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
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.
(visit our facebook page to view the artworks)
(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.
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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
Contemporary art is frequently viewed as a recorder of the times in which we live. Artists today are tasked with interpreting their societies through a critical analysis of the transformations and progresses that surround them, before presenting their findings in engaging pictorials. As countries themselves develop – economically, politically and technologically – so do their visual traditions develop from craft-based to critical contemporary art. Often, elements from the past remain, albeit in updated versions. This provides an interesting documentation of cultural legacies, as well as immediate knowledge on the state of society today. In Malaysia, contemporary artists understand the value of this mergence of past and present, as is apparent in the works of Anniketyni Madian and Mohd Fairuz Paisan. Both of these emerging young artists have developed strong independent practices that, while extremely current, are localized in their cultural environment, through being grounded in a strong study of woodworking.
Woodworking is one of the most well known of Malaysian crafts. Its established presence is unsurprising given Malaysia’s abundance of tropical forests, filled with an assortment of timber. Conventionally, woods were carefully carved to create representations of the symbiosis of nature and mankind. These carvings easily found their way into the community as both decorative and functional elements. The art of woodworking was passed down through the generations, learned from family or community members. Each artisan, while remaining true to time-honoured techniques, was free to add their personal creativity to their carvings. Subsequent emergence of this craft in the contemporary art sphere can be viewed as a continuation of this system, aided by technical developments, critical concepts and context, in order to elevate the genre into the sphere of fine art.
Anniketyni has shown a keen adeptness at straddling heritage with the new, both through her technical skills and conceptual ability. Born and bred in Kuching, she has quickly gained a following for her sculptures that draw heavily on the customs of East Malaysia. Her most recognizable works have been those that derive inspiration from the ceremonial Pua Kumbu textiles of her native Sarawak. In combining heritage-based patterns with a graphic aesthetic, she manages to re-interpret notions of tradition via a highly recognizable artifact. This re-interpretation manifests itself as both a commentary as well as a visual demonstration of shifts in Malaysian society today. Recently, she has added to this discourse with the inclusion of calligraphic elements within her hardwood sculptures. As such, she expands her dialogue to include notions of ethno-religious identity and the shifting constructs of identity for the Malay-Muslim community.
Clear parallels exist between the production of Anniketynis’s sculptures and Pua Kumbu textiles. Woven by the women of Iban tribes, these ceremonial cloths are a testament to the creative, technical and artistic skill of their weavers. Ideas for motifs and designs are found in the extensive canon of oral literature that exists amongst the Ibans. It is common for several motifs and icons from myths to be intertwined with personal symbols, resulting in beautifully detailed narratives. Studying this mix of motifs, Anniketyni pares them down into sharp slim lines, originally set against a flat surface.
With this latest set of sculptures she demonstrates marked technical transformations, as her carvings take on a decidedly three-dimensional effect. Viewers will note a fresh flow to the patterns as they curve inwards and back out again. This is not the only change in her visual; while previously her graphic patterns were enclosed mainly in geometric shapes, these new works include more organic shapes, with the introduction of a new series, titled Butterfly.
These progressions are directly inspired by Anniketyni’s recent European travels. Noticing the detailed carvings and cornices that dominates European architecture she was inspired to adapt this relief quality within her own practice. Naturally this segued into an interest in extrapolating the space her sculptures occupy. Such developments hint not only at the flow of culture that has historically coloured the visual arts of South East Asia, but also speak to the influence of Western culture locally as the world becomes increasingly homogenized. In extending the space her sculptures occupy three-dimensionally, Anniketyni creates a contrast to the classical Pua Kumbu style where motifs were encased in rigid forms that acted as protective barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds. Indeed, these shifts in physical perimeters can be viewed as a mirror to the shifts in Malaysia’s socio-economic development, thus acting as a bridge between the country’s cultural past and future.
Anchoring Anniketyni’s new set of sculptures is the seminal piece, “Ash-Sharh 5 & 6”, which can be seen as a culmination of her progressions over the past year. Bringing the calligraphic inspirations from her recent residency at Rimbun Dahan, together with her more recent experimentations in medium and three-dimensional carving, this eighteen-foot wall sculpture comprehensively communicates her current artistic state to viewers. Based on the Surah Ash-Sharh, it features the lines: “For indeed with hardship (will be) ease. Indeed, with hardship (will be) ease.” In inscribing the fifth and sixth lines from the prayer, Anniketyni recounts her youth in Kuching, when she would often participate in Quran recital competitions, coached by her religious teacher, where she fondly calls Tok Guru. She connects this to her current state as an artist, where she is beginning to find the recognition, or ‘ease’, after several years of devotion to a challenging practice. Created as a tribute to her late Tok Guru, “Ash-Sharh 5 & 6” is a contemporary example of mixing traditional motifs with personal narratives to create new visuals. Despite the strongly graphic lines from her Pua Kumbu borders and the natural inertia of the hardwood, “Ash-Sharh 5 & 6” has a delicate appeal. This can be attributed to the flow of the Arabic lettering stretched across its centre. Anniketyni embosses the Arabic letters across the length of “Ash-Sharh 5 & 6”, edging them with smaller Arabic characters hand carved into the surface. This embossing process is new for the young sculptor, acting as a development of yet another innovative technique within her repertoire. Finishing off this mix of the fluid calligraphy and graphic aesthetic with a coat of black paint results in a refreshingly unique finish, thus opening Anniketyni’s practice up to a host of new possibilities in terms of concept, medium and visual.
Similar threads of culture, religion and personal narratives are identifiable in the creative practice of Fairuz. Originating from Rembau, Negeri Sembilan, he concerns himself with merging reflections of personal experiences with elements from local Minangkabau and Islamic culture, resulting in a beautiful series of layered wooden assemblages. Audiences will again note associations between heritage, familial ties and contemporary art, as Fairuz traces both his affinity for woodworking and appreciation of Minangkabau culture back to his grandfather, a carpenter who worked on constructing wooden homes in the traditional Minangkabau style.
Recognising the value of architecture as a cultural gauge, Fairuz constructs his assemblages from wood salvaged from the walls of Minangkabau homes. In being careful to choose wooden planks from structures over twenty-five years in age, he roots his work in the original ideologies of Minangkabau craft tradition. Through a thoughtful selection process he is able to build up a colour field via reclaimed elements, opting to preserve the original patinas on the wooden strips. The background arrangement of these wall-based works hints at the source of his material; Fairuz composes the planks to imitate the structure of walls in a home. Once satisfied with this base, he traces on his images, before carefully pasting on further layers of cut-up wood to build up a relief-like image. This process mirrors classical art creation, with its layers of paint to create a visual. As such, Fairuz demonstrates a thorough understanding of the formal tenants of art creation, an aid in his ability to uncover fresh avenues within production, which is a prized quality in contemporary art.
The prevalence of Minangkabau culture is evident throughout the state of Negeri Sembilan, particularly through their distinct language, adat (customs) and architecture. A matriarchal civillisation, the Minangkabau people have adapted their conventions over the centuries to sit neatly alongside the local society that governs them, successfully balancing between the two to develop a set of rules known as Adat Perpatih. Fairuz comments that while this has been effective for generations, the advent of technology and modern day living has caused disconnect with the old customs, noting neglect in adhering to them amongst the younger generation. Through his creative practice he aims to reiterate the beauty and value within the Minangkabau institutions, seeking to reframe the customs so as to refresh their appeal within his twenty-first century audience.
Fairuz has successfully found ways to translate the heritage of his community in order to resonate with a wider audience. Understanding the value placed on literature and narratives amongst the Minangkabau people, he strongly incorporates this threads, albeit in a visual form, as against the established oral traditions. In order to establish a strong link, he turns to familiar icons in his assemblages, such as the large kerbau centering “Monang Kabau”. The kerbau is seen as a mascot for Minangkabau society, with associations centered in myths relating to the society’s development. In other works such as “The Story of the Scorpion”, he mixes new icons such as the scorpion with local elements such as the Durian fruit. In doing so, the artist builds up contemporary personal narratives that are rooted in conventional styles, accurately transmitting a commentary on the shifts society is undergoing as a result of development.
It is interesting to note that in continuing woodworking traditions and developing a contemporary context for heritage, both of these young Malaysian artists have strongly incorporated calligraphy. In studying the significance of these religious texts, both artists have also developed a strong personal signature within the genre of calligraphy. While Anniketyni has continued on developments begun within her Rimbun Dahan tenure, Fairuz builds on his penchant for narration and the inclusion of strong pictorials within his assemblage practice, as is exemplified in “Syahadah – The Very Important Job In Our Life (After Hassan Musa)”.
“Syahadah – The Very Important Job In Our Life (After Hassan Musa)” is based on the Syahadah, which is the declaration of faith in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) emphasized the vital role of the Syahadah to Muslims by stating it needs to reside within the heart of each believer. Fairuz conveys this through a traditional Persian style by building up the form of an individual consumed in prayer through the curves of the Arabic letters. As in his secular pieces, Fairuz demonstrates a thorough understanding of the history his practice is grounded in, through the use of classical elements, in this case the recognizable Persian calligraphic style. It is precisely this thorough understanding that enables the artist to extend the framework of contemporary Malaysian art in order so as to communicate the traditions of culture, religion and artistic craft to a dynamic new generation of Malaysians.
As Malaysia transforms into a developed nation, so is her culture being updated. Anniketyni and Fairuz are shining examples of the importance of contemporary art in establishing the value of Malaysia culturally on a competitive global scale. Indeed, each of these talented young artists has been receiving critical attention for their inventive processes. In 2003 Fairuz was awarded the prestigious Philip Morris Minor Award, while Anniketyni has received invitations to participate in several high profile residencies such as the Rimbun Dahan and Vermont Residency. Cutting-It comes at an interesting point in the careers of both Anniketyni and Paisan, as they develop new directions within their portfolios and demonstrate a growth in concept, aesthetic and finish. It is precisely these technical talents coupled with an ability to communicate the evolution of their society in easily decipherable terms that are marking these two artists as a pair of exciting emerging talents in the contemporary Malaysian art world.
Art Expo starts this Thursday, 10 September 2015, until Sunday, 13 September 2015,
opens from 10.30 am to 7 pm daily Matrade Exhibition & Convention Centre, Kuala Lumpur.
We will be showcasing new artworks from 3 exciting contemporary artists,using 3 different mediums.
Masnoor Ramli Mahmud with his aluminium prints,
Azad Daniel Haris with his fibreglass sculptures
and Anniketyni Madian with her wall sculptures made from wood.
See you there !