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.