BENCHMARK is a group exhibition comprises the works of five Malaysian contemporary artists; Hamir Soib, Masnoor Ramli Mahmud, Zulkifli Yusoff, Abdullah Jones and Abdullah Hamdan. The exhibition is open for public from 5th of February 2016 until 5th of March 2016 whilst the launching night will be held on the 18th of February on Thursday, 8 PM at Artcube. The Opening of the show will be officiated by our guest of honour, Puan Nori Abdullah.
(visit our facebook page to see the Artworks)
In contemporary societies, the role of the artist is considered crucial for cultural, political and social discourse. Understanding critical contemporary art to act as a mirror of contemporary culture, it offers a rich resource for society to reflect upon, as it considers ideas and rethinks the familiar. Socio-political art in particular has been an important part of the visual landscape for centuries, a way to challenge authority, and rethink social conventions, as has historically been seen in the works of luminaries such as Francisco Goya. Developing this thread of thought with updated and experimental mediums, contemporary artists encourage reflection and analysis, thus promoting intellectualism within society. Indeed, this trait is clearly apparent in the paintings of Hamir Soib. A titan of contemporary Malaysian art, Hamir has witnessed, and encouraged sweeping change in thought and behavior within the contemporary art world, with his large-scale witty observations of events within the rapidly evolving social landscapes of our time.
As a result of the scale and detail of his paintings, Hamir’s works are relatively singular. Accordingly, the opportunity to view a compilation of his paintings within a single exhibition is a rare treat. On the rare occasion he has had a solo exhibition, for example 2005’s Pameran Tunggal, they have gone on to be recognized as key markers within the timeline of Malaysian art history. Not only have Hamir’s solos marked new developments within his portfolio, but also they have acted as an indication of neoteric movements within the contemporary Malaysian art market. This can be attributed to a combination of his astute analytical and innovative abilities, as well as his far-reaching influence over the next generation of artists. These threads are again apparent here in Benchmark, where Hamir presents a selection of five important pieces. Created over the past year and a half, “Al-Fatihah”, “The Gatekeeper”, “Beban”, “Wasted Energy I” and “Wasted Energy II”, span a wide variety of established and inventive techniques, thoughts on culture and politics. As such, viewers are provided with a much-anticipated insight into the creative growth of arguably Malaysia’s favourite contemporary painter.
Centering this compilation are national, economic and political seam lines. Despite being painted within a singular timeframe, this collection appears split between two distinct styles. While four of the paintings are filled with perfectly detailed surreal imagery, “Al-Fatihah” is a monolithic example of the contemporary calligraphy style Hamir has been instrumental in popularizing. These two opposing visuals are bound together however, by the artist’s trademark responses to the socio-political landscape of current times. Consequently, these five paintings come together as a dynamic response to the changes in Malaysian society, raising critical discussions and promoting debate on subjects and histories in real time.
Hamir’s 2014 canvas “The Hot Seat” can be studied as a precursor to these new paintings. Despite the dreamy imagery of a riderless golden horse set against a starry night sky, “The Hot Seat” was a searing insight into Malaysian politics. Linking international events such as America’s pivot to Asia, the war in Gaza and the Russian and Ukrainian crisis with the unprecedented aviation disasters of MH 370 and MH 17, Hamir outlined 2014 as a year that saw Malaysia in a precarious political position. Often, these kinds of local struggles and superpower manoeuvres can lead to external and internal forces inciting unrest, resulting in colour-coded revolutions, as Thailand and Ukraine can testify to. The key to surmounting such issues, and making the choices that will lead the country to greatness lies with the leader, commented Hamir, as he has the final say on governance, diplomatic and economic policies. A cherry-red saddle seat acts as a metaphor for the desirable position of Prime Minister of a country that is literally made of gold, due to its abundant natural resources and a strategic geographical position. In a humorous play on the title and local political stratagems the ‘hot’ seat is twisted and warped from the heat it emanates, acting as a caution to approach the seat of power with care and respect.
Over the last year, Hamir has expanded on the ideas founded in “The Hot Seat”. He observes the split factions within society – political, social, racial and economic – attempting to articulate the cause of their emergence. “Beban”, “Wasted Energy I” and “Wasted Energy II”, are a direct visual response to ongoing socio-political issues the artist observes. Painted in a flawless realist style, these three works feature protective symbolisms, in the form of a metal diving suit, life raft and life vest respectively. However there is a twist in each visual, gently unsettling the canvases and sparking off points of discourse.
In “Beban”, the deep-sea diver is on land, with flames licking the edges of his metallic suit. A freshwater fish is detailed swimming in the diver’s helmet, which jars against the saltwater ocean depths where divers require such suits. There is a sense that the diver is in the wrong place, an idea carried over in “Wasted Energy II”. The perfectly detailed life vest, with long straps and a whistle, looks functioning. However, it is shown submerged underwater, where it is rendered useless, much like the raft in “Wasted Energy I”. At first glance, it appears to be an attractive, realist depiction of an object. Closer inspection reveals the raft has been nailed down at the top. The inclusion of the tiny nail completely transforms the boat’s functionality, explaining the slight sense of unease viewers feel despite the piece’s perfect finish. By achieving his aim to unsettle his audience, Hamir raises the issue of angst swirling around Malaysian society today, gently prompting viewers to reassess preconceived notions of the relationships between the individual, society and government. He questions, if society wants to continue on the paternalistic political path they are used to, where they place heavy expectations on the government, or if citizens are instead ready to begin accepting increased responsibility for themselves and contributing back to society at large for the greater good of all?
The works presented here are reflective of the skills Hamir has been developing over the last five years. “Beban” is a continued experimentation of his metallurgy paintings, as has been most recently seen in “The Hot Seat”, while “Wasted Energy I” and “Wasted Energy II” are a follow on of the perfect detailing from the Polo series. It is in “The Gatekeeper” however that viewers are shown several of Hamir’s signature styles in a single canvas. A large-scale work, it incorporates several of his most well known elements. Painted in bitumen, a notoriously difficult medium of which Hamir is considered the undisputed master, it involves intensive layering, resulting in the hidden images that emerge throughout, leading to a dreamy, gothic narrative on ideas of cultural gatekeeping.
Conceptually, “The Gatekeeper” mixes personal and wider social undertones. Hamir points out that as one aims for success on any front, there are members of the old guard jealously guarding the established status quo that need to be bypassed. By passing the gatekeeper is next to impossible, and often times they try to press others down in order to retain a dominant position. This can be linked back to the Malaysian art industry and the early years of Hamir’s career. In the 1990’s there was a strong focus on modernist artworks, with a general penchant for abstract pieces in four foot squared dimensions. Hamir broke out of this mould with his monolithic canvases filled with figurative visuals, often underscored by darkly humorous connotations. Despite his unquestionable talent, he struggled for several years within the conventional confines of the art world, which was reluctant to allow for such a dynamic, and drastic new movement. The gatekeeper is not pictured as triumphant however; here he is shown crouched on all fours, clutching a large sack as he slinks along with termites crawling around him. Audiences are left with the impression that no matter how hard he tries, he is unable to stem the march of progress, and is thus left behind in a bitter, twisted position. This parallels the local art industry, which through the emergence of private galleries and collectors, has embraced both Hamir and the critical contemporary movement, leaving archaic institutions far behind.
Rounding off this new collective of works is “Al-Fatihah”, Hamir’s largest in-depth calligraphy painting to date. Spanning an impressive sixteen feet in length, “Al-Fatihah” again deals with dual issues, personal and social. Hamir has spent a large portion of the last few years developing a strong contemporary calligraphy portfolio, commenting that his calligraphic works mark a personal journey into understanding the tenants of his religion and spirituality. At the same time, “Al-Fatihah” continues his commentary on the socio-political landscape of Malaysia today. As the country progresses and becomes richer, so has religion emerged as an increasingly potent force. Due to the advent of social media platforms, the masses are able to witness firsthand the opulent life lived by those who benefitted economically from Malaysia’s rapid development. Naturally this leads into questions of materialism versus spirituality, leading to an increased prominence of the role of religion in society. “Al-Fatihah” is imbibed with a talismanic quality, which neatly ties it in with the iconography present in “Beban”, “Wasted Energy I” and “Wasted Energy II”. The appearance of the phrase “Ihdina’s-sirata’l-mustaqim” (Guide us on the straight path) bisecting the expansive emerald green canvas clearly identifies the prayer. The remaining six lines from the prayer have been painted in layers over the canvas, one at a time, in an amazing display of technical prowess.
It is interesting to note that in an art industry largely dominated by talented and successful multi-disciplinary artists, Hamir has emerged as the favourite talent of a generation, with a portfolio devoted exclusively to painting. This speaks volumes to his mastery over his medium, as well as the experimentations and new developments within painting in Malaysia he has been crucial in developing. Through his immeasurable depth of concept and imagination, coupled with this bold, innovative handling of paint, audiences are able to understand how Hamir single-handedly captures the attention of the entire art industry, while providing a model for artists of later generations. As such, this rare collective of works are certain to go down in the canons of Malaysian art history as an exciting moment in the progression of the local art industry.
Masnoor Ramli Mahmud
Masnoor Ramli’s series Moulding The History is probably best described as a continuous examination on notions of politics, myths and events that personally fascinate the artist himself. By examining such ideas and framing them within a distinctly Malaysian context, Masnoor has demonstrated time and again his position as a key intellectual of our contemporary times. He reinforces this position with his latest piece from this important series, “Moulding The History – Mother Earth Mother Love”.
A long work measuring approximately eight feet by two feet “Moulding The History – Mother Earth Mother Love” is produced in Masnoor’s inventive photo print on aluminium style. The artist first unveiled this new medium in his celebrated 2014 solo Aviation, and has since gone on to rework and refine what is becoming a signature style in his multi-disciplinary practice. Printing images and photographs on a matte finished aluminium, he achieves an almost mythical quality through an experimental process. Usually the printing of images requires four base colours, but Masnoor cuts this down to three. By using the natural grey of the aluminium as a substitute for white, he lessens the intensity of his palette, while retaining the aluminium’s textural quality. As such, “Moulding The History – Mother Earth Mother Love” is imbibed with a dream-like quality that perfectly communicates Masnoor’s melodic, philosophical character.
Masnoor communicates a fascination between Heaven and Earth, or the tangible and intangible, using a NASA photoprint of the landscape on Mars as a starting point. Born in the 1960’s, Masnoor grew up in a generation where space exploration was a new and exciting phenomenon. The galaxy and other planets held an inexplicable, mysterious quality that has not lessened for the artist through scientific discoveries and new developments. Rather, he feels confronted by ever increasing questions, theories and possibilities. Recognising the photoprint sent by Viking 1, when it first landed on Mars as a milestone in scientific advancement, he investigates the reasons behind mankind’s unending desire to conquer new spaces, linking it to historic discoveries of New Lands by explorers such as Christopher Columbus. In doing so, he uncovers an inherent colonial tendency within mankind, situated alongside a desire for possibility and hope. As such, he blurs the dualities present within humans, much as the dualities between Heaven and Earth are increasingly blurred, in a commentary on the often-oppositional elements within a single existence.
In his essay Fascination From The Beginning Of Mankind, Alexander Soucek theories that astronomy and space travel are crucial cultural achievements, due to its demonstration of technological advancements and ability to feed intangible fascinations inherent in mankind. Certainly, the unknown realms of the universe hold an allure that navigates all cultures and generations. As such, “Moulding The History – Mother Earth Mother Love” can be seen as marrying together, highly current content with a technical finesse to reaffirm Masnoor’s position as a favourite within the Malaysian contemporary art world today.
In art, symbols are incorporated as solid visual representations of ideas or concepts that would otherwise be tricky to characterize. In contemporary art, symbols included from both popular culture as well as traditional icons easily categorize an artist’s heritage, his views and attitude and immediately open up forums for debate on their hypothesis of contemporary society. Noted international artists with this ability include Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Keith Haring, while in Malaysia, one of the most popular contemporary artists who incorporate vivid cultural iconography and symbolism, is the celebrated Zulkifli Yusoff.
An eminent artist who successfully works across the mediums of painting, sculpture and installation, Zulkifli has won many major awards. In both 1988 and 1989, he was presented with the Major Award for Young Contemporaries at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, and in 1992 he gathered three prizes at the third Salon, the Grand Minister’s Prize, Major Award and Consolation Prize for sculpture, and also won an Honourable Mention in Painting in 1995 at the Philip Morris Awards. Zulkifli has been invited to participate in several important international exhibitions, most notably at the Venice Biennale in 1997. He has also shown at the Biennale of Visual Arts in Seychelles, the Fukuoka Asian Art Exhibition in Japan, Immunity 11 show at Art Space, Sydney and the First Asia-Pacific Triennale in Brisbane, Australia. Major international institutions, including the Fukuoka Museum of Art, and Hiroshima Art Museum in Japan and the Singapore Museum and Gallery, as well as local institutions such as Bank Negara Malaysia and the Kedah State Gallery, collect his work.
Referencing his ever-changing environment and issues, through an intense research-based practice, is the cornerstone of Zulkifli’s practice, as is evident in his Green Book series. This series is a continued exploration on the rhetoric and policies of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Tun Razak, which began with the series Tun Razak Speeches. His new works “Mari Kita Ke Ladang (Buku Hijau Series)” and “Berbakti Kepada Bumi (Buku Hijau Series)” follow on from 2014’s installation “Tun Razak Speech Series – The Green Book” in producing a contemporary narrative on the Green Book policies implemented by Tun Razak in the 1970’s. At the time, Malaysia’s economy was heavily dependent on the rubber industry, which was faced with an international price depression. Tun Razak recognized the need to create new economic avenues, and the agricultural initiative of The Green Book was launched. Zulkifli speaks to this historic precedent of economic diversification, which is a highly relevant conversation today. Under the stewardship of prime minister Najib Razak, Malaysia has again been seeing the implementation of several policies to ensure a sustainable and inclusive growth. As such, these works act as prime example of Zulkifli’s penchant for reinterpreting historical texts and events within a contemporary framework, so as to encourage intellectual discourse within society.
Technically, “Mari Kita Ke Ladang (Buku Hijau Series)” and “Berbakti Kepada Bumi (Buku Hijau Series)” are a refinement of the strip collage technique Zulkifli began developing with his seminal installation “Pendita”. This pair of mixed media triptychs is made up of fiberglass and epoxy resin, laid over fabric and canvas. While monochromatic palettes and neat linear compositions demarcate Zulkifli’s early strip canvas works, “Mari Kita Ke Ladang (Buku Hijau Series)” and “Berbakti Kepada Bumi (Buku Hijau Series)” feature intricate grid-based compositions and increasingly vibrant colours. The central panel of each work features a sculpted resin dome, inset with images of livestock and agriculture, while the borders on each panel, feature further such collaged images and texts such as jagung and ikan. This stark symbolism directly ties the two works in to the policies, texts and visions of The Green Book, seamlessly merging Zulkifli’s concepts and aesthetics.
Zulkifli strives to use his position as an acclaimed artist to propagate the values he holds in high regard such as patriotism and social awareness, as well as awareness on current and historical issues. His practice has evolved over the last two decades from a raw, slightly loose application, to a super-refined and intricately-detailed practice, mirroring his growing confidence and recognition both internationally and locally, as a vital component in Malaysia for the resonance of his creative practice within society, as is demonstrated here in “Mari Kita Ke Ladang (Buku Hijau Series)” and “Berbakti Kepada Bumi (Buku Hijau Series)”.
“Cakap Pasal Outside” and “Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa” are two new paintings by the Malaysian contemporary painter Abdullah Jones. Measuring five feet by six and a half feet each, these brightly coloured acrylic on canvas pieces are a wonderful mix of solemnity and humor. Worked in the artist’s signature expressive style, they form the basis of a new series for the artist, with sock puppets as a central icon.
Born in April 1964, Abdullah lives and works in Kuantan, Pahang. His place in the critical sphere of Malaysian contemporary is evident through his key involvement in the artist-run space Rajawali Art Studio, as well as his participation in several exhibitions. Abdullah has presented work not only locally, at exhibitions such as Gabung at Pahang State Art Gallery and Saudagar Cinta at Pahang State Art Museum, but also internationally in shows such as Un-Cut at Gallery Shambala in Copenhagen, and The Outsider Art at Octane Photographic Studio/Gallery in Ferndale, Minnesota. The attention Abdullah receives is in large part due to the critically questioning nature behind his paintings, presented in highly attractive, expressive aesthetics, as seen here in “Cakap Pasal Outside” and “Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa”.
With these new works, Abdullah aims to examine a series of current issues he observes affecting contemporary society. It is interesting to note that by living and working in the East Coast, he chooses to base himself in the heartland of Malay culture. In a post-colonialist environment such as Malaysia, he thus demonstrates an awareness of valuing one’s own culture as society re-establishes identity in the post-colonial era. This subject is strongly hinted at in “Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa”, whose title translates into “A patriot not understanding Bahasa (Malay)”. Language is central in uniting a nation and providing national identity, particularly in a multi-ethnic environment. Additionally, establishing Malay as the national language restores a sense of dignity to Malaysian citizens after a long period of being ruled by the British, who used English as a tool in suppressing the indigenous during colonization. In comprehending the role of language to patriotism, Abdullah thus questions the validity of identifying as a Malaysian, should one be unable to communicate in Malaysia’s national language.
Part of Abdullah’s success in establishing a strong rapport with his audience lays in the humorous tone his aesthetic offers. He softens the potentially sharp, stinging message of his paintings by incorporating a playful icon, that of the sock puppet. The inclusion of a childlike element is reminiscent of the works of pioneering Malaysian artist Zulkifli Dahlan. A strong influence on Abdullah, Zulkifli was fond of exploring social issues through cartoons and caricatures in works such as “Kedai-Kedai” (1973). Abdullah recognized the tension that results from merging contrasting whimsical and somber elements as being highly reflective of the issues swirling throughout contemporary society, resulting in these satirical, self-deprecating paintings.
“Cakap Pasal Outside” and “Patriot Tak Reti Bahasa” form the basis of a new series for Abdullah, as the artist continues to explore the state of contemporary society through a highly critical lens. Brightly coloured, thought provoking, expressive and filled with humor, they are an accurate reflection both of Abdullah himself, as well as his inspired artistic practice.
One of the assets of mixed media art is the versatility and beauty that can be achieved through the intense layering necessary in its production. In bringing together several mediums, textures and layers, this genre is a favourite for contemporary artists to visually communicate complex conceptual thoughts, particularly those of a socio-political nature. Pahang-based artist Abdullah Hamdan, who is part of the Rajawali artist collective, beautifully exemplifies this with his latest piece, “Golden Hearts”.A long work that measures three feet by twelve feet, “Golden Hearts” represents a new and experimental technical direction for Abdullah. While the artist is known for his carefully composed realist paintings, this triptych branches out into new territories, with the use of plastic toys, collage, acrylic and aerosol spray on canvas. While there is still a prominent painted element, in the form of the Malaysian flag that covers the centre panel, it differs from his usual practice of painting figures. The flag is flanked on either side by homochromatic white canvases swarming with tiny toy soldiers. Despite the vastly different aesthetic of this new piece, audiences familiar with Abdullah’s work can draw parallels between the artist’s previous painting-based practice and “Golden Hearts”, through his skilled compositional skills. The careful consideration with which Abdullah places the figure in his paintings has resulted in a training of composition, that is vital in mixed media art. As mixed media works are the result of a careful buildup of layers, the decision of each structural element’ placement is key in achieving a successful work. By branching out into this new genre, Abdullah builds on his existing skills to challenge his own creativity, while expanding his repertoire.
Abdullah’s progression into a new medium stems from his observations of the relationship between medium and message in contemporary art. Placing value on both aesthetic as well as content, he has investigated new ways of communicating visually with his audience. As is suggested by the prominence of the Malaysian flag, “Golden Hearts” explores themes of nationalism and patriotism. By placing the flag between swarms of white soldiers, Abdullah speaks about the two key elements he feels are central to the existence of patriotism. The first is the subject that generates such emotion, such as the national flag, and the second is the individuals who respond to the rallying symbol. The staff numbers of Malaysian policemen killed during the Bukit Kepong Incident stamped horizontally across the flag, further represents these patriotic ideals. A confrontation with the Malayan Communist Party during the Malayan Emergency in 1950, the Bukit Kepong Incident was seen as a rallying point that strengthened the resolve of the Malayan government and people in the fight against communist insurgency. It is interesting to note that much as in the style of “Flag” by Jasper Johns, Abdullah seemingly wraps the center canvas in the image of his flag, presenting his audience with the choice to view it as either a flag or a painting. By changing the presentation of such a familiar symbol central to Malaysian identity, Abdullah gently raises the question of patriotism and nationalism within society at large today.
It is interesting to note that the two Rajawali artists presented h