectural training to understand spatial structures, assembling reliefs that present typically Malaysian artifacts in wholly current terms. This ability is prized with international curators, who increasingly look for cultural identifiers, and has earned Suhaimi invitations to show at the Dublin Biennale (2012) and Venice Biennale (Architecture) (2010, 2012). Additionally, he has had his works exhibited alongside famed photographer Ansel Adams, and has also shown at the world-renowned Saatchi Gallery.
Art has long had a responsibility to document society’s culture, whether through the use of cultural artifacts, as seen in the works of Fauzin and Mohd Noor, or icons to act as metaphors for social and political shifts, as seen in Hamir Soib’s epic paintings. Known for his mastery of oil paint, Hamir delights in developing new mediums within his painting focused practice. Of all his experiments, he is possibly best known for his innovations with bitumen, magically transforming the coal tar into a media which he can control with the finesse of paint. Hamir’s oversized proportions have captured the attentions of collectors, critics and artists alike; his influence is clearly present in the trend of large works that currently dominates Malaysia’s contemporary art scene. Hamir utilises his unparalleled skill and sharp insights to create large-scale socio-political commentary paintings. Having dedicated his career to the analysis of current events he affords his audience new ways of experiencing the world, resulting in an archive of paintings that have both artistic and social importance.
Hamir is not the only member of the notable Matahati collective to gain fame. Also on display at the GMCA is celebrated mixed media genius Ahmad Shukri, who has won the prestigious Philip Morris Award a stunning three times. Popular for his ability to present typically Malaysian elements in universal tones, Shukri skillfully connects discussions on cultural positions in global societies to his large audience. As a mixed media artist Shukri understands the value of layers, producing pieces heaving with strips of canvas, coatings of print and paint, to construct dynamic visuals. His stress on layering extends to the concepts within his art; Shukri studies the shifting values and attitudes of his quickly developing environment, linking various issues, events and thoughts together to produce art that has real intellectual depth.
Rounding off the Matahati representatives are multi-disciplinary artists Masnoor Ramli and Ahmad Fuad Osman. The increase in complex, multi-cultural societies globally has led to expansions in visual language, thus rendering multi-disciplinary artists as crucial to the progress of contemporary art, both in Malaysia and abroad. Fuad and Masnoor effortlessly translate their deep concepts into reality with the use of paintings, photography, installations and videos, displaying above all else a true reverence for the message in their art. Fuad has based his artistic practice on the ruminations of life, death and what exists in-between. The philosophies that form the cornerstone of Fuad’s works coupled with his ability to work across every medium have earned him the prestigious Philip Morris Juror’s Choice Award in 200 and 2003, and residencies at the Vermont Studio Centre (2004), Goyang National Art Studio in Korea (2005-2006) and the Rimbun Dahan Residency (2007-2008). Masnoor displays understandings of the human psyche by discussing history and current events through the use of highly identifiable popular imagery. His ability to effortlessly juxtapose modern icons with ancient artifacts, heightened currency of content and technical finesse across all artistic genres single mark him out as a truly contemporary artist. Known to be non-prolific, the ability to view works by both Fuad and Masnoor, especially alongside Hamir and Shukri, is a treat for those fans of contemporary Malaysian art who have an understanding of the industry’s history.
Within a secular Islamic society such as Malaysia, calligraphy holds a special place in its art world. At the forefront of contemporary calligraphy there is Husin Hourmain. Having developed a mastery of the most fundamental element of Islamic art, Husin uses calligraphy as an icon to discuss the theme of ‘identity’ that is a cornerstone of post-colonialist societies such as Malaysia. Skillfully, Husin ruminates on subjects that resonate with society at large, especially the meanings behind personal relationships, being a Malay and being a Muslim. His hyper-detailed, colourful canvases have quickly earned him a large following, which is well-deserved in the wake of his abilities to add new facets to an already dynamic art industry.
Daud Rahim, known for his stunning drawing talents, also turns to ideas of spirituality. Often he mixes these with ultra-modern or macabre images, engaging the curiosities of his contemporary viewer. His skill is easily demonstrated in his use of deceptively difficult ‘reverse-technique’ colour styles, where he primes his canvas black then works with a myriad of colours to add light, tone and life. Audiences today enjoy visuals in which all is not as it seems, and this characteristic is employed in another manner by the expansive and humorous painter Ali Nurazmal. Comprehending the classical tenants of painting as developed by Renaissance artists, Ali updates the style by depicting scenes of modernity. His perfectly rendered canvases, bursting forth with wit, sarcasm and personality, are as charming as the artist himself.
The GMCA introduces audiences to all genres of fine art, and the plethora would not be complete without the inclusion of ceramic art. Malaysia boasts the foremost contemporary ceramic artist of South East Asia – Umibaizurah Mahir Ismail. Years of dedication to her careful craft have endowed Umibaizurah with a dexterity within her chosen medium, and she utilises her gift to create enchantingly beautiful pieces that invoke desire within viewers. Umibaizurah shares her knowledge and skills with the emerging generation of young artists, and her apprentice Al-Khuzairie Bin Ali takes his place at the GMCA as the torchbearer for a new generation of ceramic artists. Juxtaposing masculine elements such as mechanical forms with the delicacy of porcelain and stoneware, Al-Khuzairie proffers deeply philosophical ruminations in sleek, sculptural forms.
The journey of discovery at the GMCA is enhanced by the inclusion of a wide selection of young artists. The experimental nature of these young artists is now openly displayed collectively in one space, thus showing a cross-section of recent developments within the younger generation. The important role painting plays in contemporary art is evidenced by Fadli Othman’s commitment to presenting modern issues in traditionally formalistic aesthetics, bolstered by the easy confidence of his incredible skill. Raja Lope presents large-scale fantastic narratives which merge science-fiction and myths in a finely painted format which viewers easily appreciate. Witnessing new technical developments in the art industry is a key concern for visitors to art fairs, and they will not be disappointed by the boundary pushing experiments of Azad Daniel. Azad has developed a new technique which involves primed cement surfaces covered in auto-paint, and his glossy, pop-art esque results are a delight for sophisticated, urban audiences.
Just as innovative are the pyrographic prints of Haafiz Shahimi. Merging the laws of physics with printmaking, Haafiz adds new twists to the classic medium of print. It is interesting to be able to view his art in the same enclosure as Zulkifli Yusoff, whose use of print in his installations is a cited inspiration for Haafiz. Assemblage artist Azrin Mohd attempts to set new directions within his chosen genre by personally making each element within his works. The use of purpose-built rather than found objects enables the artist to tightly weave his concept and visual together, and so his messages on society, politics and culture are clearly transmitted. Rounding off the young artist selection is the talented and conceptual Annabelle Ng. Annabelle’s research-based practice and ability to create strong atmospheres within her installations are indicative of new international directions, and it is a treat for audiences to view an important work by this non-prolific artist here at the GMCA.
It is said that art history today is being written by exhibitions. Indeed, exhibitions now form an important stage on which contemporary art can be articulated and positioned. In providing an alternative to museums, which are highly politicised in Malaysia, the rapid development of the art movement is able to garner an immediate response. Curation from the private sector is key at this time as well, as museums are obliged to highlight and curate largely from their own institutional collections. The GMCA 2014 therefore provides an outlet for the public to view the best of what is out there, decisions substantiated by the merits of critical art as understood on a global scale. By holding the GMCA 2014 at Art Expo the show reaches out to the masses, due to the nation-wide and international reach of this highly successful art fair.
May 25, 1977, George Lucas, created for the world, a story. 37 years have passed, and his story continues to live.
“Star Wars” changed us; it provoked our minds and broke down the walls of normalcy.
George Lucas was a revolutionist. His manipulation of special effects established what the future might or can be and gave new meaning to the word “epic”. But how “Star Wars” ultimately changed the way in which reality was seen, was beyond the comprehension of the human mind.
Like the unpredictability of a volcano, “Star Wars” erupted the creation of a new language, so much so that in 1983, President Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the “The Evil Empire”. He spoke about the US Strategic Defence initiative that used space-based lasers and missiles to protect US from any nuclear attacks. Reagan was a Jedi Master of his own accord.
Between 1978 and 1986, approximately 250 million Star Wars figurines were sold. That meant, almost every child in the world wanted to own one. Then again, come to think of it, those numbers could have included adults like you and I. Fast forward to 2011, the Volkswagen Passat commercial depicted a young boy dressed as Darth Vader attempting to use the ‘force’ to start the car. His reaction was priceless. One can easily tell; the ‘force’ was strong in that one. In fact, Gamin took this craze one step further by installing a Darth Vader voice option in their GPS devices to guide us to our destination. Let’s just hope that it isn’t the “Dark Side” that he will be taking us to.
But, the question is – Why “Star Wars”?
Strip off technology, special effects, lasers, space shuttle, machines and odd looking creatures – George Lucas brought us a story of humanity. The core of our existence. And that’s why the strong affiliation with “Star Wars”. It was a story about us, our battle against evil.
Did you know 50,000 years ago, we Homo Sapiens (that’s what we’re called scientifically) trashed our other relatives – Homo Erectus, Homo Floresiensis, Neanderthals and Denisovans in the evolution of life – making us the sole survivors of our kind? Scientists speculated that the reason for this is our ability to collaborate, care, forgive, create and connect with each other. These reasons are deep wired in us from our ancestors. Mr Lucas brilliantly used this as a basis of his story, masking it with technology and eccentricity.
He was a genius because he didn’t follow the ways of Isaac Asimov or H.G Wells whose work revolved around hard science fiction, technology, robots and futuristic elements.
Now, think about the ‘Force’. Obi-Wan consistently reminded Luke to ‘use the Force’. Most of us can relate the ‘Force’ to religious beliefs be it – Islam, Christianity, Jewish or Buddhism. Even Atheists believe the way to salvation lies within. We were taught to use the ‘force’ as a guide in our lives, and that once found, can make us heroes.
When Obi-Wan said, “You are going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view” – did your light bulb lit up? Think about it, for someone who suffers from Osteoporosis taking the escalator one floor up is a life saver but to others can be perceived as laziness. Was Luke Skywalker a hero or terrorist? All of these depend on which side of the Death Star you were on when he blew it to pieces. We can apply these possibilities to many aspects in our lives, in religious beliefs, political party alliances, race divisions and societal constructions.
We were reminded that fear and anger leads to the dark side. Yoda warned Luke that he was not ready to fight in the ‘Empire Strikes Back’; but Luke was young, naïve, angry and impatient. He failed but only later realised that Yoda was not only correct, but the Dark Side was a relative. This we relate to, because the concepts of good over evil, patience, redemption are so hardwired in us.
Yoda tells us to believe in ourselves when he said, “Do or do not. There is no try”. And we live to remember this after so many years. It’s hilarious that the voice of Frank Oz who played Yoda who also was the voice of Miss Piggy in The Muppets can have such an everlasting impact on us.
And finally …..
Luke Skywalker we easily resonate with because he was just a plain boy, who grew up in a farm with his aunt and uncle, hoping, dreaming that someday he can make a difference. Who doesn’t love a story of underdogs who become heroes? It worked with tales of ‘Hang Tuah’, Oliver Twist and Harry Potter among others. Humanity is in our veins, we are driven by tales of triumph and tribulations. And hence the strong bond with “Star Wars”.
A local television translated Vader’s, ‘You will now pay for your lack of vision’ to “Sekarang awak akan menjadi buta “. Some were so offended that if they could, they would probably stage a protest at the station’s premise with their lightsabers !
May 25, 1977 was 37 years ago, but in 37 years to come, “Star Wars” I believe, will continue to live. And yes, the Force is strong in this one. May the Force be with you, too.
ZAHIR BATIN EPISODE I
There is a place…
Situated 15 kilometres away from the district of Kuala Selangor, Tanjong Karang is the fishing and paddy-growing heart of Selangor. A long canal starts from this town and ends in Sabak Bernam. It was first built during the colonial era and was known to the locals as ‘Bangkenal’. The canal was a source of livelihood to the community as it is used for freshwater fish farming, growing paddy and for agricultural activities. But what is divinely special about Tanjong Karang is the serenity that engulfs you when you look at the landscape of what’s in front of you, the greenery of the paddy fields that goes as far as the eyes can see. It is magical how an unobstructed view of greens and fishing boats coupled with fresh air can fill your heart with peace and calmness.
There is a man…
When he spoke about his hometown, the first words he used to describe the place were ‘peace’ and ‘safe’. He grew up spending his time unpretentiously; kite flying, fishing, playing marbles and sandal wars – yes, a glamorous name for our local sport – ‘baling selipar’. That was his life. When asked, what will bring the world to Tanjong Karang, he responded by saying “It’s a peaceful place with beautiful scenery but please don’t come, let it remain that way”. It was Tanjong Karang, his safe haven that he was talking about after all.
This man was able to identify with Luke Skywalker naturally as he understood what it meant to grow up being surrounded by greenery. Whilst the rest of us allowed the force to intervene with our feelings and emotions, he allowed the force to wander around his imagination, slowly visualising the landing of Star Wars in his special land, Tanjong Karang.
It wasn’t difficult to bring his thoughts to live. All he needed was a second hand camera that he could afford to capture his imagination. The selection was a Canon EOS 1000D. “The first photo I took was of the former owner of the camera”, he quipped proudly. As the Rebels celebrate the end of the Empire, he rekindled the story again with nature, chickens, the paddy field, the river and of course with Star Wars figurines. This storyteller, he is called Zahir Batin.
There are photographs…
Zahir Batin’s work is simply special because he tells a tale through his production. They say a picture paints a thousand words and so does his. It may come as a surprise that Zahir has never had any formal education in photography. He is fortunately armed with creativity, imagination and humility. It wasn’t fame that he was looking for when he captured these photos, all he really wanted was to tell the story of Star Wars in a local setting.
Want to see what happened after the Storm Troopers & Gang “balik kampong”? You would find the answers here:
Zahir Batin Episode 1.
written by Sarah Hidayah Mubarak
Zahir Batin’s photographs are made by basic ingredients, simple steps and pure passion. Shooting during the weekends and having to manage time, he applies these basic steps to create various epic scenes:
Whenever an idea comes across his mind, he draws them and creates a story board. This is a must process, so he knows where he should place each figurine in each shot.
Props aka side actors
These props can consists of twigs, wires, fishing rod, strings, match sticks, chickens, ducks, little houses, a tiny boat, anything that he can get his hands on around his home in Tanjong Karang. He is after all, very imaginative.
Quality of the light
Since Zahir depends on natural light, it is important for him to plan the time of day at which he shoots his photos. He chooses to work early morning or mid-afternoon, as this will mean that he gets sufficient light to work with and it won’t be too strong. There are times when he has to wait for the right amount of clouds , just to get the light he desires.
Zahir considers his subjects carefully before deciding the right viewpoint as it has a massive impact on the composition of his photographs. He takes several shots from various view point – high above, down at ground level, from the side, from the back and so on. ‘Photography is always a surprise’, he says.’ Sometimes the best photo can come from a surprising viewpoint’.
He spends between 1 to 2 hours to shoot each photo. Just so you know why that is; apparently chickens have emotions. When creating ‘Little Farm’, he has to wait for the right moment when the chickens calm down and have a better expression on their look. No kidding!
Adobe Photoshop helps Zahir to easily edit, retouch and restore his photos in a non-destructive manner. He uses commands found in the Image Adjustments option such as curves, colour balance and levels. He also uses multiple layering technique and noise reduction to get a sharper look. Particularly since these photos are shot at close up range, he has to ensure that the subject gets the viewer’s undivided attention and the story he intends to tell passes through.
Zahir basically starts with having sweeping imagination and visualising a story in his head. Once he is drawn upon an image, he captures it. Then he simply let the magic happen…